Granted, Cloud Computing has a Future in Libraries

Posted On Jul 5 2012 by
I’m hoping that many people have read the excellent post on libraries and cloud computing from Carl Grant.  My first reaction was one of paranoia–was someone slipping Carl our product roadmaps, advisory group feedback, and OCLC Board reports?!  But then I remembered that Carl is a smart guy with the power to synthesize complex topics and new library memes for easy consumption by the library world.
This post resonated with me and made me think, not just selfishly because I’ve been working on cloud computing for libraries before it was popularly called that, but also because I don’t always have as much time as I would like to stop and think about the future of our profession.  What started as a few comments on Carl’s blog turned into a full-fledged post of my own.  I’d like to take some time to comment on and react to Carl’s three main points in his post, repeated in the numbered headings below.
1.  The mission and values of librarianship have to be embedded in the software you’re using.
It may seem silly, but it’s no accident that OCLC’s general strategy, the platform infrastructure and app gallery, and the management system applications themselves all include the word WorldShare.  I often remind my product team that part of our unique positioning in the library space is the professional ethos that we are charged with serving.  Share, share, share.
I won’t editorialize on Carl’s elucidation on equity investment into the library space, but I will tout one of OCLC’s distinguishing characteristics–its public purpose.
OCLC is a worldwide library cooperative, owned, governed and sustained by members since 1967. Our public purpose is a statement of commitment to each other–that we will work together to improve access to the information held in libraries around the globe, and find ways to reduce costs for libraries through collaboration.

I don’t know of too many organizations that would freeze pricing for three straight years in the wake of a financial crisis that had a huge impact on libraries, as OCLC did in the U.S. from Fiscal Years 2010-2012. Nor do I know of too many organizations for whom a small annual loss (3-4%) is easily considered because it means investing in the next 45 years of the cooperative, or for whom small marginal gains (3-4%) are considered “a good year” because our first goal as an organization is total cost recovery (a fancy way to say “breaking even”).

Carl makes another point about where libraries are choosing to invest their dollars.  This reminded me of the University of Delaware Library’s Gregg Silvis in his discussion of their selection of WorldShare Management Services:
We are, of course, reinvesting our maintenance dollars into the cooperative, rather than our maintenance dollars going outside the library system to private individuals, to equity firms, to stockholders–they are being reinvested in the library cooperative. And it’s not just financial, but also our staff resources.
The University of Delaware Library should be praised for their commitment to the public purpose set out above.
2.  Defining our future is a task of participation, NOT representation.
While it might seem like sport to make fun of marketing (remember, without them, many of us would be having great ideas and writing the most awesome software code from our parents’ basements), again I will highlight one of the taglines of the WorldShare strategy: “Building Webscale with Libraries.” (emphasis mine)
OCLC is a member-governed organization, and there’s no reason not to leverage that membership into the partnerships necessary to make cloud computing solutions successful.  Using WorldShare Management Services as an example, we’ve gone from a small group of pilot libraries, to a larger group of early adopters, to an actively engaged and member-run WMS Community.  In those first two years, we had regular consultation with an advisory group that was made up of non-users of WMS–guiding strategy, marketing, terms and conditions, pricing, and the tactical approach to library markets for this new solution.  Not only that, I’m proud to say that in the first two years of development, roughly 30-40% of new features were delivered as a direct result of early adopter feedback.  I’m confident that our team would still be wondering what to do next if it weren’t for this invaluable feedback.
I’m glad that Carl has added Cloud Computing to Jim Neal’s list of “Radical Collaboration.”  Indeed, the aggregation of data, the capabilities of APIs extended for library and partner use, plans to release more and more data as Linked Data, and the resulting analytics–what OCLC has been calling “Cooperative Intelligence”–will allow libraries to cooperate and run their individual libraries even more efficiently and effectively.  So much of this is green pasture.  No one is completely sure where the tipping point of “network effects” will occur for libraries, but Carl does a nice job of listing many early successes–recommendations, reviews, etc.  Libraries collectively add value to humanity that is so much greater than any individual company or single organization.
The network effects of aggregated data have been known for some time, and I’m equally excited by the potential of OCLC’s Linked Data strategy, as I think it will expand the network itself dramatically.  Expanding the network expands the network effects.  Our collective value is much higher than any IPO, stock valuation, or equity investment.  So it’s time for us to start creating more products and services that leverage our cooperative spirit and professional ethos in order to increase the value of what we offer society.  Cloud computing and Linked Data are certainly the most promising avenues to deliver on this desire.
And OCLC will continue to endeavor to avoid the “worrisome trend” that Carl highlights:
At the same time, a worrisome trend to watch for as we see these new cloud computing platforms develop, is the desire of the organizations providing them to cast a net around us, to lock us into silos that will make it far more difficult for us to: 1) quickly move or migrate in adopting new solutions as they come forward, 2) integrate the best solutions together, 3) avoid being locked into content silos where choices are made for us, but not by us.
Cloud computing is a means to an end for OCLC, but that end involves a more extensible and addressable view of WorldCat and library data, as well as technical platform on which libraries can help scale innovation.  The last thing libraries need is more silos.
This is also why OCLC is touting the WorldShare Platform as a provider-neutral approach to library and 3rd party development.  In fact, 3rd party partners are jumping on the strategy, as evidenced by partnerships with Ex Libris, SCS, andEBSCO, just to name a few.  These types of partnerships are nothing new for OCLC and extend what many libraries are already used to in programs such as WorldCat Cataloging Partners and products like WorldCat Selection.  OCLC will continue its partnerships with those who are already partners with libraries in order to improve the flow of work that libraries perform day in and day out.  And these partnerships enhance the development that hundreds of libraries are already undertaking.  A quick look at the OCLC Developer Network shows what libraries have been able to create with just a few exposed Web Services, and we’re releasing more Web Services and more data all the time. Cloud computing and associated Web Services will make these activities even easier and more fruitful.  The OCLC WorldShare Platform is designed to make them more sharable and scalable.  OCLC, Libraries, and 3rd party partners–a rising tide lifts all boats.
3.  For our services to have value they must offer differentiation.
I won’t belabor the differentiation that I’ve attempted to outline above.  Instead, I will simply direct you to read closely Carl’s ideas for extending differentiation.  I think they are superb.  Knowledge Creation Platforms makes me think of watching my kids do their schoolwork–the bridge between knowledge discovery, consumption, and creation is shrinking every day.  I recently watched my 10 year old son go from book selection and reading to flip-video book report in under a week.  Which part of that exercise do you think he liked the most?  Hint: it wasn’t finding the book or reading it.
Moreover, Contextual Support is a good phrase for something I’ve been proposing for several years now. I think it is time for our profession–dominated by humanities graduates with lots of training in research, critical thinking, and writing!–to aid in the creation of content.  It’s time to abandon our journalistic approach to research (“here’s your stuff, please don’t ask my opinion or tell me what you’re going to do with it!”), roll up our sleeves, and be more involved with creating the quality content instead of just providing quality assistance in discovering it.
And lest we forget the end user.  I don’t want to be labeled as a librarian who doesn’t care about patron privacy because I do care.  And OCLC takes this quite seriously, too, even recently achieving ISO 27001 certification for system security (not an easy thing to do).  But personally, I worry about our profession’s arms-length treatment of patrons. It’s far too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to privacy protection or simply wax ethical about the firm grip we keep (or don’t keep) on patron data.  Simply stating that we’re doing something for their own good (a) doesn’t always serve them well, and (b) will be countered (is being countered!) by dozens of private organizations more interested in solidifying social networks than in severing the ties that bind those networks together.  Certainly, we can leverage the trust that people place in libraries to serve their consumer needs while still adequately protecting their privacy and our own professional code of ethics. There has to be some middle ground. It can be quite a far fall from such a high horse.
Thank you, Carl, for the thoughtful post, thank you for the validation it brought me in being a part of pursuing OCLC’s strategy with its member libraries, and thanks mostly for making me stop and think for a minute!

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace