After 40 years of resource sharing … what’s next?


Today is the 40th anniversary of OCLC resource sharing! That’s right, 40 years ago today—April 1, 1979—the first interlibrary loan was arranged through OCLC systems. That year, OCLC processed 565,680 ILL transactions. In FY18, we processed nearly 7 million.

When I’ve talked to resource sharing librarians about the time before cooperative databases like WorldCat and networked ILL systems, here’s a phrase I never hear:

“The good old days.”

Compared to what we have now? ILL work from 40 years ago sounds like it was an adventure. I hear tales of phone trees and post-it notes and delays of weeks and months. Now, an adventure often makes for a good story in retrospect but isn’t something you look forward to on a Monday morning.

Who could predict, in 1979, the massive changes coming to all our lives? We were decades away from the web, to say nothing of smartphones, apps, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and all our other everyday information services.

But is today really any different? We’re poised, across the entire information services environment, to move even further into areas of automation, artificial intelligence, and networked services.

The future of library services, today

We’re already seeing the broad strokes of these changes, and we had a chance to review some of them at last month’s Resource Sharing Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. More than 325 colleagues joined us to talk about their challenges and successes. It was a great agenda, packed with information and wisdom from many of our library members. We’ll have a link up, soon, for content from the conference that you can review.

One of the main themes that struck me at the conference was that the future for library services is, essentially, already here. Just not always in our profession. We can look at a wide range of other for-profit, commercial services and see tools and features to adopt and adapt for our work.

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In some ways, this is a very positive kind of “competition” for libraries. It lets us preview other, related activities and ask ourselves about modifying them for use in the library. Since many of these applications are powered and informed by data, we can see a direct correlation to the work we do.

But that competition also means that our users are expecting us to meet and beat the kinds of service they’ve come to expect from online stores, delivery services, content providers … even gaming.

How do we match those expectations?

The library on-demand

At the Resource Sharing Conference, I had the chance to introduce the idea that meeting users’ needs today—and tomorrow—will require us to commit to providing “the library on-demand.”

We all know that information seeking is just one among many activities performed in customer-friendly environments. To be successful, the library on-demand will position us to compete based on four factors:

  1. Intuitive discovery that anticipates and understands context
  2. Smart fulfillment through systems that do the heavy lifting for users and librarians
  3. A personal, single account for all library activities
  4. Access to a universal inventory of massive, high-value content

This is a “user-first” strategy. It will take new ways of thinking about library work. We’ll need to do away with previously siloed functions. And we’ll need to work across library departments, institutions, and vendor processes.

Hope, cooperation … and planning

I am convinced that we can do this. But we have to work together. This is not a task that any one organization (or any one cooperative) can take on alone. I believe, though, that OCLC is uniquely qualified to push the library on-demand concept forward. OCLC brings to the table:

  • the largest, most comprehensive collection of library metadata
  • a worldwide network of thousands of libraries that share data, resources, and know-how
  • many partnerships with content providers, library service providers, and consumer services
  • product and research leadership, including work on standards and with standards organizations

It’s also important that OCLC is a neutral, “service agnostic” nonprofit. In terms of content visibility and access, that’s a powerful lever we can use on behalf of our members.

There’s a lot of work to do that will build on the great things libraries are already doing to deliver exceptional service. Three major areas of focus for us at OCLC right now are:

  • User experience: addressing functional gaps through research, usability testing, retail industry best-practices, and member feedback
  • Speed and predictability: identifying materials that can be delivered quickly, with as much unmediated, automated access as possible
  • Interoperability: building flexibility into OCLC products so that they easily work with other services, transferring data, requests, and materials seamlessly

To get all this done, we’ll need to partner with other providers and the library community, as we’ve always done. The greatest strength of our cooperative is the wonderful diversity of experience, creativity, and knowledge that our members bring to us every day.

Our pay-off? The library on-demand—services that move users naturally from their point-of-need to the arrival of the perfect resource.

Want to learn more about resource sharing?