How OCLC transformed a library … and one student’s life


Throw down the gauntlet

At the beginning of the 1992–1993 school year, I issued a challenge to teachers, students, administrators, and community members around the Ovid-Elsie Area Schools in Michigan. Our small, rural library, which supported two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school, had recently joined OCLC and for the first time had access to libraries worldwide through WorldCat. Even though our materials budget was tiny, I stood up in the first district staff meeting of the year and promised them all I would get any book that anyone needed for any reason.

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The teachers whispered and even snickered. Our library had never been very relevant to them. We weren’t included in their lesson plans, and they rarely sent students to find resources. After a couple weeks, I got my first request: a 17-book bibliography. And that changed everything.

Make the library relevant

Through WorldCat, I was able to supply all 17 books with interlibrary loan, to that teacher’s great surprise. And she told everyone. Pretty soon, we were getting all sorts of requests. I was borrowing and supplying books for student research papers, of course, but also to support hobbies, leisure reading, and even the graduate work that some teachers and other community members were doing. Through OCLC, I had access to the collections of major research universities, which we’d never imagined before. This was before the internet, of course.

Once I showed what the library was capable of, attitudes about it were transformed. Teachers invited me to their classrooms to talk about databases and research skills—and I could tell that they were learning along with the students. And since they recognized the library’s value, they started sticking up for the library budget. We went from a materials budget of $4,000 in 1992 to more than $100,000 in a few years. I didn’t have to fight for it—others saw how important the library was, and they fought for me.

Impact one life

Although it was great to see the library gain such credibility throughout the region, I’ll always remember the personal effect it had on one student. This young man went to the Assistant Principal’s office to tell him that he was quitting school. The Assistant Principal asked him, “What could we do to keep you in school?”

The young man thought for a bit, and then answered, “I’ll stay in school if I can build a kayak.”

So, the Assistant Principal took him down to see the shop teacher. Although happy to help, the shop teacher didn’t have any plans for building a kayak. So then, they headed to the library.

I opened WorldCat on the computer—it was the old black screen with the green text, and this young man was fascinated by it. We looked together and found some books on building kayaks, which I requested through interlibrary loan. When they arrived, he started building his kayak in shop and finished the rest of his classes. Honestly, I’m not sure he would have a high school diploma today if it wasn’t for those books we got though WorldCat, which transformed his future.

George Bishop won the grand prize in OCLC’s 1996 essay contest, “What the OCLC Online Union Catalog Means to Me.” This video was played during the awards ceremony.

You have to sell it

OCLC opened up the world to the people in my little school district. It made me realize that the smaller your library, the more you need OCLC. You simply don’t have the budget or the staff to provide everything people are going to need without using WorldCat as an interlibrary loan resource.

But I also realized that it wasn’t enough to simply provide library services and resources—I had to sell it to the people I wanted to use the library. Once I convinced them that the library could be valuable to them, though, they helped spread the word. We had all sorts of local people relying on our small library because of OCLC.

As OCLC celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, I just can’t imagine how many other lives have been transformed by this access to the world’s knowledge. And how many librarians have improved the lives of library users by providing the right resources at the right time—be they graduate-level text books or plans for building a simple kayak.