OCLC at 50 years: a “moonshot” for the world’s libraries


As we’ve prepared for our 50th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been thinking about the time of our founding in the late 1960s and what it meant for our cultural ideals of technology and progress. OCLC was born in 1967, between the time of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech in which he set the goal of landing a man on the moon, and the fulfillment of that dream in 1969.

I think there are exciting parallels between that dream, its completion and the incredible journey that OCLC libraries have undertaken together over the past five decades.

One small step for 54 Ohio libraries

OCLC was a similar dream. Fred Kilgour and his colleagues believed that libraries could be connected in new ways, using new technology, because that would lead to improved access to all that they had to offer.

A small group of representatives from Ohio academic libraries understood that the big, clunky mainframe computers of the day were the key to making this dream a reality. They took a small step on 6 July 1967 and OCLC was created. And by 1971, 54 Ohio academic libraries had begun to do something never before attempted: cooperative, computerized, networked cataloging of library resources.

That must have felt like a “small step” back then. We know, now, that it led to so much more. Those initial Ohio librarians could never have imagined that 50 years later, OCLC would include more than 16,000 members in 120 countries, serving libraries of every type, processing over 40 million search requests every day.

What is cataloged must be shared

That one idea has saved libraries an enormous amount of time. Each record curated and hosted by OCLC is discoverable globally. And librarians save about 10 minutes every time they copy catalog a record rather than create a new one. By May 2017, WorldCat exceeded 395 million records and 2.5 billion holdings. Conservatively, that works out to more than 350 million hours saved over the past 50 years. But saving time by using big, centralized computers was only the beginning.

Cooperative cataloging is, in many ways, the foundation of everything that came next for OCLC and for libraries working together around the globe. When holdings information was added to records, it enabled sharing of materials as well as metadata. You can trace the development of OCLC systems and services as they moved in parallel to innovations in technology:

  • 1967–1977: cooperative cataloging
  • 1977–1987: ILL and resource sharing services
  • 1987–1997: public discovery access to library data and materials
  • 1997–2007: library resources accessible on the World Wide Web
  • 2007–2017: big data, library systems and cloud platforms

At every stage, we can see OCLC and libraries acting together to help make technology work harder for their communities.

Applauding libraries’ role in an era of constant change

I think it’s also important to acknowledge and celebrate how challenging and rewarding this time has been for those who work in libraries. For many people, the library is the first place they go to use new technology and get access to information. To meet this need, librarians have had to be out ahead of each new innovation. That’s another way in which cooperation has benefited our members—the chance to share these challenges, do cutting-edge research and create solutions together.

Libraries never stop thinking about taking the next moon shot to improve lives. Click To Tweet

For five decades, OCLC has created technology and systems to facilitate worldwide discovery and sharing. Because of your hard work, the people you serve have experienced breakthroughs in every area of their lives. Together, we’ve had a 50-year track record of success. And while we will continue to adapt and evolve, we have proven we’ve got what it takes to tackle anything the future brings.

Or to quote one of my favorite astronauts, “To infinity—and beyond!”

Whether you’ve been involved with OCLC for more than 30 years or fewer than 30 days, you can rightfully claim a contribution to OCLC’s ongoing success.

Thank you, and happy 50th anniversary!