OCLC Is My Third Place

When I would drive home from Oxford for weekends and holidays, I would look forward to spotting two landmarks that told me I was close to home. One was Der Dutchman in Plain City. The other was the headquarters of OCLC in Dublin.

My weakness for doughnuts, pies, salad bars and Vera Bradley made it easy for me to know why I was happy to see Der Dutchman. But why did I have such an affinity for three office buildings on a 100-acre campus? I figured it out when I read Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place and discovered the Third Place, a social environment that is separate from those that exist at home and at work. Historically, Third Places have been Viennese cafés, German-American beer gardens, English pubs and coffeehouses known as Penny Universities where news, business and democracy brewed. Now, beauty salons, bars, gyms and libraries vie to be recognized as a person’s Third Place.

My Third Place is OCLC.

My fascination with OCLC started nine years ago, when I was in library school. During the summer of 2003, my Rare Book Librarianship course met in Ohio State’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room, located in room 327 of the old Thompson Library. As I learned about descriptive bibliography, memorized terms from the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America’s glossary, and learned how to uncover subtle typographical variations with a collator, my eyes wandered to a plaque on the wall. The plaque commemorated that in this area, in September 1967, Frederick G. Kilgour opened the first office for the Ohio College Library Center.

The cataloging class I took that fall shed more light on OCLC. Kilgour (1914-2006) was an educator and librarian who saw computers as the perfect tool for efficiently organizing and cataloging library content. He thought that linking computers at libraries in different locations could create a powerful search tool for librarians and researchers alike. First, Kilgour created a library computer network of university libraries in Ohio that would allow librarians at each member institution to search other members’ card catalogs to discover books, periodicals and other library material. When news of the network’s success spread to libraries in other states, OCLC changed its name to the Online Computer Library Cooperative and it became an international network.

Today, OCLC has a staff of 1,200 and offices in seven countries, all working to further access to information and reduce library costs. More than 72,000 libraries in 170 countries have used OCLC services to locate, acquire, lend, preserve and manage library materials. WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalog, makes information-seeking a breeze for users and increases libraries’ efficiency in cataloging items.

So, I wondered, how could I get a first-hand introduction to OCLC? By relying on my reporting skills, of course!

Curiosity about OCLC prompted me to write “Right to the Shelf: OCLC Processing Library Items More Quickly” for the November 28, 2003 issue of Business First. Requesting information about OCLC’s Cataloging Partners program, an initiative to help libraries prepare new materials for use by patrons more quickly, introduced me to Bob Murphy, manager of OCLC Public Relations. Interviews for the story led to a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of OCLC with Bob. For many librarians, seeing the WorldCat server is like spotting a celebrity. To me, the most memorable sight was a large, sunny room filled with rows of cubicles, where hard-working catalogers were entering data about foreign-language media items to create catalog records for them. The silence was punctuated only by the constant clicking of computer keyboards.

Next came “Libraries Boosting Presence Online Via Pilot Program Through OCLC,” for Business First’s May 4, 2004 issue. This time, I focused on Open WorldCat, a slick initiative to promote the value and relevance of libraries to people who are less inclined to visit them by making library resources available from non-library websites.

Bob constantly crafts press releases about the many good things happening at OCLC, so there’s never a shortage of story ideas for reporters who cover libraries — or of conversational topics for librarians who want to tell others about OCLC.

For example, to change perceptions about libraries and librarians, and to positively impact public library funding, OCLC introduced Geek the Library, a community awareness campaign that emphasizes how vital public libraries are.

In the OCLC Usability Lab, user experience researchers employ software, eye-tracking devices and digital recording capabilities to discover where website users look and where they get bogged down in discovering information online. Since 2003, OCLC has periodically published environmental scans that not only examine trends impacting libraries, museums and archives, but also encourage discussion about future strategic directions of information-seeking. Of course, these landscape reports earned a mention in my recent conference presentation on tracking trends.

This week, I’ve been playing with OCLC’s latest tool, WorldCat Kindred Works, an experimental recommender service that finds books, movies and music similar to a sample work of your choice.

OCLC has been named among Computerworld’s “Best Places to Work in IT,” recognized as one of the “Best Employers in Ohio” and honored for its exemplary workplace practices. Who wouldn’t love to work at OCLC, where a team of employees has won the Worthington Community Adult Spelling Bee five times in the event’s 19-year history?

When information scientists seek professional development, they often convene in the auditorium of OCLC’s Kilgour Building. For example, I was in the crowd when the Central Ohio Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (CO-ASIS&T) met in the Kilgour Building auditorium in December 2010 to learn about “Getting Libraries to Web-scale” and the trend of using Web-based applications like cloud computing to share data and services.

Whether far away in Oxford or committed to my desk in Columbus, I’ve relied on live webcasts of OCLC’s Distinguished Seminar Series to stay current with research topics in information science. For example, Helene Blowers’ 2009 presentation, “Finding the Phoenix: Feathers, Flight & the Future of Libraries,” provided plenty of useful interview talking points about the Extinction Timeline and how libraries help facilitate the creation of knowledge by capturing, assimilating and distributing information from many different sources.

The Conference Center at OCLC offers meeting accommodations in a secluded, picturesque part of the campus. On November 10, 2010 — a perfect Indian Summer day — hundreds of librarians convened at OCLC for the “Your Library, Your Community” conference. We learned about tracking trends so we could better serve the needs of our communities. We participated in a terrific Skype discussion with Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. We discovered how to market libraries to the community, learned project management skills and heard how to use demographics and mapping to build a better collection. And we feasted on a tremendous lunch buffet on china featuring the OCLC logo, envious of the meals that OCLC’s in-house catering service routinely provides for employees and guests.

Recently, I discovered that OCLC is also a great place to have a party. For Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science’s Alumni & Friends Honors & Awards Program, the Kilgour Building’s atrium turned into a unique setting for a buffet dinner.

Before dinner, Bob first took us to see the WorldCat server, then introduced us to Larry Olszewski, director of the OCLC Library. Larry showed us the first edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification, a 44-page booklet that Melvil Dewey anonymously published in 1876. In 1885, Dewey used a copy of the first edition to make handwritten revisions for the second edition. The OCLC Library owns this unique original draft; a digital copy to admire is available through WorldCat record #42644188.

Also on display in the library are a collection of Dewey Decimal Classification schedules in several languages, the first OCLC dedicated SPIRAS-LTE terminal from 1972 and a Beehive Model 105 terminal from 1978. One of the 68 LTEs that OCLC deployed is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.

As we ate dinner, we listened to Thom Seelbach, consulting software engineer at OCLC, play the piano. We also practiced a new vocabulary word that Larry taught us — vexillology — and tried to name the countries represented by the flags that hang around the sides of atrium, showing the order in which these countries’ libraries joined OCLC.

After dinner, we heard from Sue Polanka, a 1995 Kent State SLIS graduate who is the head of reference and instruction at Wright State University Libraries in Dayton. To share ideas about online reference, Sue created her blog, No Shelf Required®, in 2008. Today, the award-winning blog covers the issues surrounding e-books for librarians and publishers. It also became a book series with ALA (American Library Association) Publishing in 2011 and 2012.

Sue encouraged us to think about the digital content that libraries provide; how digital content is affecting library users; self-publishing and printing on demand; what a library’s power users think about e-books; and how libraries can show their value to communities by showcasing local content and serving as a makerspace.

Driving home from my Third Place, I remembered that I’d been meaning to see the Kilgours’ Upper Arlington home. Earlier this year, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1958, a ranch-style residence on Kirkley Road was home to Mr. Kilgour and his wife, Eleanor, from 1967 to 1990, when the couple moved to North Carolina. It may be an average stucco-and-brick suburban home, typical of its era, but its tie to Kilgour and his significant professional contributions makes it unique.

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