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Open WorldCat Opens My World

Looking back at my first take on the Open Worldcat toolbar last November, I have to wonder what alien invaded my body and led me to categorically conclude that I didn’t trust this tool and wouldn’t use it. Re-reading my post, it might have been titled, “I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.”

I will confess: I now use the Open Worldcat toolbar all the time. (Also, I love spinach: creamed, steamed, salad, with bacon–but I digress.) I use Open Worldcat to find books in my local libraries, and the plural is intentional, because more and more I’m realizing if I don’t see it in Palo Alto’s collection or at the University of San Francisco, I am still interested in immediately learning if it is available somewhere nearby–maybe at one of the other public libraries up and down the peninsula, including San Francisco Public (which I drive past twice a week).

Open Worldcat also gives me some strategery for interlibrary loan options. I feel empowered knowing that I can take a printout to a library to perhaps kick-start the ILL process, if need be. Oh yes, I know I can Leave It To The Professionals, but sometimes us hoi polloi have our tricks. (Last night at a dessert social a church office manager told me how she has a separate wallet just for all her library cards–she’s a master at working the local libraries.) Sometimes we out here beyond the brick walls just like to be part of the process, like the patients who now bring printouts from the Internet to hospital appointments.

At this point you may jump in to say that Open Worldcat isn’t the whole picture. Well, maybe not, but it’s a lot of the picture, and it’s a picture I can draw by typing words and pressing a button. I can remember in the late 1990s when librarians realized Amazon made a pretty good poor-person’s Books in Print for most general purposes, and though you could argue that someone needed to keep buying the official volumes for those questions Amazon couldn’t answer or screwed up, overall Amazon was better than good enough; it was pretty decent.

In the same vein, Open Worldcat, for not being the whole world, is pretty decent. If I can find the book either at a library I already have privileges at or another library conveniently nearby, I don’t have a powerful urge to find out if still other libraries have these books as well. I will stop short of saying that if they really wanted me to know that information, their records would be in Worldcat (but I can think it). My question would be: where else would you put them to make them globally available?

As for display and ranking issues, first, I’m sure OCLC keeps tinkering with Open Worldcat, and second, it works great for the searches I actually conduct: title searches, mostly, with an occasional LCSH search (since I belong to our weird sect that actually speaks LC Klingon). If there are display problems, and there probably are, I’m not noticing them because I’m able to use Open Worldcat to answer my questions so quickly and efficiently that I’m not in there long enough to ponder the display. (Every once in a while I have a fleeting “do this better” thought, but I’m so task-focused I never capture it long enough to write it down.)

The big flub, for me, is that too often tells me an item is in the catalog, takes me to the catalog, but then does not search the catalog, but simply presents the OPAC’s interface. This forces me to search again, and to dope out the library’s local OPAC search peccadillos. However, help is on the way: elves at OCLC are busy harvesting OPAC links and building the “deep links” (ISBN, ISSN or OCLC numbers) necessary to directly display the records in the local OPAC. Bill Brembeck of OCLC told me, “Of the 5000 odd libraries with links loaded to date about 2000 of them have deep links.”

(There is of course the larger issue that searching fairly limited metadata related to books means I have to think in large directory-type terms; recipes, cooking, or–gag!–“cookery,” not spinach, for best results. That’s a topic for another day.)

Open Worldcat pole-vaults over the extreme localism of library collections–a localism that can be a very good thing, when users need to know what’s available, right now, in their library, but can be a bad thing when it presents obstacles to broader research questions. But to loop it back to the plus side of localism again, Open Worldcat makes it possible to catch users in the wild, as they roam the Web looking for information, and bring them right back to the front door they never knew could help them: their local library.

Open Worldcat is still only available in frozen spinach–I mean, as a Yahoo toolbar for Internet Explorer–but I’m hoping we’ll see it in all flavors someday.

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