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Google Buying OCLC: An Early Analysis


Originally uploaded by freerangelibrarian.

Some of us had heard rumors flying earlier this week. Two posts on ALA blogs, TechSource and Hectic Pace, confirm the news that Google has bought OCLC. I’ve even heard that one of my favorite blogs will be renamed “It’s All Gooooood.”

Those of us who are fundamentally paranoid about the intentions of any company larger than a cobbler with a hammer should not be at all surprised to hear this news. (I had strongly suspected that the recent meeting to discuss “the future of bibliographic control” was merely a front for acquisition negotiations.) With varying success, Google has been exploring Microsoft’s turf (Google Documents and Spreadsheet), AOL (Google Chat), standard ISPs (GMail), and virtual reference (Google Answers). To acquire OCLC is simply logical. What better business for Google to get into than massive repositories of hand-hewn metadata in a format unique to one industry?

As a manager, I’m intrigued by the blending of two very different organizational cultures. In theory the two companies–oops! I don’t really mean that OCLC is a company, of course–have very similar missions:

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

OCLC Online Computer Library Center is … dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information and reducing information costs.”

I see the potential deal-breaker here as the words “accessible” and “useful.” Anyone who has tried to retrieve a reader review of a book in WorldCat knows that “accessible” is still a bit of a chimera, while anyone who has ever watched a new user struggle to find a book in a library catalog knows that if there’s one corporate strategy in librarianship, it’s that we work hard not to make our tools too useful.

This special knowledge is what we bring to the table in this acquisition (with the awareness that OCLC staff were all once real librarians). We know what Google hasn’t learned: library catalog software is hard to use for a reason. If our services became useful and accessible, who would need us? Imagine how hard it would be to search Google if it turned off its spell-checkers, disabled PageRank, and sorted its results “last in first out.” Instead of designing good software, Google could reorient its services around typical library work, which emphasizes teaching people, one by one, how to use bad software–not just any software, either: in the ultimate Ponzi scheme, it’s software that we created!

There are some other management-culture challenges with this acquisition. I’ve been to the GooglePlex, and though I signed an NDA, I can’t help telling you that I saw staff dressed up as pirates, fairy princesses, a piece of sushi, and as a guy with a blade in his forehead. Ok, it was Halloween, but still. Meanwhile, OCLC staff dress like door-to-door evangelists whose suits are stitched on at hire. Will the two groups find a common dress code? (Come to think of it, that pirate uniform might work for both organizations.)

Not only that, but I’ve never seen OCLC staff eat anything larger than an olive, while Google is known for its snack stations and restaurant-quality cafeterias. With the wide age differences between workforces–I think I saw several Google staff driven home by their parents, while the motto for OCLC seems to be “never hire anyone under 40”–a shift in diet for OCLC staff could end up clearing its ranks pretty quickly.

However, there are some clear advantages for both companies:

Twice as many lawyers. Google keeps fending off pesky lawsuits over intellectual property (what is THAT all about anyway–I mean, IP, all right, I get it, can we move on?), while OCLC’s lawyers have been more aggressive, as illustrated by the brouhaha where it rattled its legal sabers against a hotel for organizing its floors around a Dewey theme. Combined with twice as many PR flacks, that combination of defense/offense in a large legal team should result in some exciting new legal ventures.

Better SWAG. I don’t know about you, but I’ve collected OCLC bags in almost every color: green, white, and that translucent orange with the useless patch pockets. Compare those yawners with the cool baseball cap I earned at the Google Booth in New Orleans that lets my staff and patrons know “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

De-duping and direct record editing in Google. Ok, strictly rumor here, but I’ve heard all similar records will be merged to “Best Bet Records.” As it does now with similar search results, Google will offer the ability to view all duplicates found in a search. That, plus you can expect open editing in a wiki-like interface. We’ll all be catalogers!

Low, low per-search fees. We all know that once Google becomes the de facto search tool for universal information, a fee schedule is imminent. The OCLC-Google merger brings us much closer to this day, both by eliminating any possible rivalry from OCLC’s research division and by bringing to the table OCLC’s expertise in fee assessment. The phrase “net searcher” may be one we soon see added to the lexicon.

As an observer of corporate culture, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at the next holiday party. But failing that, I look forward to seeing a future where “Don’t be evil” meets “rep tie mandatory.” If nothing else, it will be fun!

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