Libraries Are Not Pizza Shops
A good thing about traveling and speaking a lot is that people ask you questions. Sometimes they ask intriguing ones, the kinds that stick in your head. One of those questions compared libraries to pizza shops--"if I want to find a pizza shop in my neighborhood I just google 'pizza' and my zip code, and they all come up. Why isn't it enough to just google 'library' and my zip code and see what's near me--why do I need WorldCat to aggregate library collections for me?"
I tried googling "pizza" and "library" appended with various zip codes, and it's true, Google yields a nice list for both kinds of establishments--with maps, addresses, URLs and phone numbers. From the library list one can usually connect to an online catalog to search and browse library collections, albeit one at a time. At the same time it must be admitted that the method works better for pizza than it does for libraries; academic libraries in particular get left out of the Google search results. But for the sake of argument, let's say that the Google technique for identifying nearby libraries and what's in their collections is effective and comprehensive. Would a "collective collection" of many library collections--that is, WorldCat--still be useful to libraries and the communities they serve?
Beyond Pepperoni, Veggie and Supreme
The most obvious difference between pizza shops and libraries is that with pizza shops, it's pretty easy to predict the inventory. A few also sell lasagna and salads, but most pizza shops are pretty much alike. Libraries and library collections are not alike; and in fact library collections tend to be made up of both popular and harder-to-find items, suggesting a long tail* strategy for attracting the attention of mainstream and niche readers. If the people in the neighborhood don't know those rich library collections are nearby, they may as well not exist. It is large scale digital visibility that creates large scale use, even local use. A database like WorldCat provides a large distribution channel to raise awareness and aggregate dispersed audiences for library collections. WorldCat helps people in the neighborhood more conveniently find the treasures they didn't know they had--in their local libraries, right around the corner.
More Is Better
As library data sets go, WorldCat is a big database. Fiscal year 2008 was a record breaking year, featuring over 26% growth in WorldCat, from nearly 86 million bibliographic records on July 1, 2007, to over 108 million on June 30, 2008. Growth is coming largely from libraries outside the U.S. Major loads in fiscal year 2008 included the holdings of the National Library of Australia and its 800+-member Libraries Australia consortium; the National Library of Sweden; the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek; HeBIS (a network of libraries in a region of Germany); the National Library of New Zealand; and the Swiss National Library.
More Is Better in More than One Way
"To do anything useful with tags, you need numbers. With only a few tags, you can't conclude much. The tags could just be 'noise.'"
This quote from a well known post on Thingology compares LibraryThing's tagging system with Amazon's. With a critical mass of tags, the aggregated whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. A large number of tags is the starting point, but it isn't simply the large number that makes LT tags useful; it's the patterns that emerge when a large amount of metadata is combined and mined for relationships. In this same way, WorldCat.org, for example, has been "FRBRized" with a set of algorithms developed in the OCLC Office of Research. When the FRBR model brings together bibliographic records in work sets, not only can the original metadata be enriched: end users are enabled to sift through myriad resources more effectively, irrespective of the specific "container" or item the content is carried in. Thus, WorldCat is more than the sum of all the bibliographic records it contains.
A Switch More Than a Destination
The first step to get pizza is to call or visit a pizza shop. The first step to get library materials is to type or click the URL of the library's Web pages or visit the library. WorldCat's collective collection can be visited directly too, by typing in the URL, typing in a WorldCat search box on another site, or clicking on a bookmark. When visited directly, WorldCat.org functions as a kind of "destination restaurant," which has a strong enough appeal to draw customers from outside its particular community.
Yet, while many do visit WorldCat.org as a known destination in and of itself, in fact WorldCat.org functions more as a "switch" to lead information seekers from a variety of places on the Web to more than 10,000 local library collections. In effect, WorldCat enables information seekers to start an information search elsewhere and end up at their local libraries. In this way, working with its Open WorldCat partners, WorldCat exposes the collective collections of libraries globally, to raise awareness and use of particular library collections locally, offering an entirely new set of paths to the pizza shop--er, library.
What follows is a statistical analysis of how visitors reach WorldCat.org. The results suggest that WorldCat.org is now beginning to function well as a switch, with the potential to drive substantial traffic to local libraries from search engines and other Web sites.
Referrals to WorldCat.org, January 1 - May 1, 2008
Search Engines 47.45%
Other Web Sites 39.91%
Typed/Bookmarked URLs 12.64%
The concept of the "long tail," a phrase coined by Chris Anderson, is that given a large enough distribution channel, items in low demand ("non-hits") can collectively generate a volume of usage that meets or exceeds that of bestsellers ("hits").