An Update on OCLC's Small Libraries Project: Web Site for Small Libraries (WSSL)

September 4, 2012  by Tip House, OCLC Chief Architect and WSSL Product Manager

Some may recall the special session at ALA Mid Winter 2011, where a demonstration OCLC's small library system was received with interest and enthusiasm among small libraries advocates. The system prototype consisted of pre populated web sites that a library could claim and customize, along with a basic inventory system for defining holdings and doing simple circulation (see OCLC Introduces "A Web Presence for Small Libraries" ).  What follows is a short update on what has happened  since, as my colleagues in the OCLC Innovation Lab  and I have continued to  develop the system in the hope of making it both suitable and affordable for small and very small libraries.  

The first thing that we did after the ALA demonstration was to run a pilot with some small libraries to learn what a small library might run into when trying to implement and use the system. As you might imagine, we learned some very important lessons from this activity, and they have had a major impact on the product.

For instance, we had anticipated that many small libraries would have no existing automation and would either enter their collections a single record at a time, or have collections in a spreadsheet, easily exported to a standard format. It surprised us to learn that they instead needed to replace existing, out-of-date, and unsupported systems, with export capability limited to non-standard, proprietary, and/or idiosyncratic formats. 

The initial prototype had a very simple self-service import function that worked quite well as long as the input data was precisely and correctly formatted, but not one of the pilot libraries was able to produce the required format from their existing system. It seemed like a real quandary, with a small library particularly ill-equipped for custom programming, and a main tenant of the WSSL product being self-service to reduce support cost and maintain the affordability for small libraries. Consider that just a few hours of custom conversion programming by OCLC staff could easily dwarf the entire cost of the system. 

Luckily, this is just the sort of "unsolvable" problem that the OCLC Innovation Lab thrives on, so, after much experimentation with machine learning and natural language processing, we developed a data loading step that "recognizes" the data without any prior information about the format or layout. Whether the format is tabular, comma or tab delimited, Marc, XML, a flat file, etc., the loading program finds and extracts titles, authors, ISBNs, and so on, then fills in missing fields with information from matching WorldCat records. This makes it generally feasible for a library to "load what you've got" and go.

Another lesson we learned is that small libraries can have quite sophisticated needs for automation, particularly in the areas of circulation and reporting. Especially where no automation is currently in use, we found that a too-simple system was just not perceived to be  worth any effort to implement, no matter how inexpensive or easy. Drawing once again on the Innovation Lab capabilities to do more with less, we were able to finesse full-fledged ILS functionality for small-library cataloging, circulation, and patron management to go along with the OPAC and web site management, without adding significant expense or complexity.

We have now upgraded the product from an experimental service to a beta product, and are excited to be working with a number of small libraries in evaluations. We realize that, while we may have really nailed the technical foundation, we have a lot to learn about connecting with small libraries, both individually and as a community. We are seeking to develop a network of experts and consultants outside of OCLC who can help small libraries with training and implementation, to all parties' benefit.

More information on the Web Site for Small Libraries product is available at the WSSL landing page: http://beta.worldcat.org/lib and inquiries may be directed to innovation@oclc.org. Representatives from OCLC will also be attending the
upcoming ARSL Conference in Raleigh, NC, and will be .available to answer questions and demonstrate the WSSL system.