OCLC has been on a buying spree of library-automation companies in recent months (see SLN 26:2, February 2006, “OCLC's Open Season on Acquisitions,” p. 1). So on May 3, 2006, it wasn't surprising news when RLG, a smaller-scale organization that offered an alternative set of bibliographic databases and services for research libraries, announced it would be joining the OCLC brood. Although cast as a merger, the terms of the arrangement spell out an acquisition.
According to the jointly issued FAQ, the transaction involves OCLC purchasing the assets and assuming the liabilities of RLG. If the deal completes, RLG will no longer exist as a separate organization. The plan calls for OCLC to integrate RLG's products and services in two ways: some will be combined with existing OCLC products and services to create economies of scale and to eliminate redundancies, while others will continue within OCLC and be managed through a new RLG-Programs division. OCLC will retain RLG's Mountain View, California, facilities, but will close its two-person office in New York.
The OCLC Board of Trustees and the RLG Board of Directors have approved the acquisition, which will take effect July 1, 2006, pending the approval of RLG's member institutions. To go forward, two-thirds of RLG members must vote in favor of combining with OCLC.
The New Addition
RLG, originally known as the Research Libraries Group, was formed in 1974 by the libraries of Columbia University, Harvard University, Yale University, and the New York Public Library. Today its membership totals 150 and includes research libraries, archives, and museums. The Mountain View-based organization employs 80 staff members. (In comparison, OCLC was founded in 1967, provides services to 54,000 libraries, and employs 1,250.)Though RLG may be small in size relative to OCLC, its assets are not insignificant.
The RLG Union Catalog currently contains 48-million records with more than 400 languages represented. WorldCat currently stands at 69-million records.RLG offers interlibrary-loan services, subscription access to article-level research databases, ArchiveGrid (a resource describing primary sources held in 2,500 libraries, archives, and museums), CAMIO (a catalog of art images), and a variety of other products and services to its members.
Preliminary plans have been announced that explain how RLG will fit within the OCLC organization. When the deal is completed, RLG's president James Michalko will become VP of RLG-Programs Development within OCLC, reporting to Lorcan Dempsey, VP of research and OCLC chief strategist.Current RLG members will become partners of the RLG-Programs unit of OCLC, and will continue to pay dues in support of its activities. At least initially, partnership in RLG-Programs does not constitute membership in OCLC. Current RLG members that are not also OCLC members will need to decide if they want to join OCLC.
Coming, Going, and Growing
Several of RLG's products and services will be combined into the appropriate OCLC offerings. Both organizations maintain union catalogs of bibliographic records. The RLG Union Catalog will be merged into WorldCat. These two systems follow different models for organizing their records—OCLC aims to have a single record for each bibliographic entity, while RLG retains multiple versions of records. Given these differences, merging the two union catalogs into one will be a complex process but will result in an even more expansive universe of bibliographic information.
RLG saw a very positive response to RedLightGreen, a search interface that provides access to the RLG Union Catalog that's designed for undergraduate students and made freely available on the Web. RedLightGreen, developed with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and launched in September 2003, brings many of the current-generation Web technologies, such as the simple search box, faceted searching, relevance ranking, and many other features that have gained wide acceptance on commercial Web sites and that have recently begun to take hold in library-provided services.
Since the RLG Union Catalog will be phased out once it is merged into WorldCat, RedLightGreen, as an interface for searching this resource, will likewise fade away, though its concepts and features will be incorporated into WorldCat.The incorporation of RLG into OCLC brings about another round of consolidation of bibliographic utilities in the U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, three major bibliographic networks prevailed in the U.S.: OCLC, WLN, and RLG. WLN, the bibliographic services organization serving 550 libraries in the northwestern region of the U.S. and Canada, merged with OCLC in November 1998.
This recent move leaves OCLC in a very dominant position. While some commercial vendors (such as Auto-Graphics and The Library Corporation) offer subscription access to bibliographic and authority databases, OCLC remains as the last standing non-profit membership organization for bibliographic services to libraries.
OCLC and RLG have long had similar organizational missions and offer overlapping services. The organizational demise of RLG will represent a loss for many if its member libraries that rely on its specialized services. Yet the larger library community may benefit from the incorporation of RLG-developed services, programs, and technologies into OCLC's offerings, especially those with worldwide impact.
Today, libraries face an onslaught of challenges from the Internet search engines and other commercial Web-based services. Those of us who work in libraries struggle to keep our institutions—as well as our individual skills and services—relevant to library users. The consolidation of library resources under the OCLC umbrella may prove to be necessary to help libraries weather the storm of commercial competition.