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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.2 (2002) vii-x
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The Transformation of Library Networks
Susan K. Martin
Something changed in the library world while we were looking in another direction. Library networks and cooperatives, which used to be a prevalent topic at conferences, in articles, and for graduate student study, are no longer foremost on the lips of those talking about the most current topics in the field. A quick look at the catalogs of publishers of library literature, including that of the American Library Association, will show that few authors are writing about library networks per se, and hardly anyone is writing about networks within the context of a particular function, such as cataloging or reference. What has happened? Networks haven't disappeared; in fact, there are more networks and cooperatives than ever. No, library networks still exist, and are still critical to the welfare and health of the modern library. But three things have changed: first, most libraries no longer have one primary network to which they are loyal; second, the focus of attention has shifted from networking as an activity to networking as a means to an end; and finally, any organization, including vendors, can "create" library networks. Let us examine how we reached this point and suggest some trends for the future.
For well over a century, libraries in North America have been marked particularly by their reliance upon each other to acquire on behalf of their users many of the resources and services that they might not have been able to provide on their own. Supported by cooperative cataloging and an interlibrary lending system that became widely accepted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, library cooperatives and networks grew increasingly important after the adoption of computer technology. For many years, networks were a phenomenon to be studied in library school, discussed at conferences, and written about in the professional literature.
The establishment of OCLC in the late 1960s, and its delivery of online services beyond the state of Ohio shortly thereafter, prompted the creation of regional networks that acted—and continue to act—as resellers of OCLC services to their member libraries, usually located within their regions. For librarians anxious to gain access to this new, relatively inexpensive, and liberating technology, membership in a network was a small [End Page vii] price to pay. Networks that originated as OCLC vendors rapidly grew, taking advantage of seemingly unending new technologies and services to provide their member libraries, and to make money.
On two occasions in the past, I have studied library networks and their impact on the libraries that are their members. I vividly recall the words of Russell Shank, then University Librarian at UCLA, describing the problem that he foresaw as his library needed to be a member of more than one network. He saw overlapping network services and a complex series of governance structures that ultimately would be detrimental to the effective management of a library.
Let's fast forward to the early years of the 21st century. Networks have not gone out of business; those networks that provided OCLC services decades ago continue to do so actively, and most of them offer far more services. Continuing education and training, bulk purchasing, and joint licensing of electronic resources are only a few of the areas in which these networks have become both active and effective. Libraries continue to maintain their memberships in these networks, almost without thinking about it. Acquiring cataloging data from a network is as essential to a library's routines as is purchasing books from an approval plan.
The distinction between a "bibliographic utility," which is what the library world used to call OCLC, RLG, WLN, and UTLAS (remember UTLAS, the Canadian library network?), and a "library network," which was the organization delivering services directly to the library—often described as an artificial distinction—no longer exists. We no longer call anything a bibliographic utility unless we want to show our age.
Multiple network memberships
But to return to those factors that have changed, libraries no longer carry...