Friday, December 10, 2004

"We fought him all the way to his promised land."

Apparently the title is what the presenter of the 1978 Melvil Dewey Award said of that year's recipient, Frederick G. Kilgour. If you are but a casual reader of this blog, you may not know that Fred is OCLC's founder--the inventor, really. He was born in 1914 and is still writing and being a serious birdwatcher.

I have been thinking about Fred today because I am reading and musing for a couple of pieces I am working on. And, as usual, when I read "Fred quotes" I am struck by the vision of the guy, as well as what a hard-nose he was (probably still is) in terms of his conviction that libraries needed to move on from what he termed "nineteenth century" practices. Here's the title quote in context:

"OCLC would not have come into being if it had not been for a quadripartite skein of skills and qualities possessed, perhaps uniquely, by Fred Kilgour. First, he was a thoroughly competent librarian. Second, he had a high degree of technical acumen. Third, he was a consummate politician. And fourth, he had skin a foot thick, which was fortunate indeed because we fought him every step of the way en route to his Promised Land"
(Anne Marie Allison and Ann Allen. OCLC, A National Library Network. Short Hills, N.J.: Enslow, 1979. p. 12)

And I have to think his skin must have been a foot thick because in a May, 1976 article by Art Plotnick in American Libraries he said:

"We do things to libraries, not for them. We want to make resources more available to users of libraries, and to reduce the unit costs. We are not essentially a catalog card-producing agency. We want to put the card catalog out of business. we've made a new kind of catalog--the on-line- totally different from the book catalog of the 17th century and the card catalog of the 19th. The library has become dehumanized. We have to bend ourselves to the demands and limitations of the catalog; but a computer can produce a miniature, custom made catalog just for the user--a special gathering of data that may never be put out again."

Many librarians reading that first sentence must have been most put-out by that opinion. And yet, I see a strong parallel between Fred's belief that OCLC led libraries--and should lead libraries-- into new territories in the 70s, and the OCLC of today, leading libraries out of the building, out of the OPAC, onto the open Web, with Open WorldCat being the first step towards the "promised land".

"New applications of technology will enable libraries to shift from their traditional packages of data to furnishing information for decsions and action. Hence, the new technology will provide librarians with the opportunity of developing new concepts of librarianship, having as their main emphasis the provision of information to individuals when and where they need it."

Are these words from Jay Jordan, announcing the Open WorldCat program? No, this is Fred Kilgour in 1981.

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