The National Library of Australia has released an interesting document about the value of union catalogues in general, and Libraries Australia in particular. Here is the concluding paragraph:
As Australian library collections move from managing print-based materials to managing digital and licensed resources, the National Union Catalogue provides a significant platform on which to examine, test and create a future for library services. [libraries australia: value statement PDF]
The union catalog was one of the earliest manifestations of library automation, and has been remarkably resilient feature of the library landscape since then. Consider for example the entries in the LIBER directory, Library Bibliographic Networks in Europe, which appeared in a second edition in 1992 after the success of the wildly popular first edition. Many of the organizations listed still exist 16 years later and still provide union catalogue services; some have been absorbed or transformed into other organizations which provide such services. This is despite a period in which distributed models have emerged alongside the union approach.
In fact, the last few years have seen some renewed interest in the union catalogue. An important factor here is the growth of shared activity at consortial or state/national level. It makes more sense to concentrate some types of activity in a network environment, and union catalogue organizations are natural venues to support this. Google, Amazon and others have also shown the advantages of data aggregation. Motivation here tends to cluster in two related lines: management-related and user-related.
On the management side there is interest in finding ways to remove unhelpful redundancy across operations, to build shared capacity, to achieve economies of scale and scope, to concentrate scarce technical or other expertise, and so on. As the range and complexity of what is expected from libraries grow, so do incentives to address management issues in a collaboratively sourced way. One might speculate that this is especially the case with libraries given their mission but there are also limited alternatives for the library which would like to achieve some of these same aims by sourcing with third party service providers. Think for example of what is available to the medium-sized library who would like to source an integrated range of library automation products (across ILS, ERM/metasearch/resolver, repository) as a service over the network, rather than as locally deployed software. We are very aware of some of the benefits of collaborative sourcing based on the good work of our neighbors here in Columbus, OhioLink. Another example is the Danish Electronic Research Library, which provides several centralized services including union catalogue.
The Value Statement draws attention to a couple of areas where union catalogues have newer roles. One is syndication of data. This has become of more interest recently as libraries work harder to place services in the user flow. However, for non-unique materials there needs to be some way of connecting a library's users with materials at their library. Google Scholar, for example, works with Worldcat and with several other union catalogs to direct users back to appropriate library collections. Another area is business intelligence, particularly in the form of collection analysis which has become of stronger interest as we look at mass digitization, coordination of off-site storage, and renewed interest in collaborative collection development.
On the user side, the advantages of a consolidated library presence on the network are being assessed. Again, the example of OhioLink is interesting here where the aggregate resources of Ohio academic libraries are made available to a user at any one of them. OhioLink aggregates supply, in that it provides a complete discovery to delivery service across a full range of library resources. It aggregates demand, in that it has a strong brand on the network and mobilizes use. Union catalogues have moved to represent more of the library collection, looking at licensed collections and digital materials.
For those interested in seeing what Libraries Australia aims to do over the next few years see the Libraries Australia Strategic Plan, July 2007 to June 2010 [PDF].
Reminder: the author works for the organization that manages Worldcat, the world's largest union catalogue.