OCLC [Online Computer Library Center] has been one of the industry's best kept secrets," noted Jay Jordan, CEO of the Dublin, Ohio, organization. However, with its high-visibility acquisition of netLibrary, Jordan is happy to see OCLC's "stealth" era come to an end.

Founded in 1967 as the Ohio College Library Center, OCLC was the brainchild of several dozen college presidents who joined forces to save costs in the creation of library catalogue records. In three decades, OCLC has grown into a major nonprofit membership organization serving 41,000 libraries in 82 countries and territories around the world. The company's primary product, an online catalogue called WorldCat, contains more than 46 million library-created catalogue records representing some 800 billion location listings.

From the shared cataloguing system created in 1971 for about 80 Midwestern institutions, the collaborative moved to the Interlibrary Loans service begun in 1979, and then to an online reference tool, FirstSearch, about 10 years ago. In the course of this work, OCLC has expanded well beyond Ohio, well beyond academia and now well beyond the U.S. Its activities have gone from catalogue records to online databases, reference archives, journals and, with netLibrary, to online books as well. "It was a natural extension," Jordan said of the netLibrary deal.

This dynamic expansion has made some in the library and publishing community nervous, as boundaries among traditional players collapse because of new technology. Jordan points out that, as a cooperative run by its members, OCLC is "neutral" with regard to all libraries, publishers and distributors. One major library that used the group for digital conversion reported that the work was "on target, on time, and well done."

OCLC's dreams for the future are global. "Right now, the U.S. is one information node, and we have a second we can link to in the Netherlands, thanks to the purchase of a Dutch company, PICA, about a year ago," Jordan said. "But why shouldn't it be possible not only to link to—but also to deliver to the customer—information resources wherever they are located around the world? Our ultimate vision is: the right resource to the right desktop at the right time."