Understanding the System-wide Library

OCLC has a strong interest in understanding how the scope and scale of library collections and services are changing, and a responsibility to help libraries understand, plan for, and respond to these changes. To advance thinking on these issues, OCLC Research has established a dedicated thematic area—understanding the system-wide library—that draws on our unique research capacity, data resources such as WorldCat, and broad institutional reach. Understanding the system-wide library explores the shift from local provisioning of library collections and services to increased reliance on cooperative infrastructure, collective collections, shared technology platforms, and "above-the-institution" management strategies. At the same time, we examine the array of collections and services that are best provided at the level of the local institution. Our research agenda in understanding the system-wide library aims to improve our understanding of the factors that guide institutions in their sourcing and scaling choices as they seek maximum impact and efficient provision of library collections and services.

Activities involve the gathering and analysis of empirical evidence, as well as community consultation and outreach. Collaboration with other research organizations on topics of mutual interest is also an important aspect of our work. The system-wide library thematic area will promote understanding of the dynamic environment in which today's libraries operate, and help librarians organize collections and services in ways that maximize value from limited resources. Our purpose is to maintain an outcomes-based orientation that is widely applicable, yet sensitive to institutional differences, and can provide useful context for decision-making without necessarily prescribing a single "best" course of action.

Areas of focus

  • Scale: Organizing library-related activities at the appropriate scale of provision and consumption (e.g., institution-level, group-level, web). A key issue is identifying activities that are of system-wide benefit, but are beyond the capacity (or even the mission) of any single institution.
  • Internalization vs. externalization: Optimizing the balance between library-related activities sourced within the institution and without. Also includes issues relating to "internal boundary shifting": sourcing library-related activities with non-library units on campus.
  • Collective collection : Cultivating a deep knowledge of the characteristics of the collective library resource, in order to explore the implications for the organization of collections and collection-based services and to optimize system-wide supply and demand for the library resource.
  • Models of system-wide interaction: Describing and assessing alternative models of "above the institution" coordination and collaboration to meet shared resource and service needs.
  • Evidence: Accumulating an evidence base of empirical analysis, qualitative assessment, and literature syntheses that helps libraries understand the current state and practical implications of issues in system-wide organization.

How we advance thinking

Activities in the system-wide library theme provide library managers with critical business intelligence about the evolving landscape of library collections and services, and the organizational structures in which those collections and services are embedded. We focus on:

Current work

See the main Understanding the system-wide library page for a list of current activities related to this theme.


ResearchWorks icon (RW) Some of the activities listed here have prototypes or demonstrations you can explore and play with. You can find a list of just those hands-on activities in ResearchWorks.

Software icon (SW) A few of these activities have generated software that you can download and build upon. Go to our software page for a list of only those activities.

ORL Partnership icon (P) The OCLC Research Library Partnership has sponsored the activities with this mark.

OCLC Research on YouTube

Watch OCLC Research YouTube Channel videos that feature some of our current work or recent findings

We are a worldwide library cooperative, owned, governed and sustained by members since 1967. Our public purpose is a statement of commitment to each other—that we will work together to improve access to the information held in libraries around the globe, and find ways to reduce costs for libraries through collaboration.