Friday, October 21, 2005

Open WorldCat for Rural America

I was playing around with Open WorldCat search and decided to see how many copies of This Ain't Brain Surgery by Larry Dierker there were in West Texas where I grew up. The book tells about Dierker's baseball career, including his years as the manager of the Houston Astros.

Living for twenty plus years in the Chicago suburbs, where all the libraries have been networked and connected, I forget that it just is not so across rural America. I had forgotten how good we have it here librarywise. I put in the zip code 76932 for Big Lake, Texas, thinking I would see copies in San Angelo, Midland, and Odessa for sure. I was hoping I would also see copies in Big Lake, Ozona, McCamey, and Stanton. I was surprised to see the first library in the results list is the Central Arkansas Library System. It is 670 miles from Big Lake to Little Rock! That's a long way to go for a book.

Open WorldCat does have an explanation of how it replies to the zip code searches. The results are displayed according to libraries within concentric radii of the given zip code. If there are not at least ten libraries with the item within a set radius, the next radius is added. If the search has to go beyond 62 miles, the results are presented alphabetically by state and name of library. When you live in a place like West Texas, there will not be more than two or three libraries within 62 miles if you are very lucky. Therefore, in this case, libraries in Arkansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma get listed before libraries in Texas; these state all belong to Amigos, a regional OCLC service provider. Looking down the list, I find that the closest copy is in Abilene, 163 miles according to Google Maps.

To see what Open WorldCat is missing, because membership in OCLC is not universal, I went to individual library catalogs. The Reagan County Library in Big Lake does not have an online catalog. The libraries in San Angelo, Odessa, and Midland do, so I was able to search for Dierker's book. San Angelo and Odessa own it, but Midland does not. Do I assume the people in Midland, once the home of George W. Bush, are all Texas Ranger fans? It is football country. The librarians may be selecting only what will circulate.

Where does this leave the readers in West Texas who are hoping for more access for books? Two things need to be done. 1) All the libraries need to be added to OCLC so they show up in Open WorldCat. 2) A different formula for showing closest libraries needs to be created for rural America.

Does Open WorldCat even matter in places where towns are so far apart? Books can be requested through interlibrary loan. My aunt is always getting booksthrough ILL from Abilene and elsewhere. Would anyone really drive to another town for a book?

I think it can matter. People who live in the small towns in West Texas drive great distances to shop and conduct personal business. My friends and I used to drive 72 miles from Big Lake to San Angelo for a pizza or to see a movie. If you were going to Midland to get a piece of oilfield equipment or to San Angelo to visit a friend in the hospital anyway, you could pick up the book at the library.

Open WorldCat is still a trial. It has a long way to go before its dreams are realized. Let's not let rural America be left out.


bobbyg said...

Hear, hear! Growing up in Big Lake was, well, let's not go there.

I remember spending almost the entire summer of 1967 in the county library and realizing that there wasn't all that much to read. Sure, I was introduced to authors like Shakespeare, Asimov, Campbell, and others. But when I really wanted to read new things, what was there? Zane Grey. Bummer.

Rick, I completely agree that rural areas shouldn't be left in the cold. The internet is an enormous resource and this tool should attempt to help those in the rural areas, too.

By the way, thanks for the cool links. Everytime I read your stuff, my eyes are opened a little wider (even though I think you're a little too far to the left for me :::)))


m s byrd said...

I finally got around to some research,and find that the Big Lake library has only two of the books you have reviewed the last few months--The Good Earth and Amy Tan's latest. I have not requested any from the regional library, however, as they have just purchased at my request, paper back, The Chronicles of Narnia and my husband and myself are busy re-reading these.

Marian Sue