The CEO of OCLC has repositioned the global nonprofit to serve libraries around the world now and far into the future.
Before the cloud and huge data centers existed, there was OCLC in Dublin.
And before Skip Prichard became president and CEO of OCLC—or held any kind of executive position—he was a curious boy wanting to know what lessons he could learn from anyone whose path he crossed.
That the curious boy now heads the world's largest nonprofit resource for libraries is a story of both the person and the organization growing into their own.
OCLC was started 50 years ago by universities in Ohio wanting an efficient way to run their libraries. The work then spread regionally, nationally and globally.
“That was the very beginning of OCLC, finding a way—almost cloud computing before we had cloud computing—to share your data about a book or about any information you were filing in a library. And then we took that forward so that all libraries could share that data resource,” Prichard says.
While OCLC was evolving, Prichard was growing up in a Maryland family that “took people in,” he says. “We had six kids, but we took in people from all over the world that were troubled. (They) were usually abandoned, addicted or abused. … Some would stay for a night. Some would stay for a week. Some would stay for years. My parents, that was their mission.”
For Prichard, it was an ongoing and inspiring education in leadership and development as he observed that some of his family's guests went on to great success while others continued to struggle.
“We had these crazy dinner conversations because everybody came from this different perspective. … I learned you can learn from every single person, you learn from their perspective, and my passion for diversity is because I would see this diverse thinking and how you can emerge with a different thought at the end of the dinner than when you started,” Prichard says.
“I never want to lose that curiosity,” he adds. “I always find the more ideas I'm exposed to and our company is exposed to, the better we will be in reflecting that back in terms of our thinking.”
Prichard's personal passion for sharing information is the perfect match for OCLC's mission of helping libraries around the world work better.
“We may be running the technology infrastructure for your library. We may be helping power an inter-library loan for materials that may be halfway across the world that you couldn't access otherwise. There's just a whole range of services that we offer end users that come into libraries and then libraries to serve their patrons,” Prichard says.
As a cooperative, OCLC's members are not just public libraries but also academic, corporate, law, medical and scientific libraries.
“If a library uses the material, then OCLC's interested in it. We want to catalogue it, record it, understand it, link to it, publicize it, help users find it on the web, all of those things,” Prichard explains.
“We're the world's largest library cooperative. … We really help libraries do what they couldn't do individually but they can do collectively. It's an incredible success story of libraries who come together and pool resources, pool investments in order to do for many what would be impossible for one,” he adds.
“OCLC is a company that I've known about since I entered this business in 1983,” says Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. “They've been around a long time and they're a real force.”
Losinski, who serves on the board of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, adds, “It's not just about the products they provide; it's the research they support that informs the work of libraries everywhere.”
OCLC may be underappreciated because its work is so far-flung, Losinski says. “But it's really important for the community to understand what an asset that is to central Ohio. We are on the map not only with librarians worldwide but the vendor community, technology community. They are visiting here often and connecting. It is a real economic driver for our community, and we are just honored and thrilled that they're here and very supportive of Skip's leadership and what they will be in the future.”
Cindy Hilsheimer, founder and managing principal of executive search firm BeecherHill, has been on the OCLC board since the year before Prichard was hired in 2013.
“Skip, beyond being mission-centric, has a very logical, pragmatic way of approaching business,” Hilsheimer says. Noting OCLC is a complex organization, she adds, “He came in and listened and learned in 2013-14, and now in ‘17-18, I would go so far as saying he is revolutionizing and advancing OCLC. It's clear that that is happening because we have the metrics and the performance to show it.”
Prichard's impact on OCLC has been that “leadership was perfected, talent was top-graded and a new culture emerged. Of course, culture then inspires people,” Hilsheimer says. She also praises renovations at OCLC's Dublin campus under Prichard's leadership, creating new energy in “a building that had not advanced. And so he took our headquarters and renewed its face and it's pretty cool.”
Prichard's path to OCLC came through what he calls “a long service background to libraries for many, many years.”
He headed Nashville-based global book wholesaler Ingram Content Group, which also had a library division, before coming to OCLC. Before that Prichard was president of ProQuest Information and Learning, a global library-focused organization, and his career began at LexisNexis, a provider of legal, government, business and high-tech information.
“So service to libraries is not new and technology companies are not new. Working in organizations that have a storied past but need to evolve rapidly to adapt to the future—those are all the organizations that I've been drawn to,” Prichard says.
“OCLC is perfect because I have the library background, but it's sitting right in the center of everything for libraries, and yet it needed to be almost reawakened to grab for the future,” he says, adding “I've been aware of OCLC for decades. It is the premier library organization, almost a glue in the library market that holds many things together. … What attracted me was the DNA and the public purpose of OCLC.”
Running an organization as big and complex as OCLC might be enough for most executives, but Prichard also feeds his appetite for sharing information as an author and speaker on leadership and development topics. He posts on his Leadership Insights blog two or three times a week, offering reviews of new business and management books and interviews with their authors.
Losinski occasionally visits Prichard's blog. “I'm just amazed at some of the people he's able to connect with for interviews,” Losinski says. For example, one recent post draws from Prichard's conversation with renowned actor Alan Alda about his new book,If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Losinski adds he sees an interesting parallel with Prichard's speaking and writing. “In many respects, it mimics the work of OCLC, which is gathering and disseminating information and making it available to a wider audience. It's what libraries do and it's what Skip is doing personally with those tools.”
No longer dark and quiet spaces, libraries of all types have become more open, airy, collaborative, high-tech places that welcome entrepreneurs and innovators, Prichard observes. “As they have changed, we needed to change, and so we engaged in a new technology infrastructure project that was rather significant. We rebuilt our data centers and our infrastructure from the bottom up all around the world. Whether you're in Sydney, Australia, or in Amsterdam, or here in Dublin, (or) backup systems we have in Westerville, we needed to really modernize that.”
Investments totaling tens of millions of dollars have helped OCLC increase its security and responsiveness using common systems in its locations around the world. “Now we have a global, unified system, so a developer can roll something out across the world at one time and so it's really upped the game,” he says.
It was critical for OCLC to improve, Prichard says. “Today the information you're looking for may be just as relevant if it was published in Thailand to make a difference in your research. You may find something in the Middle East or something in Europe. Wherever that information is, if you're doing research or you're in a library looking for information, you want an answer. You don't care where it came from; you just want to get that answer. We facilitate the getting and using of information through libraries or through the web, back to the library.”
Not only does OCLC provide analytical tools to help libraries understand how their assets are being used, it also has a research arm, Prichard says, “that helps libraries look forward. So librarians around the world are relying on our research. That also helps our product and development teams as we're talking to libraries of where they're going in 10 years to help develop products and services that serve their needs.”
And as libraries around the world continue to change, Prichard is confident OCLC will continue to play a role in their evolution.
Mary Yost is the editor.