OCLC: A Cooperative

What the heck, I’m a controversial roll here, might as well keep it up. OCLC is fond of reminding us that they are not a “vendor”, because they are a cooperative. Now, I’d say that, well, OCLC is a vendor–they are an entity which is in the business of selling goods and services to libraries, and they therefore have many things in common with other entities in that business (and they sell products and services which compete with those of other vendors).

At the same time, it is a very important and unique thing that OCLC is a cooperative. What that means is that OCLC is in fact owned by it’s customers. Or at least a significant subset of it’s customers–it’s members, including many of our employers. OCLC was created by libraries to serve the collective interests of the library community (originally a regional community, but now a national or potentially even international one). Unlike a standard commercial entity who’s fundamental basic reason for existing is profit for it’s owners (whether shareholders, founders, private equity firms, whatever)—a cooperative like OCLC’s primary foundational mission is to it’s member-customers-owners interests, and profits are just a way of serving that basic mission. This is indeed an important thing, and I think the library community is well served to have an organization with the power and reach of OCLC which is owned by the collective library community.

But this is of course only true in reality to the extent that OCLC’s members actually do have the power to exersize their governance as owners of OCLC. Which is why I’m pretty disturbed by proposals in the recent OCLC governance study to reduce the number of OCLC board members elected by members from 6 to 4 on a 15 member board.   Is this in the interests of OCLC’s owners?  I confess I haven’t had time to read the entire study and their rational for this reccommendation, so I’m open to hearing an argument to the contrary–but my gut reaction is: no!  Would the owners (shareholders) of any ordinary company tolerate such a dilution of governance power?

I expect many of my readers will agree with me. But also share my lack of confidence that OCLC’s members–that is, our employers–that is our administrators who make such organization-level decisiosn for our employers–will make sure their governance power is not diluated. Which brings us to another issue.  Many of us think that OCLC sometimes (often?) does not act like the interests of us, it’s members, are a main purpose to which organizational profits can not take a priority.   I would submit that, if that’s true, much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of OCLC’s owners, the libraries. If our administrators agreed with us about what OCLC behavior was in the community’s interest, and believed it was important, and actively pushed OCLC to do what was in our interest–it would happen. We do own and control OCLC, right?  So if this is not happening, blame has to be laid at the feet of libraries, not OCLC.  This library-owned vendor starkly illustrates the point I was trying to make in my last post: That the change we need demands that libraries themselves take ownership of the strategic direction of libraries as a community.

Of course, this is only true so long as OCLC’s members really do govern OCLC. If and when this becomes no longer the case, then OCLC really will be just another vendor. And that would be a loss for libraries. I hope instead that libraries can step up in owning the strategic directions which they direct the vendor they own to follow.

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