A logical OCLC argument

At least part of OCLC’s justification in trying to monopolize access to the WorldCat corpus (that is, largely to our, its’ members, collected data) is indeed an honest belief that this serves the membership.

The argument has been stated only around the sides by OCLC, but here’s how I read it:

By monopolizing the data, then if someone else (like Google) wants the data, we can get concessions from that someone else that benefit our members in return for access to the data (like a link to Worldcat in Google Books). If Google could get the data on the public web for free, we couldn’t get such concessions from them.

This is at least logical argument, in fact, it’s not totally off the wall (like some things OCLC is saying or implying)

It just happens, in my opinion, not to be true.

1) The members would get so much more benefit from freeing the data, even if that means concessions can’t be extracted from (eg) Google for using it. The weight of history suggests that open-ness gives us more benefits. And how much money members have historically invested into OCLC is pretty much irrelevant for deciding what serves our needs best going forward with what our investment has wrought.

2) The members do not trust OCLC to get concessions that actually sufficiently _benefit the members_ instead of benefitting OCLC Inc. And OCLC is not acting in a way to raise that level of trust.

For instance. Yeah, there is a link to Worldcat on Google Books. But you know what would really serve my interests in serving my patrons? A link directly to my catalog, and more importantly directly to my link resolver. (See, link resolver as electronic front door).

But, okay, you can eventually click through WorldCat to get to my catalog (way too many clicks), or even link resolver (way too many clicks, and only if you are on campus). But OCLC insists on leaving a Worldcat Banner at the top. Getting in the way of my interfaces. How does that insistence on a Worldcat Banner serve my needs, instead of just OCLC Inc’s?  Only if you buy that “What’s good for OCLC is good for the members” a priori.

OCLC could work on having the worldcat link take the user directly to my library, with the information already in Worldcat (and the Worldcat Registry). OCLC could have insisted Google put a link resolver link on there too, using the same link resolver registration and preferences they already have for Google Scholar. But OCLC’s interests aren’t in dis-intermediating OCLC and getting the user directly to her own libraries services, they are instead in inserting OCLC Inc. in the click chain, and ensuring OCLC itself stays there (see the enforced Worldcat Banner).  Again, this serves members interests only if you believe a priori that “What’s good for OCLC is good for the members.”

If you free the data, then dozens, hundreds, thousands of people can find innovative things to do with it, each library can try to do what’s best for it’s users, making different decisions, seeing how it works out, learning from the best practices of others. If you do your best to monopolize the data within OCLC, then we are at OCLC’s mercy, hoping what they decide about the interests of OCLC Inc. really does match what our users need, waiting patiently for them to have the resources to supply that thing, and if it’s not perfect, waiting only for them to try a second version. If it’s open, lots of people can be trying different things in parallel.

These are the kinds of things that need to be debated and questioned and decided upon by OCLC’s members and their representatives. That’s what it means to be a cooperative. For this to happen, OCLC has to start acting like a cooperative, and our administrators have to start accepting their responsibility for thinking about these things and guiding OCLC. Sometimes, the member/owners of a cooperative may decide that what’s best for their collective interests is not what’s best for OCLC Inc. as a vendor.  So be it.


3 thoughts on “A logical OCLC argument

  1. Jonathan:

    This is absolutely a brilliant post, well-argued and right on target. Your posts on this issue should be required reading, and I congratulate you for your willingness to delve into this in depth and issue your challenge at the end.

    This issue is incredibly important to libraries, as we consider how we can and MUST innovate at every level, not just sit back and expect OCLC and/or LC to do it all. To do that, we all need access to the same data, freely available and linkable–otherwise the innovation we need will be stifled and we’ll all collapse together into a well of despond and irrelevance.

    Ultimately, OCLC will only survive as a “Web Organization” (as they profess to want to be) if they can figure out how to make their nut on services, not data. I don’t see any evidence that they’re doing any of that hard thinking, sadly. Heck, they haven’t even said anything about what they intend to do about RDA–and there’s certainly a plethora of services around that transition that they could do, and most likely do well. As it is, they may miss the boat, and few of us will be surprised.

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