I don’t actually want to destroy OCLC

So, it’s come to my attention that some people think I’ve been attacking OCLC lately, or am out to get it. I’m actually not, I just say what I see going on, but my rather blunt language has certainly made me enemies before, unintentionally. But I don’t consider OCLC an enemy.

Lots of Good Stuff

I really like the idea of a vendor and cooperative cataloging infrastructure owned by a cooperative of libraries, owned by the library community. It’s a great idea. I try to look for ways to incorporate OCLC services in my interfaces, such my recent inclusion of links to WorldCat Identities. I’m not sure how valuable this is to my patrons (it might be, I’m not sure), but it doesn’t take up much screen real estate, it was easy to implement, and it’s cool—but something just kind of cool from another vendor probably wouldn’t have given me enough motivation to include it.  I also include ‘find in another library’ links to worldcat.org in my interfaces, and am working on enhancing this functionality using the Worldcat APIs. If there are two similar services available at similar costs (or lack of cost) one from a for-profit proprietary vendor and one from WorldCat, I’ll choose the WorldCat one every time, because I’d rather support the non-profit cooperatively controlled vendor over te for-profit one.

OCLC provides a lot of very valuable services, obviously begining with it’s infrastructure for inter-library loan. All of the new WorldCat APIs are immensely valuable, generally really well-executed, exactly what we need to set the stage for the future. The open worldcat.org website/app is very valuable to OCLC members, especially when they added the IP-address-to-location stuff a year or so ago. I know lots of really talented people, motivated by improving the social value of libraries, working at OCLC.  And, in theory, a cooperatively-controlled cooperative cataloging infrastructure is a very good thing, we wouldn’t want to let a for-profit vendor end up getting monopoly control of this important infrastructure–or it’s product, the shared metadata corpus.

But the Value is only in the Use

My problem that I’ve been talking about lately is specifically about OCLC itself trying to monopolize access to our collective cataloging corpus. We don’t want OCLC monopolizing this any more than we’d want any other vendor to be in the position to. This attempt at monopolization inhibits desperately needed innovation. There are many new things we need to be figuring out to do with this corpus. We need many different entities experimenting with adding value to this corpus, with as few barriers as possible, the more the better.

Our cooperative cataloging system and practices are horribly broken, and need to be fundamentally changed in several ways (we could talk about details more in another post), some of which we’ll figure out only by trying other things first, some succesful some not. No doubt people within OCLC are working on improving and fixing the cooperative cataloging process too, perhaps even along the same lines I’d like–but we can’t afford to have only one organization, with finite resources and it’s own internal priorities, working on this. We need to encourage as many entities as possible to be trying different things. Ex Libris, LibLime, OCLC, University of Rochester XC project, the Internet Archive, even LibraryThing. Anyone willing to invest resources in investigating these issues and assembling solutions, we should remove all the barriers we can to such experimentation and investment.

Of course, nothing is stopping someone from setting up a new shared/cooperative metadata store–starting from a blank slate, re-creating all records from scratch. We know this isn’t feasible.

Our collective endowment of our cooperative cataloging corpus is indeed an enormously valuable inheritance, the result of the historical labors of many librarians. But it’s value is only in use. The more it is used, the more valuable it is to us. Limiting access to it only limits it’s value.

Trying to enforce monopoly control of access to this corpus is not good for OCLC members, and it’s not good for libraries.

Might I be wrong?

So that’s my argument. What are the arguments to the contrary, which I’ll try to interpret as generously as possible?  I tried to respond to one in a previous post: That the enforcement of monopoly control allows OCLC to demand concessions from other parties to benefit libraries. I don’t agree, but it’s an argument.

Another argument might be simple disagreement that this monopoly control has any significant negative impact, that it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t heard this argument made, but some probably hold it. Of course I don’t agree, as I argued above.

Another argument that (if I am interpreting correctly) I heard recently was that, yes, okay, the monopoly control might have negative impact, but it is only this monopoly control that makes OCLC sustainable, and a sustainable cooperative vendor that provides all those useful services OCLC does is enough positive benefit to outweigh any negative impact. If that really is true, I think we’re in trouble.

And to be clear, the new OCLC policy is not nearly as bad as it could be, was significantly improved in in between the original ‘preview’ and the final release. The actual terms are an improvement from what came before–but changing ‘guidelines’ to a policy/license they’d like to contractually oblige anyone that touches the data to–that’s not insignificant. And one test will be in how liberal or conservative OCLC is in granting permission to use the corpus, in how often they decide important initiatives are to be prohibited because they “substantially replicate the function, purpose, and/or size of WorldCat.”–although honestly, were I a third-party, I’d be reluctant to contractually agree to any limits on my use of data that is probably not protected by intellectual property in the first place.

What should we expect from our cooperative?

At the last ELUNA (Ex Libris user’s group) meeting, Ex Libris presented a vision for their own shared metadata store as part of the URM vision, to provide the kind of cooperative cataloging environment we need. Several audience members got to the microphone that this would be okay only if the data in that store were not monopolized by Ex Libris, if it were shared freely–we can not afford to have our metadata we create be imprisoned in one organization’s vault, under their control and not ours. (In private conversation with Ex Libris folks, I emphatically agreed with these comments). (Hey Ex Libris, you’ve been talking about this at ELUNA for two years, why is there nothing on your web site about it?)

Should we expect any less of our cooperative non-profit vendor than we expect of a for-profit enterprise? We should expect more. When Oren Beit-Arie, on stage, said that Ex Libris had no problems with this, and was intensely interested in figuring out ways to share this metadata, in both directions, with any other entities who were willing and could provide the technical infrastructure to do so–of course the proof is in the tasting of the pudding, talk is just talk, but what does it say that few of us could express confidence that OCLC would be such a willing partner if Ex Libris were genuinely interested?

Any organization or institution, started with a certain mission or goals, has an inevitable tendency, as it grows larger and older,  to instead act mainly to preserve itself, to increase it’s size and influence and income.  It is practically the religion of American capitalism that this is in fact equivalent to acting ethically, that when every institution acts solely to increase it’s profits that we all in the end benefit. But in fact, this isn’t always so. The promise of a cooperative, as opposed to a for-profit enterprise, is precisely in having a mission that supercedes increasing profits, a mission to the interests of the cooperative’s members, enforced by the members control of the cooperative.

It is up to the administrators of OCLC member organizations to think strategically about what their interests are, and to hold our cooperative vendor to acting in them.  Having a succesful cooperatively-controlled cooperative cataloging infrastructure and automation vendor is too important for libraries to allow it to continue down a mistaken path.


3 thoughts on “I don’t actually want to destroy OCLC

  1. Very will put. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we should expect more from a non-profit cooperative then we should form a for profit vendor. Also, I really believe you are correct when you say:

    “The more it is used, the more valuable it is to us. Limiting access to it only limits it’s value.”

    As I have said before “I believe that by truly opening up WorldCat to (at least non-commercial) use, libraries will be better able to reach patrons and the value of WorldCat will rise, not go down and “destroy the cooperative.” The role of libraries is to provide access to information, not restrict it.”

  2. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with contemplating the destruction of OCLC. All good things must end eventually, though I am not wishing for it right now. It’ s not unlike contemplating the elimination of reference librarians or the end of anything else in libraries. We have had these discussions before, so there is nothing wrong with it. It begins with the question “what will libraries do without….?” So what would libraries do if OCLC decides to some day drop the cooperative model in favor of becoming a full-fledged for-profit company? What will libraries do if OCLC were absorbed by some much larger entity? What’s our back-up plan? Would libraries re-create another cooperative? Could we re-create another cooperative? I mean, OCLC started from a few university libraries. Could it be done again today?

  3. Should librarians resent the fact that OCLC came up with these restrictions on data *after* librarians built the database for them? Yeah, I think so. What is the legal basis that gives OCLC ownership of this data anyway? I think anything the library community can do to support the emergence of alternatives to OCLC’s hegemon is a useful bit of futureproofing on our part

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