some comments on OCLC

In response to a thread on NGC4Lib arguing about whether how many records are in worldcat is a good way to judge OCLC’s value proposition. (A kind of weird thing to argue about, yeah? They’re really just arguing about whether OCLC is or at least might be a good value proposition, to an individual library member/customer, or to the aggregate library community as a whole)

I’m not a lover or a hater, i haven’t drinken the kool aid, but i’m skeptical of either absolute answer with certainty.

Running (eg) $5 million of servers has a bunch of other costs associated with it: physical plant, power, bandwidth, additional hardware for failover, staff, etc.  I am not in the business of running server farms, I couldn’t tell you what multiple of $5 million gets you the total cost.

But I get Tim Spalding’s point, and think he is probably right, that machine costs are not the majority of OCLC’s expenditures, even including associated  costs as above.  The majority of OCLC’s expenditures (and we could probably look at a public report somewhere instead of guessing) are probably staff, same as most organizations, I’d guess same as LibraryThing. (I’d guess there is not a public report we could look at to confirm that guess for LibraryThing)

Tim picks a particularly unimpressive list of hypothetical examples for those staff costs: “customer hand-holding,report-writing, marketing, sales, lawyers, consultants and executives,” — Aren’t almost all of those people, the lawyers and salesmen, consultants and middle managers,  on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “first ship” that society tricks into going out into oblivion?).

But other OCLC staff (and the physical plants to put them in, etc) activities/costs include cataloging and metadata creation, metadata normalization (both manual and automated, which takes staff time to write), other software development (not just worldcat, but the other OCLC software, including software to facillitate ILL, one of OCLC’s core services, also that metadata normalization software, software to exchange metadata in both directions with third parties libraries and not (and the staff to negotiate, facilitate, and maintain those relationships); the various APIs they’re turning out; other R&D; participation in standards-making, and probably many other productive tasks even I don’t know about.

They do provide all sorts of useful stuff. They also charge all sorts of lots of money to lots of libraries.

There are also a lot of things I wish they’d innovate faster on, and some at OCLC are certainly trying, but that takes staff resources too, perhaps more than they have, although I also think it takes a willingness to break with the past even if it pisses off your customers that I’m not sure OCLC has — and it would be a risk to try doing that, hoping you do it RIGHT enough to not piss off your customers in the end — which takes some good staff resources to do. But anyway, the customer isn’t always right, leadership, innovation, and the stewardship that OCLC professes to provide all take a willingness to drag your members into the future, not stick with the lowest common denominator safest business model “innovator’s dillemma“; I’m not sure OCLC has the capability to do this what we need most of all; I’m not sure that throwing more money at them would give them the organizational capability.

Is what OCLC provides a good value? I really don’t know, there is no obvious answer to me. Heck, I don’t even know what different libraries pay for OCLC, but even on a collective aggregate level the answer of whether it’s a good value is still not obvious to me.

Is a count of how many records are in worldcat a good way to decide if it’s a good value? No, agreed with Tim.

Should OCLC be trying to convince us it is a good value with real info and not propaganda marketing, threats, guilt, or tugs on heartstrings?  Yes.

Have they convinced most of the folks I know? No, although most of us are not convinced of the opposite either, we’re skeptical but not committed.

Are the bulk of decision-makers who decide whether to send OCLC money convinced? I have no idea, although clearly there are some chinks in the armor with MSU and what-all.

Has OCLC better convince them, and possibly change their costs/services such to make it obviously convincing, if they want to survive?  Indeed.

Can you trust SkyRiver/III’s marketing propaganda on whether it’s a good value? No. Can you trust OCLC’s marketting propaganda or attempts to induce guilt? Nope.

Does OCLC, as an organization, legitimately want to survive by providing an obviously good value — instead of by ensuring monopoly lock-in and exorbitant cost-of-switching (which certainly seems to be part of their business plan at present), or by counting on libraries feeling duty-bound to support OCLC regardless of the value proposition it offers?  I sure hope so, but I’m scared that many OCLC decision-makers may not see it that way.

Monopoly, lock-in, and ensuring high cost-of-switching can indeed be the way to a succesful money-making business. (The good guys don’t always win, not in the short or long terms, not all the time. Although the guys on top probably won’t be forever, no matter who they are).  But a monopoly business built on such (overt or subtle) coercion is definitely not in the library community interest that OCLC claims to be stewarding, not short-, medium-, or long-term.


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