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OCLC’s policy: Train, stop, cried the constable on the rails

Train Speed Quite a few people have asked me my take on OCLC’s new policy about record-sharing. I’ve been quiet on this for three reasons: I’m insanely busy, I am still digesting my thoughts, and I have been concerned that whatever I say may reflect back on MPOW (My Place Of Work) — though no one at MPOW has so much as whispered this suggestion.

For those trying to get up to speed on viewpoints for this issue, American Libraries has a good news article that links to key resources.  However, my favorite analysis is actually an elegantly-written article on RDA by Diane Hillmann that in passim has excellent commentary on OCLC’s policy.

This is as good a time as any to announce that I’m struggling to pull together a podcast series (time at the moment being the great muncher of all future-subjunctive projects) and one of the first topics is this policy — to let key voices speak for themselves. (OCLC has been invited.) These podcasts are planned to be short and thought-provoking… and I’m trying to script them in advance, get a little music, and so forth.

All that said…

Caveats in mind, these are my thoughts… and  these are strictly my thoughts; MPOW is too busy with migrations and development to sit around worrying about the Big O.

OCLC has made a policy clarification that in the short run is a perfectly reasonable claim intended to protect the interests of its members and the body of data accumulated under its aegis. In this intellectual-property model, you are a yogurt-maker. I am your distributor. I charge you for this service, and if someone else tries to take your yogurt from my warehouses or steal it from the trucks that deliver your yogurt to stores, I set my dogs after them.

In a capitalist society, as long as we’re talking about yogurt, this model could continue ad infinitum (unless yogurt production were nationalized). However, on the web, many cost models have morphed from data ownership to data service.

I have long maintained that OCLC doesn’t quite understand the business it is in. They think they are selling yogurt, when they are providing a (hopefully valued) service.

The very fact that OCLC is making this claim — when as far as I know, there has been no member groundswell begging them to do so — points to how aware they are that the spectre of endless legal hassle is the only levee shored up against a massive and disruptive sea-change to how LibraryLand shares and manages bibliographic data (assuming the Big O to be the de facto mass-catalog-of-record).

In that sense, OCLC is a police officer running onto the train tracks, waving his arms and shouting, “Train, stop!”

In the short term, OCLC can enforce business as usual.  Most members in the trenches aren’t up in arms, probably because no one has built a compelling narrative explaining why they should care (at least to the point of taking action), and many have built business practices around OCLC’s services that largely serve them well, and at the moment, they do not have the time or need to reexamine these practices.

Yet many people who participate in record “sharing” with OCLC have an ambivalent relationship with the Big O, and (OCLC’s claims notwithstanding) this policy reinforces their suspicions that OCLC is often acting more in its own, quasi-corporate interests than on behalf of its members. In that sense, OCLC may have staved off minor inroads from inconsequential “commercial” interests (those evil vendors, trying to ply us with tools such as LibraryThing) at the price of undermining their persona as a benevolent data czar.

OCLC now has a brief window of opportunity to rethink its cost model, but — ironically, for an organization known for its excellent reports and symposia exhorting our profession to embrace change — rather than developing new revenue models that could protect both OCLC and the many libraries it serves — it is using this time trying to prevent the future. OCLC, of all organizations, should know that the leadership truism, “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way,” does not accommodate a fourth option of running in place.

Furthermore, the brief 11-day comment period, held during a time in which the whole world’s attention was trained on the economic meltdown and the U.S. presidential campaign, suggests that OCLC didn’t think it needed more member input than it already had.

I really don’t believe OCLC was avoiding member input. The backpedaling and rapid explanations from OCLC suggest they were caught by surprise. Instead, I suspect that within the concrete mountain of OCLC decision-making, they — an organization born in a library and designed by library leaders — thought they knew what members wanted and were taking prudent steps on their behalf — a historical decision that in a decade or so may in retrospect seem almost poignant.

(Thanks to Flickr user scheng_fui for licensing the photo for re-use.)

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  1. Karen:

    Thanks for the compliments on my article, and many in return for this blog post, which is as clear-sighted and rational as anything I’ve read on the subject (plus, of course, very well-written).

    I think the underlay of sadness I hear in this piece is perfectly appropriate, and something I feel as well. OCLC has access to so many good strategic thinkers–why are they making such a mess of their strategies in this area? Why are they so surprised at the negative (and ANGRY) reactions? I wish I knew.

    Saturday, December 13, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  2. You’re welcome! I’m mortified I spelled your name wrong (I just corrected it).

    Yeah, they hired the best and the brightest… and marched them off a cliff.

    Saturday, December 13, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  3. OCLC used to be us, but they seem like a lot of other corporations now. I actually love a lot of the things they are doing, but I think they are trying too much to out-Google Google.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  4. Jessamyn wrote:

    The thing that has surprised me most about this is how little it seemed that OCLC was expecting the push-back on this move. While it’s certainly their right to shore up their policy, in this age of openness and sharing — with OCLC being one of the big cheerleaders — it seems obvious to me that this move would have some downsides and detractors and not just people like LibraryThing whose business model depends on access to shared records. Their responses have looked more like back-pedalling than confident assured replies. Considering their status as a “membership organization” they’re not being very clear on who in the membership benefits from this.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  5. Jessamyn, exactly. What gets me the most is they have pulled in some of the best and the brightest from LibraryLand, and as Frank Rich recently observed in the NYT (writing about the Kennedy administration), that’s no protection from bad decisions.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Rob Styles wrote:


    Great post, but the yoghurt analogy misses one of the most key points – records ain’t yoghurt.

    We allow distributors of yoghurt to “release the dogs” on thieves becuase yoghurt is a rival good. That means if I take it then you are left without it. Records are a digital, and therefore non-rival good. Everyone can have a copy and OCLC would still have them. They don’t get “used up”!

    Like you say, though, they don’t understand the business they’re in, or at least not the one their members need them to be in.


    Monday, December 15, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  7. Rob, good clarification. I realized after I wrote the post that I had packed a lot of issues and assumptions in the phrase, “many cost models have morphed from data ownership to data service.” That’s a whole book, if not a PhD. ;-)

    Monday, December 15, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  8. Amy Ranger wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, and the link to Diane’s article, which was a pleasure to read and digest after wading through the angry messages on AUTOCAT. It feels as though everything is lining up for a “perfect storm” in library-land: changes in technology, rules, and how we’ll pay for it all may come to a head in 2009.

    I’m sure that OCLC just wants to keep the milk flowing from the cash cow of bibliographic services; a lot of people make nice salaries in Dublin, Ohio. But you know what they say about freedom — it’s just a word for nothing left to lose.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Richard Huffine wrote:

    Karen – Thanks, as always, for bringing your skills as a writer and your insights as a world-class librarian to this issue…

    But don’t you think that OCLC might actually have a grander plan behind this move? I have for some time thought that OCLC was preparing to challenge the ILS world with a Worldcat Local that included a circulation module.

    Might they be planning to introduce services that rival and compete with the systems we are all using to manage these shared records? Wouldn’t one think that Open Source is a key threat to such a plan in their minds?

    It all boils down to the critical question of why we have catalogs now and in the future… if it is to share, then OCLC’s current model will work… but if sharing comes through new discovery tools, OCLC may see a real threat from catalog records harvested from others and unassociated with the resource sharing capabilities of OCLC.

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Richard, I missed your comment earlier and found it today while updating my post. I wonder about WorldCat Local (and I do have a dog in that fight, so note that too). It was all guns-a-blazin’ until it moved from theory to implementation. Hmmm…

    Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

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