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It Ain’t Easy Being OCLC

An interesting kerfuffle has been brewing in LibraryLand.

Some library organizations have been using alternative utilities to catalog their resources, and now one of them expects their intended savings to be wiped out because OCLC wants to charge them a higher rate for batchloading than for those of us who pay OCLC for cataloging.

Meanwhile, a trustee, Larry Alford, has been making pleas for OCLC members to stay within the fold (see letter, linked in news article), warning us of no less than “apocalyptic” disaster if we subdivide LibraryLand into bibliographic duchees. Alford says he seeks our “advice and comment.” Since he has been taking his case to the public, I’ll respond in kind.

Also, to spice things up, an anonymous crank has been emailing librarians behind the scenes to remind them that OCLC’s trustees are fairly well compensated (you knew that, right? Alford got $55,000 in 2008 $58,000 in 2007, according to the IRS) and that Jay Jordan is paid very well. To which I respond in threefold: I assume that crank has a dog in this fight; trustee compensation is a complex issue; and I don’t care for Jay Jordan himself, but I would hope the leader of the One True Database would be well-compensated.

Regarding trustee compensation, the first issue is not whether trustees get a perk for what is probably a fairly significant work effort, but whether a paid trustee is the most strategic choice for a “hearts and mind” campaign by OCLC. Here’s a hint: No. The likelihood of a paid trustee changing my mind about OCLC’s business model is roughly equal to the likelihood of Anita Bryant selling me a glass of orange juice. OCLC needs to start using “real people” to tell the OCLC story. If it can’t find any, then it needs to figure out why that is.

The other problem with trustee compensation is that it further widens the gulf between OCLC and its membership. It doesn’t matter if the trustees sincerely believe that compensation has no influence; the perception is still there. Whether they feel close to us, we do not feel close to them.

Alford’s letter reinforces this sense of neglect when he suggests that OCLC is a truly healthy democracy–an opinion held by very few librarians I speak with at all levels of importance in LibraryLand, from small, poor libraries to ARLs. Alford asks:

Do we, as librarians, want to turn over WorldCat and the maintenance of the metadata that provides access to our library collections to companies that operate for the benefit and profit of their shareholders and their owners, or do we want to keep it as a part of the nonprofit membership collaborative governed by a librarian majority?

“Governed by a library majority?” I don’t want a for-profit company managing our content (oh wait… it’s too late; MPOW is SaaS-hosted), but this is a false dichotomy. OCLC has modified its membership participation model, but let’s not pretend the new organization has taken more than a few hesitant steps toward member enfranchisement. I have far more shareholder power in a publicly-held corporation than I do with OCLC. I want to change that, but that’s where it is now.

One other issue lurking beneath the surface is why libraries are straying from the fold, and what we, OCLC, should do about it. (I may be a disenfranchised voice, but I’m talking anyway.) Consider how much MSU was really saving. If they thought batchloading would be about $6,000 and OCLC wants to charge $31,000, and that wipes out a year’s savings, then the savings would be about $25,000. [See comments for clarifications about costs.]

To understand whether $25k [or $81k] is a lot or a little would require more information about the MSU library budget and services. In a normal year,  my take is it’s not that much for a library that size. But MSU, like many places, is in a dire place this year financially, so let’s assume that situationally, it’s a lot, and that there wasn’t any other place to find this money.

I understand the temptation of low-cost anything, but I think–and this is one conversation we all need to have, because what we think is important–that on behalf of the membership, OCLC was obligated to respond. Whether it responded correctly is another question.

I assume that the cost of any OCLC transaction doesn’t translate to its literal cost; my take, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that this cost is part of a complex cost model based on incentives to maintain good data, share resources, and so forth.

My assumption also includes the idea, whether correct or not, that the cost model for batch loading is intentionally priced very low  to encourage libraries to ensure their records are correctly synced with OCLC; it’s why the first batchload is free. With a competing utility available, batchloading appears to be a convenient end run around OCLC’s cataloging costs–but it was not designed for that purpose, and shouldn’t be used that way. That’s my assumption, at any rate, and I’d like to hear hear any other conversations around that.

This leads to this question: if organizations are having trouble staying within the fold (or perceive they have problems doing so), how should OCLC respond? (Alford, to his credit, asked that question, more or less.)  I really can’t imagine giving MSU on its own a break on the cost of OCLC cataloging, given that whatever a dire scenario is for MSU is normal operating procedures at Peanut U.

Offering differential batchloading costs is a form of punishment that hurts all of us if those libraries give up on OCLC altogether (though how much we are hurt is an interesting question), and it also paints OCLC as the big gorilla whose response is to simply put its competitors out of business. But there is nothing ethically wrong with redoing a cost model to offer libraries relief and encourage participation (and further increase the size of WorldCat).

For the next year or two, should OCLC consider lowering cataloging prices for everyone–which would mean curtailing other efforts? Has that idea been on the table at all, or any idea like it? Or are there other avenues of relief to pursue?

To run with this idea just a little longer, assuming OCLC offered some form of fiscal incentive that was not as cheap as Sky River but offered some relief, the question to those libraries tempted to use alternative services would then be whether they are willing to help underwrite the cost of an international membership organization or whether they are simply looking for the cheapest way to catalog. This parallels the arguments we make when we argue for the value of libraries: that we are more than the sum of the books on our shelves; we are a suite of services that enrich our users and connect them within the global information ecology. Some stakeholders agree, and others think we are a waste of money.  Like Alford, we are  the wrong people to be making the case for our services.

Note, batch loading would be unnecessary if we didn’t all have separate-but-equal databases to manage — a data model that must die, die, die. But for all the promise of web-scale management, we can’t kill that data model without trust in what comes next, and belief that we are in this together.

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  1. Miriam B. wrote:

    Thank you for laying this out. I was just about to start whining because coming in late on the story I couldn’t get a handle on it.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Peter Murray wrote:

    This starts to get to the core of one of my issues with OCLC. From their own public purpose page, it exists to “[reduce] the rate of rise of per-unit costs.” Although this may be just language semantics, that still implies that costs are rising — just at a lower rate. What I think would really benefit libraries in the aggregate is to reduce the real costs of library operations. Isn’t that the point of building out an activity to a larger scale?

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Meredith wrote:

    Great post, Karen — thanks so much for setting out the issues so clearly. I find most things with OCLC baffling, especially their pricing models.

    Maybe it’s just because I come from a small library where we agonize over $500 purchases, but it seems bizarre to me that Sky River would trust and libraries would switch vendors based on a “‘very informal’ quote of $0.23 per record” via phone. Are librarians really such poor businesspeople that we make cost-savings decisions based on such bad research? Or was that unnamed source backpeddling on something he or she had actually been touting to others as fact? It just sounds really strange to me.

    Also, it’s been a LONG time since I’ve heard any reference to Anita Bryant — nice analogy. ;-)

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Dave Whisenant wrote:

    Very interesting post. One of my beefs with OCLC lately has been their pricing model. When OCLC did away with their “pay-per-use” pricing structure several years ago, libraries began getting the raw end of the deal. Your annual subscription was based on your last 3 years activity when they made this your only pricing model option, and they told you as long as your level of activity didn’t increase by more than 20% your charges wouldn’t substantially increase. Unfortunately, the economy went south over the past few years and libraries of all sizes stopped purchasing as many materials. Less materials equals less cataloging equals less activity on OCLC for many. However, did anybody’s bills go down? Of course not. OCLC still gets paid.

    One of our colleges in your FPOW recently dropped their cataloging subscription with OCLC. Between buying less materials and receiving outsourced records from vendors, they rarely use OCLC for cataloging. Our internal statewide ILL system meets the majority of their resource sharing needs, so OCLC ILL usage was down. They asked OCLC to re-evaluate their level of activity for financial relief and OCLC refused. So they dropped their subscription. They kept their ILL access, for now.

    I can see a lot of small and medium-sized libraries going this route in the near future if something doesn’t change.

    Anyway, my two cents….

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Cliff Haka wrote:

    Just for clarification, the OCLC price quote of $31,000 to MSU was for 5 months, so that extrapolates to over $70,000 per year, which, if paid, would effectively eliminate most of the $80,000 of savings generated by our move to SkyRiver.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  6. I’ll make a note directly in the post, but factored across the various costs, basically they are pricing batchloading to eliminate cost-savings from using a competing utility, on a dollar-per-dollar basis. All they had to do to make that happen was look at Sky River’s pricing. I’d be curious to know at what point you’d consider the OCLC pricing good enough for your budget, and whether this is just about the money.

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  7. It’s the raw end of the deal now, because we’re in such pain across the board. When the economy picks up again, the subscription model will be advantageous. In fact, I would bet that the subscription model initially benefited most OCLC participants. I would not like to see a return to pay-as-you-go. But I would like to see OCLC more transparent and more responsive to what’s happening in libraries. They could be leveraging this massive downturn toward building OCLC loyalty.

    The subscription model has other advantages, particularly for smaller libraries… it’s like the cop I knew who would tell people he pulled over, “No, I don’t have a quota… I can issue as many tickets as I want!” It creates an incentive to contribute records. It’s also easy to manage: predictable, budgetable.

    Note that for MPOW, becoming a full OCLC member has tremendous benefits. Not the least of which is the right to chunk rocks at the OCLC board’s collective behind ;-)

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  8. Well, that may just be pragmatism. Actually, I’m glad OCLC is that direct.

    I frankly spend a lot of my time explaining why my goal is not to reduce the cost of library operations but to improve the quality of services. Not just in this job, either… for the last twenty years, it feels like. Maybe that’s because I’m a Democrat, and I believe in the taxation model. I LIKE paying taxes, when it results in schools and libraries and so forth.

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  9. Hmmm,sorry my replies are not inline! Hope the direction of my responses is clear.

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  10. Dave Whisenant wrote:

    I guess I just don’t see the OCLC side of this argument very well. I’ve been dealing with libraries who batchload their holdings for the past 15 years (between my present job and previous ones.) Batchloading has always been an option for libraries who do not catalog on OCLC but want to participate as group access members for ILL. And the cost for that service has been around $.23 per record. We currently have five colleges who don’t have OCLC cataloging privileges, but who send additions and deletions to OCLC once a year. Until recently, they even received a credit for the deletions. These colleges do not have universal access to ILL. They can only borrow directly from a specific group of librarias, otherwise they must refer their request to the State Library. And maybe that is the rub: maybe MSU wants full access to resource sharing which only comes with being a full participatory member. I always feel that I don’t have the full story on both sides of this controversy.

    As far as the issue of whether OCLC services are “worth it,” I acknowledge that my view is somewhat skewed as I work in a shared system environment where most of our libraries are either finding records from other colleges on our system or getting them from a vendor via outsourcing. If I worked in a single system academic library, my OCLC connection might be much more valuable.

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  11. Dave, yes, the view from a university library with a tiny collection and no current means of sharing resources beyond OCLC ILL (and we haven’t begun doing that yet!) is very different from a library in a 28-member system on a shared catalog. Essentially YPOW is a self-contained cloud.

    Monday, March 8, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  12. MJ Ray wrote:

    I know an organisation which asked how to join OCLC. No reply yet, as far as I know. The member/democracy really needs some attention.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  13. Doug wrote:

    I’m just waiting for the “who’s Anita Bryant?” comment…

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

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