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OCLC in the headlights

A brief update before heading to Apple HQ for the first-ever meetup of NorCal  SCELC members. I have more to say about OCLC (including that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the OCLC board of trustees–I don’t know how anyone got that idea), but not much time to do it in.

Yesterday I met with a group of writers who at the end of our informal lunch asked me, so what do I think about what’s happening in libraries? And a heartbeat later began talking about their Kindles and iPads. So when we talk about OCLC, III, and Skyriver, we need awareness that the crisis moment extends far beyond a dustup between two companies and a nonprofit; we are in a moment, or perhaps a series of moments, that are decisive for librarianship.

To write a little more about OCLC’s growing edges and its unique opportunities, I have been trying to wrap my head around how to phrase my comments. As usual, Joe Lucia, library director at Villanova University, offered a succinct perspective: “The key development we need to see within OCLC to get past this is a sustainable business framework that positions OCLC as a non-proprietary partner in support of common resources and the intellectual commons that is at the heart of the library mission. Perhaps this is a teachable moment in which we can re-activate a serious conversation about how that might happen.”

I’ve said before that OCLC sometimes acts as if it doesn’t understand the work it’s in. It’s the services, not the data. It’s also true that librarians too often undervalue OCLC’s services and too often do not understand that an organization’s bottom line is an equation that needs to include the resources (as in money and people) for innovation. The cost of an ILL transaction, for example, includes the past, present, and future costs of the future of ILL. It cannot stay as it was in the beginning, because our services have changed. It needs a “sustainable business framework.”

But simultaneously, we do need — and now is the moment — to have a “serious conversation.” A conversation about the composition of OCLC’s governance, engagement of membership, transparency, and future directions. For example, I am less bothered by the simple fact of trustee compensation than I am by what the compensation suggests, which is a lack of trust in member engagement.

OCLC members can at any time have these conversations. We don’t need to wait for OCLC. We ARE OCLC. If we choose not to have these conversations, then don’t blame OCLC.

Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. Karen Coyle wrote:

    Karen – It has been possible for the members to have that conversation throughout the last few years’ crisis over the record use policy. Yet the conversation has not happened, and the record use policy was approved.

    What do you think is keeping that conversation from happening?

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. Rick Mason wrote:

    I have been having some of the same thoughts, and posted a “conversation starter” idea the other day:

    The problem, as I see it, is that OCLC is in *both* the data governance and the library services work.

    Most of OCLC’s issues seem to derive from their applying library services logic to their data governance role. If they were applying governance logic to their library services ventures, they would have different, but equally serious issues.

    OCLC does fantastic work, and all of it should be encouraged. If the organization didn’t exist, we would need to create it in order for libraries to thrive. I fully agree that this is a conversation worth having.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Karen, you’re absolutely correct about the fact that OCLC doesn’t understand the business it’s in. The services are what they should be focusing on, not who owns the data. Until they ‘get’ that, and start having those conversations, everyone in the library community loses.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  4. That’s really my next blog post :)

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathy wrote:

    The reason there has been no conversation is that those who would have it could not be more passive. My library director sits and observes all the wrong doing going on, and follows along as would a sheep in a flock.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Rick, I think your post is a very good start. Kudos.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Kathy, I’ll respond to this in my longer post, but one rule I have is that you need to pick and choose your battles.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Joe Montibello wrote:

    I’m out of my league here (K.G. And Karen C. are two of the people whose opinions I always want to hear on things library-related), but I have to mention something. There was some public discussion of this issue, when they asked for comments, on the “Community Forum.”

    My last comment on that forum, which went unanswered, included this:

    “[...]Could Worldcat be made available by agreement to competitors (Skyriver is the one that comes to my mind, but I’m sure there are others) in a reciprocal, trusting way that could benefit all three parties (the OCLC cooperative, the competitor, and libraries)?”

    I’m guessing that the answer is no.

    That forum is still available at

    Friday, August 6, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  9. Joe Montibello wrote:

    P.S. I want to underline Rick’s post:

    …because it’s a great idea.

    Friday, August 6, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  10. voordeligste wrote:

    you’re absolutely correct about the fact that OCLC doesn’t understand the business it’s in. The services are what they should be focusing on, not who owns the data. Until they ‘get’ that, and start having those conversations, everyone in the library community loses.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

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