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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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