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OCLC’s Crisis Moment

Innovative Interfaces and its joined-at-the-hip cataloging-company SkyRiver have teamed up to sue OCLC for monopolistic practices. I read the complaint end-to-end today and you can read my somewhat tame, won’t-you-be-my-neighbor assessment on the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

My more passionate, from-the-heart assessment: OCLC is a galumphing behemoth, often clumsily distant from its own kith and kin, with chronic governance issues, a deficit of social acumen, and a palpable mistrust of its membership. But OCLC is our behemoth–yours and mine. If we are going to have a worldwide catalog, it’s going to be a behemoth. Better it be a behemoth that needs to be not-so-gently bumped toward transparency and member participation than a for-profit behemoth in it for itself.

Not only that, but I found myself growing indignant over III’s repeated claim that OCLC users are forced to take part in development of their own products. If there is one solid value I acquired during my time working for a vendor supporting open-source software, it is that participating in the development of the tools I use is a strong positive (and I have yet to feel compelled to participate in product design–if anything, we have to ingratiate ourselves into the process). Co-design is good for me and it is good for the developers and it is good for LibraryLand.  What exactly is III saying–that we are too stupid to participate in the design of the tools we use?

My more pragmatic assessment: when you see a lawsuit over competing technologies, you can be sure some technology is jumping the shark. III (let’s be clear who’s behind this lawsuit–they have some nerve hiding behind SkyRiver’s skirts) needs to stop OCLC, fast, before everyone figures out that because OCLC accidentally created an international cloud-based service forty years ago, OCLC now has an inherent advantage because its technologies are based on web-scale services.

Let me put it another way. If you were designing a library catalog and a resource-sharing service today (or any web-based service, for that matter), what would predominate in your design principles? Would you require users to create discrete local silos duplicating common information that had to be constantly synced and groomed between the two databases, and then ask them to invest far more time in linking these silos through more applications and standards (and, ahem, money)?

That is how the traditional library catalog is designed. I have records in the cloud, and I have records in my local database, and I spend far too much time muddling between the two data sets, and making these data sets coordinate with other data sets, and spending money so that data set A can communicate with data set B. Why do I need local data? The answer is, I don’t, or at least, once OCLC gets its web-based catalog system working, I won’t.

III also fears Navigator, OCLC’s resource-sharing software, and rightly so. Would you design a resource-sharing system as a closed loop (an *expensive* closed loop), so that discovery outside this loop required a fresh search and knowledge of how to conduct it, or would you leverage the ability to make discovery a smooth ripple from the user’s home library through a consortium and on to a global catalog?  That’s a no-brainer. MPOW is a proud pioneer in the SCELC Camino project, which is beginning with a handful of private university libraries but will soon grow beyond that.

I know OCLC doesn’t come cheap, and for a nonprofit, the question of restraint always emerges. The lawsuit makes for lip-smacking reading, with its allegations of high-rolling baksheesh to university librarians (when OCLC visited us two weeks ago, we bought them pizza… clearly I missed the baksheesh memo) and other insinuations of a nonprofit scooping up revenue from poor little librarians and tossing it at its own ongoing bacchanal. I doubt OCLC’s response will be “back atcha,” since III is a for-profit, private company. I’ll let OCLC explain its way out of the allegations, but at least there are standards for nonprofits, and as members, we can ask reasonable questions.

Setting aside the question of III’s own corporate purity, my final question is this. How did SkyRiver set its pricing? It bills itself as a cataloging service, so I wouldn’t expect it to follow OCLC’s example in investing in research and development for 21st-century library technologies that hold out the promise of liberating us from arcane, expensive, time-consuming practices. But still… how is SkyRiver’s pricing based?  Was it designed to be too affordable to resist? For that matter, why did III even get into the cataloging business in the first place? Out of the kindness of its heart?

It’s funny, but after reading the complaint end to end, it had the opposite reaction it intended. I felt defensive of OCLC, and proud of what it has done to date. Like family, OCLC can be infinitely annoying, and yet yield surprising satisfaction. When I engage with OCLC–contributing records, sharing resources, even designing resource-sharing services–I feel part of something bigger than I am, something that can be complex and daunting but also highly rewarding.

I don’t want the services I provide to be reduced to a simple equation of what’s cheapest at the moment. That’s the WalMart mentality. I need to be a good steward of our fiscal resources, but sometimes that requires we spend a little more (like buying iMacs instead of low-end junk) to get what we want (reliable quality service to our users). I certainly would be chary of a for-profit service challenging a not-for-profit service strictly over the issue of price, and I hope you would be as well. I know what WalMart has done to small-town America, and I would hate to see that done to LibraryLand.

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