Friday, April 24, 2009

The OCLC End Game

Two years ago I predicted what OCLC, the library-data organization, was after with it's WorldCat Local pilot program—"They're trying to convert a data licensing monopoly into a services monopoly." To illustrate, I changed the OCLC logo to the Death Star.

I was hardly alone in this speculation. But this concern was soon overtaken as OCLC brought forth it's Revised Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat® Records. The Policy, which turned a de facto data monopoly into a legally enforceable one, became a focus of intense debate in the library world. On the one side just about every library blogger with a keyboard, and eventually a review board at the ACRL/ARL, raised questions about the idea of anyone "owning" records meant for sharing and most frequently produced by government entities. On the other side, OCLC's defenders (in truth, mostly employees), talked of OCLC's "curation" of community content, of "protecting members' investment," of the "best interest of libraries," "OCLC's public purposes" and of WorldCat.com's role as an essential "switching mechanism" to local catalog (references: 1, 2, 3).

Yesterday, OCLC unveiled the end game that brings everything together. As reported by Marshall Breeding in Library Journal:
"This new project, which OCLC calls "the first Web-scale, cooperative library management service," will ultimately bring into WorldCat Local the full complement of functions traditionally performed by a locally installed integrated library system (ILS)."
The new service will be "free" to (paying) WorldCat First Search customers.

The move to "web scale" (OCLC-speak for "web") catalogs was an inevitable one, and is a good one. It's silly to have every library in the country running their own racks of servers. The economics of server architecture, equipment and systems administration make a single, hosted solution economically superior. It makes particular sense for OCLC. With a large percentage of world libraries' data sitting in servers for copy-cataloging purposes, a locally branded and faceted web-app. catalog was the next logical step.

The move casts new light on its Policy defenses. OCLC isn't "curating" library records; it's leveraging them to enter a new market. It wasn't "protecting members' investment," it was investing members' money, intended to support OCLC's core mission, to build a new service. WorldCat isn't a "switching mechanism" to local catalogs. It will replace them.

I'd love to follow them. I'd love to make a large-scale hosted library catalog. I think LibraryThing could do a lot better. OCLC is full of smart people, but it develops slowly and has shown singular inability to produce social features that anyone would want to use. I think Talis, AquaBrowser, LibLime and Equinox could do better too. And I think, if library programmers got together, they could make truly open community-run service—something others, like LibraryThing, could provide plug-ins for.

We'd all love to try, but we aren't allowed. According to the Policy, you can't build the sort of truly "web scale" database that would make such a project economically viable. Anything that replicates the "function, purpose and/or size" of WorldCat is not "Reasonable Use." Any library participating in such a venture would lose its right to OCLC-derived records, something that would literally shutter most public and all academic libraries in the country. When it comes to large-scale online catalogs, there can be no competing with OCLC.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with OCLC developing software. They do good work. I for one think WorldCat/WorldCat Local is a better product than most server-based OPACs.

But, now more than ever, OCLC must end its attempts to restrict and monopolize library data. It was ugly and unfair for OCLC to claim ownership over what is largely public data. It is obscene to leverage that data monopoly into a software monopoly.

Chess images from Flick users malias and furryscaly. Chess outside makes me think of the Deus' song Slow. What is it with Europeans and outdoor chess sets anyway?

Labels: , ,

12 Comments:

Blogger Katya said...

As a cataloger, I'm highly opposed to the idea of WorldCat local. We have far too many local subject headings, local uniform titles, and local notes which would all be lost if we switched over to using WorldCat records.

(Plus, UMaine is part of a very complicated consortial system which isn't fully supported by WorldCat local, so we don't want to lose those resources, either.)

4/24/2009 7:57 AM  
Blogger miker said...

The economics of server architecture, equipment and systems administration make a single, hosted solution economically superior.It sure does. Just ask any of these folks. Four Evergreen installations serve more than 350 libraries.

"This new project, which OCLC calls "the first Web-scale, cooperative library management service," will ultimately bring into WorldCat Local the full complement of functions traditionally performed by a locally installed integrated library system (ILS)."The first, eh? Since neither OCLC's nor Equinox's are yet complete, I call OCLC's offering at best second by more than a year.

Yes, I'm focusing on the parts that effect me and my business directly, but the conclusion I come to, in the end, is the same as yours, Tim -- that OCLC is crossing a scary line.

That line unfortunately smells (to this admittedly Open Source trained nose) all too familiar: Microsoft-style anti-competitive market leveraging. Here's to hoping they don't continue down that same road that leads to threatening their customers and competition with legal action not for the purpose of redressing a grievance but simply to effect financial or political pressure, committee stuffing to push through bad standards, and the like.

--
Mike Rylander
Equinox Software, Inc. / The Evergreen Experts, and a newly minted OCLC competitor

4/24/2009 8:43 AM  
Anonymous Ivy said...

>Any library participating in such a venture would lose its right to OCLC-derived records

But not non-OCLC records, no?

I'm at the point where I think even our model of bib records is ridiculously outdated.They focus too much on information we don't use or need, and leave out information that patrons need and want. I'd love to see development on not just the service interface of a new "large scale hosted library catalog," but from the ground up--let's go back to the start and do a serious analysis of what works and what doesn't, and create new and improved (and non-restricted) bib records that are actuially useful to people. We've already seen some of that happen in LibraryThing and just look at how positive the response has been and how satisifed people are.

Yeah, I know I'm opening up a barrel of worms, and it'd be a *huge* amount of work, and many libraries will fight it just for continutity's sake and becuase so many are already so deeply ensconced in OCLC's records and model. But I also think there have got to be libraries out there who can't afford or don't want to work with OCLC. If we start there, and show people how much easier and better it can be...

4/24/2009 10:47 AM  
Blogger mike said...

All of this is highly disturbing.

4/24/2009 11:36 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

>But not non-OCLC records, no?

Yes, but OCLC has its claws in a LOT of records. You can download records from the Library of Congress that are "OCLC-derived." There is no way to exclude them, as the rules OCLC sets out in its FAQs can't be fully automated.

Incidentally, I didn't even cover that, when you use the service, you have to match up all your records with OCLC records. That is, you give them all your data—including non-OCLC data—and they give back OCLC data. So, once you use the service, you are on the hook 100%. Anyway, that's my understanding of the technology.

4/24/2009 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I on talk radio? Oh, right - its smear and fear of the library variety. Go Worldcat Local!

4/24/2009 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Ivy said...

>Yes, but OCLC has its claws in a LOT of records. You can download records from the Library of Congress that are "OCLC-derived."

I know. I'm not saying to start with the records we have and add to or modify them. I'm saying don't use those *at all.*

I'm saying let's sit down, and start over, from the beginning. Let's rethink the bib record and metadata, and let's redfine it entirely. It's a f*ckton of work, I know. But if we're going to have to build a new structure, shouldn't we start with the bricks and nails?

People will enter data for materials which they care about and that interest them; this data can often be better becuase these contributors are more familar with the works than some random librarians. LibraryThing has demonstated this. Let's make a system that's truly a collaboration of community-complied data, free and openly accessible.

4/24/2009 3:16 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

> It's smear and fear.

It's notable that OCLC defenders never leave their names. I critique in the open. I also make arguments—I've been making them for years. If you are, you aren't making one here.

4/24/2009 4:39 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

>I'm saying let's sit down, and start over, from the beginning. Let's rethink the bib record and metadata, and let's redfine it entirely. It's a f*ckton of work, I know. But if we're going to have to build a new structure, shouldn't we start with the bricks and nails?

I agree, but I'm not sure that's going to work. OpenLibrary tried that—changing the data format, the transfer format and the contribution model all a the same time. Libraries could care less.

4/24/2009 4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OCLC itself (http://www.oclc.org/reports/onlinecatalogs/default.htm )found that one of the things users most want is something that "their records" don't do a good job of providing: tables of contents. Although MARC standards allow this information to be entered, most of the time time pressures on hard-working cataloging librarians force this field to be skipped. Wouldn't it be a great time to crowd-source this information in LT instead of hiding it in personal comment fields? Let's fight them on the false notion of the "OCLC record" instead of library records, absolutely, but let's also outcompete them where we can win. We can no longer wait for a perfect part/whole FRBR solution; let's get the data in now.

LT user Caffron

4/24/2009 5:51 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Preacher, meet converted.

4/24/2009 6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just a sign that we live in "interesting times", but today's Democracy Now interview with Brewster Kahle, creator of the Internet Archive, is a wake-up call and a call to action (30 day time windoww!!) on Google's move to take over out-of-copyright works (pre-1923) and out-of-print works (1923-forward) as well as orphan works in a digital realm monopoly. Yes the U.S. Justice Department has started to look into this case, but grass roots pressure is surely needed. Here is the link to the video transcript of today's interview, conducted by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman:

http://www.democracynow.org/2009/4/30/google_faces_antitrust_investigation_for_agreement

4/30/2009 11:34 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home