Tuesday, May 12, 2009

OCLC Policy, Good night


The International Coalition of Library Consortia, a very loose but extremely large group of library consortia, just released a Statement on the Proposed OCLC Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records.

For a while there it looked like OCLC was going to succeed in locking down the world's library data, converting a wonderful sharing and coordination tool into an unbreakable data monopoly. But, together with OCLC's recent, revealing decision to enter the library systems market, the ICOLC statement effectively ends that possibility. OCLC isn't getting its new Policy, or anything like it.* Good night, OCLC Policy.

The details are worth a look. The ICOLC's statement was short, signing onto the "substantial and broad" concerns highlighted by the Association of Research Libraries. It goes on to add three concerns, two of which address the risk to innovation—a topic the ARL report barely touched on:
  1. The proposed policy appears to freeze OCLC’s role in the library community based on historical and current relationships. We share the concern, voiced by many, that the policy hinders rather than encourages innovation, and we urge the Review Board to carefully examine this issue. It is unclear that the policy has been constructed with a focus on an evolving role of OCLC in enhancing the missions of an international library community with diverse and complex interests.
  2. The scope of the proposed policy goes well beyond any concerns about inappropriate commercial exploitation of WorldCat records. It applies as well to non-commercial uses. ICOLC member consortia are member-created, member-driven innovation agents. Our initiatives are generally non-commercial and undertaken with member approval based on member needs. Any OCLC record use policy should account for the rich and diverse innovation that takes place through many consortia.
  3. The proposed policy is legally murky. There is no mechanism for negotiation of terms and conditions nor is it clear what constitutes acceptance by member libraries. A new policy must address these problems.
As significant as the content was the list of signatories. Lyrasis, the former Palinet and Solinet, includes over 2,500 members. With "regional base and national scope" (their words), and about to merge with Nelinet, bringing their members to 4,500, Lyrasis is a major player. They're no longer just a "regional service provider" for OCLC, and can be expected to collaborate or compete with OCLC as its members' interests lead. They were joined by many of the big regional and state networks out there—MINITEX, NERL, the Florida Center for Library Automation, the Washington Research Library Consortium, the Michigan Library Consortium, WiLS, four Canadian consortia and both the Swedish and Finnish national libraries. Some of the signatories ought to have been sympathetic. Orbis Cascade, a source of much original cataloging, is also an important OCLC partner in developing consortial software. In Ohio, OCLC's home state, OhioLINK, OHIONET and INFOhio all signed. Other members will add their names to the list as they affirm it.

The Next Step. It's time now for the library world to step back and consider what, if anything, they want to do about restricting library data in a fast-moving, digital world. Some, including some who've deplored OCLC's process and the policy, want restrictions on how library data is distributed and used. Once monopoly and rapid, coerced adoption are off the table, that's a debate worth having, and one with arguments on both sides.

From my perspective, restrictions on the use and transfer of cataloging data—which is not usually copyrightable and is most frequently created by bodies responsible to the public good—is legally dubious and ethically stingy.

Instead, libraries should embrace "radical openness," a commitment to sharing what they know freely, something that looks less radical in light of the library's historic dedication to the free exchange of information. Selling other people's library records isn't a real threat, but, if it were, the answer would be more openness, not less. When you sell tickets, you get scalpers. But nobody makes money selling passes to Central Park. (A few people make money walking dogs around it. Most just enjoy the free grass and sunshine.) And in a world that's looking less and less friendly to the long-term success of libraries, an unwavering commitment to sharing and openness may well be libraries' saving grace.

So, three cheers to ICOLC for speaking up on this issue. Now, librarians and library programmers, let's get back to work. Let's earn our freedom.


Artwork: "Flickr is Freedom." Creative Commons, Attribution, by Timtak.

*I note with some interest that Edward Corrado, whose OCLC posts have been very perceptive, isn't quite as excited about this as I am. Where he wishes the statement was "worded a little stronger" I take great solace in phrases like "The proposed policy appears to freeze OCLC’s role in the library community based on historical and current relationships." I'm hoping some others weigh in. The library world is, I think, somewhat exhausted by the whole OCLC Policy affair, and now that the organizations are weighing in strongly and negatively, the bloggers and newslist-ers who raised the initial questions—and were excoriated for it—may no longer be as necessary.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous OzAlleyCat said...

Though this is the first I've heard of this debate (and I don't completely understand it's nuance) I'm glad to see that WorldCat.org won't be going anywhere anytime soon. It is an invaluable research tool when you're looking for obscure and rare books to see which libraries you need to go to (outside your country) to request photocopies of work. I would hate to see that get shutdown!

5/13/2009 1:18 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

No, OCLC will live. They just won't be able to turn the data libraries send through them into a data monopoly.

WorldCat is great. It would be greater if weren't so expensive for libraries to be part of. The fundamental data issue here is not that great—and whatever the core cost, it should fall every year, and that's certainly not happening. The result is an incomplete WorldCat. Most big academics are in it. A lot of publics aren't—mostly depending on the state.

5/13/2009 1:40 AM  
Blogger jmgold said...

An excellent analysis as always Tim. I'm not entirely sure if I see this as being the final nail in the policy's coffin the way you do, but I'm certainly hopeful.

5/13/2009 7:20 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

While I tend to agree with you about radical openess, to be fair we must note that LibaryThing too gives away some but not all of it's data for free, charging institutional customers for other of it's data. And LibraryThing's data, like OCLC's, is generated by users/members who share it with LT/OCLC more or less for free (OCLC members actually sort of get paid in the form of a trivial 'credit', but that's not the motivation for sharing).

Everybody's got to find a way to make their operations sustainable.

5/13/2009 9:33 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

"Instead, libraries should embrace "radical openness," a commitment to sharing what they know freely, something that looks less radical in light of the library's historic dedication to the free exchange of information... an unwavering commitment to sharing and openness may well be libraries' saving grace."

Tim,

If there are to be no copyright restrictions placed on cataloging data that is done for the common good (and of course, let's not fail to recall all of the private institutions who have paid for cataloging from non-tax dollars), what would stop Google from simply hiering some bright librarians (maybe from OCLC!), taking the free data, and making the best catalog in the world? Now, I think it might be a really exciting and useful catalog if Google were to do that, but maybe we should think about "the law of unintended consequences" here to...

Or maybe you have thought some about this already. Don't keep me in suspense.

-Nathan

5/13/2009 9:47 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

hiering?

hiring.

Sheesh

5/13/2009 9:48 AM  
Blogger Karen Coyle said...

To me, the bottom line is that the library world needs more than one provider of cataloging services. Until recently we had RLG as the provider for academic libraries and archives, and OCLC as the "general" service. Even that was not enough. There are many different kinds of libraries, and they all should have services that meet their needs. One example is corporate libraries, who cannot make their holdings public (they could reveal to competitors what the company is researching). Another is the small libraries that don't need the level of service that OCLC provides, but do need an inexpensive source of copy cataloging. It makes sense to me that the regional networks could step in to provide some new services to libraries in their area. With agreements to share data, rather than lock it down, OCLC could still pull data into its central database, WorldCat, even though some library services are provided by others. This seems like a win-win to me, unless your view is "winner take all."

5/13/2009 10:41 AM  
OpenID librarian said...

bless you for only one footnote.

5/13/2009 12:43 PM  
Blogger Casey Durfee said...

"LibaryThing too gives away some but not all of it's data for free, charging institutional customers for other of it's data. And LibraryThing's data, like OCLC's, is generated by users/members who share it with LT/OCLC more or less for free..."

And wolves and sheep are both mammals.

1) We don't claim rights over our members' individual data. They are free to do whatever they wish -- give it to our competitors or give it away for free if they want to. If you want to take your LT data and load it into GoodReads, GoodReads doesn't have to have a signed contract with us before you can do that.

2) We give away way more data than they do.

3) Libraries want to buy our services that utilize our data, not the raw data itself. We only make a tiny percentage off of selling raw data. LibraryThing for Libraries is actually very sophisticated technology. If LT was just selling data, Tim wouldn't need me, Chris C or Sonya on staff. A big XML file of our data isn't actually that appealing without all the code that makes it do interesting things.

4) We're a for-profit company. We have never claimed to be a collective or benefited from non-profit status.

5) We are not a de-facto monopoly. We have plenty of competitors.

6) We've done everything out in the open. We don't force changes on our users without a lot of open discussion first. We've never tried to revoke rights that were previously given.

I think those are pretty crucial distinctions.

5/13/2009 2:03 PM  
Blogger LA Oftedahl said...

Anyone heard of Biblios.net? It's relatively new, open source system from Liblime (current Koha release manager). This project is open to anyone to join, though you do have to install Google Gears to use the cataloging functions. I'm hoping that Biblios.net will set an example and be what OCLC should be.

5/24/2009 2:09 AM  

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