Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Library of Congress report comments

Midnight was the deadline for public comment on the Library of Congress report*. As the time-stamp on the auto-reply attests, I submitted my comments at 11:59:53. I could have used those seven seconds!

I’m not satisfied with my letter. But others have posted theirs, and I ought to do the same. (For starters, see the list collected by Karen Schneider.) I had planned a point-by-point analysis of the report, but found myself increasingly drawn into and depressed by the larger issues.

Meetings and committees bore and irritate me–who am I to pretend? I have no faith in a committee to solve the data problems of library-land. The problems are too deep, and time is running out. If the problems are to be solved, it will be on a less loftly level. I have more faith in what might come from a startup or a conversation at Code4Lib than I have in any committee, no matter how well intentioned. All the outsiders need is the freedom to act. Above all that means open data.

In general, I applaud your report. You identify important issues and think creatively about them. I’m sure some good will come of it.

Unfortunately, I am cynical about the ability of your committee, or any similar committee, to bring about meaningful, timely change. Bibliographic data is a big ball of rope with the ends hidden away inside–a Gordian Knot, if you will.

Like the Gordian Knot, the current situation is a powerful reminder of greatness won and deserved–and a totally mess. The data formats are inadequate, but insofar as few systems have made full use of them anyway, fixing the format is not enough. The ILS vendors are barriers to change, but libraries’ purchasing cycles and priorities made them so. Library culture is a pillar of democratic culture, but does not appropriately value initiative or rapid change; too many forward-thinking librarians I know are waiting on their boss’ retirement. The most important library institution, OCLC, subsists upon the continuance of the current regime, and is powerful enough to maintain that need. And–for all its virtues–the LC has no clear mandate in this area.

When a system is broken, but self-reinforcing, you need something outside the system to effect change. So the library world needs outsiders. Some will be true outsiders. LibraryThing is one of those, I suppose. But most will be librarians and other library professionals acting outside the culture and institutional structures of the library world.

What the outsiders want is freedom of action. They don’t want the “sharing” of data, but open data. Open up your data fully, and the change you plan for will spring up when you’re not looking.

Change across an entire profession and industry is hard. But you can be the change yourself. The Library of Congress’ data is already legally free, and rightly so. The constraints are all technical–the big red books, unavailable in digital form, the periodic and expensive CDs of MARC data, the OPAC no search engine can spider, and so forth. You are just a half-step away from true openness.

You can’t force the future, but you can lead it. If the LC were to throw its weight behind true, radical openness, that would really be something.

I wish you all the best.


Tim Spalding
LibraryThing Founder

*The “Draft Final Report of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control.” What an ungainly phrase.
**I submitted a version with a spelling correction at 12:03. However, it was still yesterday somewhere, right?

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