Friday, April 24th, 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’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: oclc, worldcat, worldcat local


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