Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Non est potestas: OCLC Policy withdrawn

Non est potestas super terram quae comparetur ei / There is no power on earth that compares with it (frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan)

The OCLC Review Board finally put OCLC’s Policy to bed. In a short speech to the OCLC Members Council, board chair Jennifer Younger, affirmed “that a policy is needed, but not this policy.” After the drubbing they got from the ICOLC and ARL—neither of which took into consideration OCLC’s recent push into the software market—you can be sure OCLC will take its board’s advice.

While the result was the right one, and I’m sure the members are good, conscientious librarians, I’m not going to echo others’ praise about their decision. The writing was on the wall. If they had pushed forward, OCLC would have met even more hostility than it already engendered. The speech itself, like their “push poll” survey, show where the OCLC Review Board’s sympathies lie. I don’t think you could read the ICOLC or ARL reports against it and conclude OCLC “gets” it. It was, as one of my email correspondents put it “all about protecting WorldCat, identifying ‘threats,’ and ‘appropriate use by members.'”

I think one of Dr. Younger’s phrases nicely encapsulates the flaw in OCLC’s approach, namely “we must revisit the Social Contract between OCLC and its members.” I’d like to go into the phrase a little deeper, not without some fun-poking.

The Social Contract. The phrase “social contract” is an interesting one. The idea also appeared in the the ARL report*—and may well go have been used before. As everyone knows, it’s a key concept in political theory (hence the Hobbes’ frontispiece above) as the thing that, some believe, makes government power legitimate.

Why, therefore, does a cooperative need to express itself in terms of state-formation, rather than a voluntary cooperative? Why does OCLC want to cast itself as a government?

Sitting in OCLC’s Brobdingnagian Dublin, OH headquarters, with thousands of OCLC workers shuttling about like so many ministry secretaries, and an interior hall bedecked with flags like the United Nations, it must be easy to think of OCLC as a sort of “government of libraries.”**

Architectural criticism aside, OCLC’s answer might be that, unlike cooperatives, a government gets to enforce its will more broadly. If you run afoul of a cooperative, the mutual consent that bound you to the cooperative is withdrawn, and you leave or they kick you out. But if you break the rules of a state, they put you in prison, whether you consent or not. Indeed, while philosophers have sometimes proposed a formal ceremony of consent, states act on non-consenting members all the time. Anarchists go to prison too (indeed, they tend to go to prison for being anarchists). This model, therefore, fits in better with OCLC’s plan to bind former members and non-members use of library data. As a cooperative, OCLC is a purely member institution. With a “social contract,” OCLC get to dictate more like a state.***

If the idea of OCLC-as-state is accepted, however, there’s a gap between the ARL report‘s idea of a “mutual social contract”—a social contract between citizen equals—and Younger’s description of the “Social Contract between OCLC and its members.” The latter is a nice description of the more antique view of a contract between citizens and their sovereign. Even if libraries accept a government over them, I suspect they would be more comfortable with the more modern view of a contract between equals.

Nullum timeret? As libraries consider the matter, one factor can be put to rest: Fear.

Writing for the Next Generation Catalog for Libraries list, Karen Coyle speculated that libraries were responding to OCLC through organizations like ARL and ICOLC, out of a “combination of ‘strength in numbers’ and ‘safety in numbers.'”

“I’ve seen a remarkable tendency of libraries to not want to confront OCLC. Remember that the proposed policy had penalties for mis-use of records, and severe ones at that (loss of rights to use OCLC records altogether). There is an intimidation factor involved. Agreed, as a member organization the members should not be afraid, but I think they are.”

That fear should be much diminished. Members spoke up, and OCLC backed down again and again (by my count they postponed, revised, revised, revised, delayed for revision and now shelved). Libraries—and, quite importantly, lots of people who merely love libraries—rose up and forced OCLC to back down.

The frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan, shown above, quotes the Vulgate of the first clause of Job 41:33, non est super terram potestas quae conparetur ei (“There is no power on earth that compares to him.”). No doubt Hobbes or anyway his cover-designer felt this a good description of the legitimate sovereign.

But for our purposes, the second clause is particularly apt, qui factus est ut nullum timeret, “There is no power on earth that compares to him, who was made to fear nothing.” Job thought that whales were fearless.

Well, OCLC, you’ve met the architeuthis. And he is all of us.

See also:

*”In the eyes of the community, the guidelines expressed a mutual social contract, and the new Policy represents an authoritarian, unilaterally imposed legal restriction.”
**The trees growing inside are also a nice touch. The Assyrian throne room just had a carving of a tree, and the White Tree of Gondor was outside. 😉
***Similarly, nobody minds if you belong to two cooperatives. But states tend to be jealous about allegiance. AS ICOLC wrote, libraries are involved in a “complex set of relationships,” of which, “OCLC is one vital component among many that libraries will use.” That’s not really a “social contract” idea.

Photo by Flickr user OZinOH.

Labels: oclc

One Comments:

  1. Ric says:

    I’d like to suggest that you adopt journalism’s style of identifying in full any acronym at first use in a post – in every post. I have searched through several posts and still have no idea what OCLC stands for. While I have some idea from context, it is frustrating to read about it and not know what it means. And as a reader I find it unpleasant to have to bounce off to Google or Bing whenever an acronym rears its head mid-text.