Tuesday, May 12th, 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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