Archive for the ‘arl’ Category

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Research libraries clobber OCLC Policy

The Association of Research Libraries released its report on the new, now delayed OCLC Policy, and it’s a doozy—a forceful rejection of both the process and content of the Policy.

The full report makes for enjoyable reading—outside of Dublin, Ohio anyway. The task force members, research-library heavyweights all, fully and finally put to rest the notion that the only people bothered by OCLC’s power grab are open-data crazies and evil commercial companies.

There appears to have been a significant split. The majority felt it “desirable to have a policy that limits large-scale redistribution of records that could be harmful to the collective” and a minority did not. (It’s great to hear that a team of veterans had at least one member willing to reject the whole structure of cooperative-restriction!) But if the majority felt some policy was called for, they were apparently unanimous in condemning OCLC’s unilateral, non-consultative approach and concerned by a host of issues, large and small. Surveying the current Policy they urge a “fresh start.”

Vague legal language, unclear goals, worrying process, the split between the “nice” FAQs and the actual language of the Policy, issues of clouded ownership and responsibility for bibliographic data, termination provisions, the lack of respect for federal libraries and the legal impossibility of binding them without explicit renegotiation—it’s all here! There’s even a legal opinion, attached to the document, pouring cold water on the idea that the Policy will have any “downstream” effect on parties that haven’t explicitly agreed to it (ie., LibraryThing members). In all, a good drinking game could be invented—every time the ARL report validates or recapitulates a point made on this blog, and on other opponents‘, drink. (If you’re going to Code4Lib this week, I’ll buy the drinks!)

Most striking are the report’s vision of OCLC as a cooperative, and the ways the OCLC policy undermined that trust:

“The collective activity of shared cataloging is a source of deep pride and success in libraries in the U. S. and around the world. OCLC was created as, and is viewed as, a membership organization formed for the purpose of enabling this collective activity…. Members view WorldCat as a collective enterprise, not as a product that they license for use. …”

“The new Policy is clearly intended as a unilateral contract, unilaterally imposed on any entity using records from the WorldCat database, including member libraries…. The member community has seen the introduction of the new Policy as a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between OCLC and its member libraries. In the eyes of the community, the guidelines expressed a mutual social contract, and the new Policy represents an authoritarian, unilaterally imposed legal restriction.”

Now let’s see what comes of this. OCLC has a needle to thread. The ARL report sets a high bar for consultation and consensus—higher than I think OCLC can reach without rethinking its whole communication model. And the core research-library concerns are serious*. I don’t think they can address them without failing to ensure what I believe to be the Policy’s true intent—establishing a permanent and lucrative data monopoly.

My prediction: Keep an eye on OCLC’s “regional service providers.” Various signs, including what reporters call “highly-placed sources” confirm that OCLC/regional tension is at an all-time-high, with OCLC increasingly rewriting the rules there too—selling directly to libraries in unprecedented ways. I think we can see in these moves a common historical pattern: when the structures that give a powerful institution strength start to weaken, it reaches for a new level of authority not based in the previous structure and therefore not susceptible to weakening. (In this case, OCLC is moving from a robust, often mediated cooperative to a unmediated, contractually-drawn licensure.) Sometimes the effort succeeds; sometimes the attempt crystalizes opposition and hastens and ensures the institution’s decline.

*Even if they picked the members of the Review Board, they may still face trouble from that direction. I doubt that OCLC’s Review Board has what the ARL board apparently had—members who apparently questioned the very idea of restricting access and use!—but all but one of the board members are academic/research librarians and can be expected to understand and appreciate the concerns raised by their ARL colleagues.

Labels: arl, oclc