As you may recall, there’s been a fair bit of criticism (including some of my own) against OCLC’s proposed records use policy, which asserts OCLC’s rights over libraries’ cataloging in ways that would make it very difficult for libraries and other organizations to make innovative uses of shared bibliographic data, if they use OCLC for their shared cataloging.
In response to criticism, OCLC convened a review board to recommend principles for a revised policy. Now Peter Murray tells us that the board will present their recommendations at Monday’s OCLC Member’s Council meeting. I’m told presentation materials should eventually be posted publicly.
I’m looking forward to seeing what they recommend. By now, large library organizations like the Association of Research Libraries and the International Coalition of Library Consortia have publicly criticized the policy as proposed, and the process through which it was developed. I was gratified to see ICOLC agree that “the policy hinders rather than encourages innovation”. And I hope that OCLC will adopt a policy that encourages sharing and innovative applications of bibliographic data, while maintaining a healthy, sustainable shared cataloging base.
As I mentioned at my talk at ALA in January, one of the ways they might do this is to move to a business model that’s based on charging for services rather than for bibliographic data. OCLC already offers a number of paid services, such as WorldCat Local. Recently, they’ve announced an ambitious suite of “Web-scale management services” , effectively offering a shared ILS service, using the shared bibliographic records that have been contributed to WorldCat. The announced services could be attractive to many libraries. They could introduce economies of scale, by having a single ILS installation serving many institutions. And the shared records in the service could promote new efficiencies in areas like acquisitions, collection development, and inter-library loan, as well as in information discovery. OCLC’s new paid services, then, could advance the interest both of libraries and OCLC’s shared catalog. They could raise the bar for competition in ILS-related services.
Or, at least, they could if everyone has the same opportunity to compete. For lots of reasons, different libraries may choose to use different ILS vendors and products, or even develop something on their own. (For instance, the library where I work uses Ex Libris’ Voyager ILS, and is also involved in the open source OLE Project.) Many of these libraries have also been adding and enhancing bibliographic records in OCLC’s WorldCat. If OCLC keeps these records locked up, so that its ILS can use them but competitors can’t, these contributing libraries will be giving a special advantage to one particular ILS by sharing their records through WorldCat. And that skews the competition in ways that, like monopolies in general, can be bad for libraries and for innovation.
So I think OCLC needs to make a choice here: Will they try to retain a proprietary interest in libraries’ shared cataloging, and stay neutral towards other entities (such as ILS vendors) that provide services on this cataloging? Or will they move into competing with others to provide services on our collective data, while relinquishing their proprietary claims on it? Though I’ve argued that we’re best off if they move to the latter, I’ve heard some thoughtful, conservative arguments for sticking with the former while they try to figure out how to sustain their shared catalog.
But they shouldn’t try to have it both ways. As we saw recently with a company that does both academic publishing and commercial PR, combining two valid but disparate interests can easily create worrisome conflicts. As I’ve heard it, OCLC justifies whatever proprietary rights they claim on shared cataloging data on behalf of the cataloguing “cooperative”: the libraries that contribute the data. The work of this cooperative should not be held captive in the interests of any single commercial venture (whether OCLC’s or anyone else’s) that wants to exploit it.
With open bibliographic data, OCLC can still enjoy important competitive advantages in their ILS and other services, simply by being the entity that coordinates WorldCat, and that has the deepest knowledge about how to work with the WorldCat knowledge base. There are a number of possible ways for OCLC to support itself, and encourage data contributions, in its cataloging coordination and catalog-based services. I hope that, in the upcoming Member’s Council meeting and in ensuing discussions, we’ll have some thoughtful conversations and proposals on how to do this with open data.