What Does It Mean to Be a Member of OCLC?

This morning I was at the OCLC Americas Regional Council Meeting just prior to the opening of the ALA Midwinter 2010 meeting. In addition to the prepared talks and remarks, there was a series of breakout sessions the end of the meeting. Ever sense the record use policy kerfuffle got started, I’ve been thinking more about the governenace aspects of OCLC as cooperative, so I attended the session on “The Cooperative’s Shared Values and Social Contract.” It was a very interesting discussion, and for several hours after my mind was spinning with implications of the heartfelt ideas contributed by those at the meeting. In the end, I’m stuck with this line of thinking, starting with a statement then a series of questions:

  • I am a librarian at an OCLC member organization.
  • Am I, personally, a member of the cooperative?
  • If so, and most people seem to speak as if it were so, is there a difference between being a member of the library community and a member of OCLC?
  • Can I be a member of one and not the other?
  • How are my “member” responsibilities to OCLC the cooperative different from my “membership” responsibilities to the library profession?

The phrase “Social Contract” can be broken down into two pieces: Society and Contract. Taking the latter first, I think of the contract as a shared agreement with and among the membership of the cooperative. So before defining the nature of that contract, we need to define the nature of the society forming the contract. For me, what came out this session was a lack of my own understanding of the definition of the collaborative’s “society” in this instance. What seemed particularly awkward to me was a call-to-action towards the end of the breakout session for OCLC members (as in individuals) to get connected to library schools to tell new professionals about the OCLC shared values and social contract. That struck me, as someone thinking that he maybe sort of outside of the “OCLC membership,” as bordering on indoctrination and coercion. Which is to say that the students signed up to be members of the library profession, not necessarily members of a cooperative, because I’m pretty sure the two are not synonymous.

Perhaps this level of discomfort stems from the fact that I wasn’t around when the cooperative was formed, when it seemed like most people speaking up in the room had been. My introduction to OCLC came right at the conversion from dedicated leased lines to access via the internet. As such, I don’t know of a time before there was a strong cooperative for sharing bibliographic records in real-time.

I also find that I don’t have clarity across another dimension of the “society” term. As OCLC appears to try to chart a new course with governance (the evolution of the Members Council to the Global and Regional Councils) and membership (an increasing focus on international libraries and non-library cultural memory institutions), the membership seems to be struggling with what is the bounds of “society” collective. For me, this can’t help but add to the confusion about who is a member — as an individual — and who isn’t.

So I’m left with these questions. If there are answers — or even other opinions — I’d appreciate pointers to them and discussion in the comments.

(This post was updated on 11-Feb-2011.)