Views on Sharing (or, What Do We Want From OCLC?)

5 minute read

× This article was imported from this blog's previous content management system (WordPress), and may have errors in formatting and functionality. If you find these errors are a significant barrier to understanding the article, please let me know.

Within the span of a recent week we've had two views of the OCLC cooperative. In one we have a proposition that OCLC has gone astray from its core roots and in the other a celebration of what OCLC can do. One proposes a new mode of cooperation while the other extols the virtues of the existing cooperative. Both writers claim -- independently -- to "talk to librarians" and represent the prevailing mood of the profession. Can these two viewpoints be reconciled?

"Too Many Cooks?"

The pro-establishment view first. In a post by Chip Nilges on the OCLC Cooperative Blog, we get the view that the backing of the wider librarian community is key to OCLC being able to negotiate with content vendors like H.W. Wilson. Chip's "talk to librarians" quote is:

I spend quite a bit of time talking both to librarians and industry partners--publishers, booksellers, Web-technology providers, search engine companies--all kinds of people doing interesting things in our space. And in those talks, there is often a discussion of one of the following: content, technology or community. What I've come to realize, though, is that the best results come from places where all three come together.

Chip's post is short but clear in its view that the community of OCLC members is something special and that it adds value to member libraries.

"The Cooperative We Need"

The other perspective comes from Carl Grant in a post on his Ex Libris blog. His thesis is that OCLC has an important role to play in adding value to bibliographic data, but that its motives are too intertwined with for-profit interests to carry out this role effectively. Carl's "talk to librarians" quote is:

It appears to me that the interests of the OCLC we know today do not appear to be in total alignment with the needs and interests of its overall actual membership. Perhaps they are in alignment with the interests of the Board, Council, and other governing and administrative arms, but the feeling I get in talks with librarians is that it is not in alignment with what they want. As I talk to librarians, across the country today, I hear that what they want is an organization, a cooperative that is focused on developing and providing open and collaborative library content and services that are widely accessible by all in order that they (the librarians) can focus on re-establishing and/or maintaining the value of libraries in our society.

Carl goes on to propose the creation of a utility that aggregates the ratings and rankings of individual users into a database that can enhance the relevance ranking of the emerging generation of discovery layer products.

My Thoughts

This "talk to librarians" thread through the two posts makes me reflect on a question I asked earlier on DLTJ: "What Does it Mean to be a Member of OCLC?" Although I probably haven't talked to nearly the number of librarians as Chip and Carl, in my discussions within the profession I still haven't come to a resolution to this basic question. That question itself is tied to another question coming through in the contrast between these two posts: What Do We Want From OCLC?

Carl describes the problem in his post. When a not-for-profit vendor acquires a significant number of for-profit companies (and spins them back out again), how can we (members, vendors, and the library community in general) understand how the mix of commercial and non-commercial interests are playing out at the management level? Can the OCLC that is the bibliographic utility, the metadata switch between bibliographic-based services, and the R&D braintrust co-exist with the for-profit businesses, motivations, and operations? Or, to put it more sharply, does the negotiation of H.W. Wilson content for use on the subscription-based WorldCat database hinder the evolution of discovery layers that being developed by companies that don't have the tax-advantaged not-for-profit status? (And don't forget about the allegations of anti-competitive behavior in the SkyRiver/Innovative-versus-OCLC lawsuit.)

In closing this section, I want to pull out and emphasize another quotation from Carl's post:

In the end, all of these business initiatives, and now resulting lawsuit, strongly work against OCLC being able to do what it does best—building collaboration, content, and related services as a non-profit entity to serve the larger profession.


Carl's Grand Idea

What might get lost if you only closely read the first half of Carl's post -- as it initially did for me -- is the second half where he describes the concept for enhancing WorldCat in a manner that benefits all...both library members and commercial entities. He does this by noting that the "valuable points of open source software" can be applied -- in a social media fashion -- to a service that aggregates usage, ratings, and comments in a way that advances relevance ranking of discovery tools. Now initially the mind swirls with concerns of privacy and informed user consent in gathering this data in one central pool. I don't think we know enough yet in the library community about building privacy-robust systems that meet an American librarian's information privacy ethos. But done right it also has the ability to build a reputation-based social feedback loop that adds important new information to the bibliographic utility. And because of its better-when-bigger characteristic, only a neutral party like the not-for-profit OCLC cooperative could serve as an aggregator and distributor of this data.

I highly recommend reading Carl's post and thinking about ways of answering the question "What Do We Want From OCLC?" I commend Carl for his courage and vision in articulating his points and proposing something new for the profession to drive towards.

The text was modified to update a link from to on November 16th, 2012.

The text was modified to update a link from to on November 16th, 2012.

The text was modified to update a link from to on November 16th, 2012.

The text was modified to update a link from to on January 8th, 2013.