Tuesday, June 09, 2009

OCLC Policy - What is the Question?

I have a difficult time understanding the discussion around the OCLC WorldCat Record Use Policy. At least one reason for my confusion is that I have yet to see an explanation of the problem that the policy is attempting to address. The recent talk by Jennifer Younger, on the initial recommendations of the WorldCat record use policy review board, left me with the same uncertainty: If this is the answer, than what is the question?

Many people have commented on Younger's slides, and in particular on the recommendation by the review board that OCLC abandon the November, 2008 policy and begin anew. Younger's talk, however, did not answer one of the key questions that she herself lists:

"Despite the statement on intent in the proposed policy and the use examples in the FAQ, respondents [to the review board's survey] indicated they do not see the problem, and where they do, they do not see how the proposed policy will address the problem." [Younger]

[Quotes in this post are taken from Peter Murray's much appreciated transcription of Younger's talk.]

Younger's brief defintion of the charge of the review board is:
"The review board is charged with recommending principles on which a new policy should be based." [Younger]
I strongly suggest that before beginning work on the principles that the review board take as much time as it needs to clarify the nature of the problem that the policy wishes to address. Unless the problem is clear, the policy cannot provide a coherent solution.

That said, what do we know about the problems as addressed by the policy and the review board?

"... a legal document..."

The policy document itself does not have a clear problem statement; it limits itself to stating what the rules might be for use and re-use of WorldCat records. The FAQ goes a bit further toward defining a problem, although as stated it seems to be saying that the problem is a lack of a policy:
"To be successful negotiating and working with prospective partners, many of which are in the private sector, OCLC needs to move beyond the Guidelines to a policy that will be recognized by these organizations and others outside the library-archives-museum space as a legal document. Achieving clarity about the rights and conditions for using and transferring WorldCat data is a precondition to OCLC's sitting down to talk, on its members' behalf, with organizations that otherwise might have little or no interest in promoting the use and visibility of library, archival, and museum collections and services." [FAQ]

In this statement OCLC arguing for its need to clarify the contract between OCLC and the libraries so that it can engage in revenue-producing deals with other entities. It seems unlikely that OCLC would not have the right or ability to make deals involving WorldCat records. If that is the question, then OCLC just needs an agreement with its membership that the organization can make use of the members' data in this way. But that's not the issue that the policy addressed. The issue isn't OCLC's use of the data but the libraries' use of the data. Without the policy, OCLC and the members are both free to monetize (or not monetize) the bibliographic records that they hold however they wish. The policy, however, specifically requires that all deals with other entities be controlled by OCLC. It also designates OCLC as the sole decision-maker for use of WorldCat records. It shouldn't be surprising that this may not be acceptable to all members.

What's Good for OCLC....

Statements by OCLC always equate the interests of OCLC with the interests of the members, a view that clearly isn't shared by all members. In her talk, Younger brings up this tension between OCLC and its members, which she calls "the gap problem":
"Perhaps then in this context we should not be surprised that 'the gap problem' emerged, that the proposed record use policy was perceived by many as putting OCLC's interests ahead of those of member libraries." [Younger]
Younger's talk places the solution to this problem squarely in the laps of the members, who are seen as the ones who need to change for the gap to be closed:
"Second, the equilibrium has been disrupted. We must revisit the social contract between OCLC and its members. ... But as new generations of members come into our ranks, it becomes more difficult to explain the social contract that is OCLC. Just as in ballroom dancing it takes two people to tango. We need to work together — OCLC and its members — to solve the gap problem as it relates to the past but more importantly to the future. We need to understand our respective roles in reinforcing the values for working within the OCLC collaborative and understand how those values can support working with other partners in the information ecosystem." [Younger]

As presented, the "gap" is that some members do not agree that what benefits OCLC always benefits the entire membership. The solution is to "reinforce the values for working within the OCLC collaborative." The assumption that what is good for OCLC is good for the members is presented without question. The 2008 policy lacked provisions for member input into the decision process relating to particular uses of WorldCat records, nor did it provide a mechanism for members to remedy decisions that they feel do not benefit them. Policy statements that give OCLC the sole decision-making power on record use ("may be withheld by OCLC, without liability, within its sole discretion" D. 3) understandably make some people nervous.

The "gap" is presented as a difference in perception, but never a difference in actual benefits. For example, in the FAQ, OCLC explains that one of the needs is for a policy that ensures a "fair return" to OCLC members. That "fair return" is revenue that goes to OCLC.

"The existing Guidelines, and now the revised Policy seek to support WorldCat’s continued value by ensuring that the use and transfer of WorldCat data outside the OCLC cooperative provides a fair return to OCLC members and benefits libraries, archives, and museums in general." [FAQ]
It shouldn't be surprising that a phrase like "fair return to OCLC members" causes members to ask what it is that they are getting. I can find nothing that explains what revenues have been received by OCLC for WorldCat data, and nothing specifically about how those revenues have benefited the cooperative. This points to what I perceive as one of the causes for the "gap problem" and that is a general lack of transparency about OCLC's business. It is not going to work to simply say to the membership "trust us, we have your interests in mind." The members have every right to ask for proof of that. OCLC, for its part, should be quite happy to show members how uses of WorldCat data have been for their benefit. (Note, OCLC's members council may have this information, but I don't find it in the annual reports, nor in the IRS 990 form, of which the most recent is the one for 2006.)

The Value Proposition

The one thing OCLC cannot rely on is any argument that OCLC must be supported and maintained simply because it is OCLC. Everything hinges on a convincing argument of WorldCat's "value." The value of WorldCat is invoked frequently, but no elaboration on the nature of the value is given:
"We must focus on the value of sustaining WorldCat for the benefit of members and non-members, for OCLC, libraries and other memory institutions, and other partners in the information ecosystem." [Younger]


The policy implied -- but never stated -- that OCLC was responding at least in part to some perceived threats. Younger uses the term "threat," but without elaborating or giving examples:

"One intent expressed in the proposed policy was to protect the members’ investment in WorldCat and ensure the use of WorldCat records would benefit the membership. We need to identify the major encroachments that threaten WorldCat." [Younger]
There are some hints that threats would be to the size, comprehensiveness and quality of the database. The policy's definition of "reasonable use" stated that reasonable use:

"... would not include any Use of WorldCat Records that:
a. discourages the contribution of bibliographic and holdings data to WorldCat, thus damaging OCLC Members' investment in WorldCat, and/or
b. substantially replicates the function, purpose, and/or size of WorldCat."

Younger expands briefly on the threat question, talking about comprehensiveness of the database, and cash flow:
"Would the proposed uses by an OCLC member, consortia, or other players lead to a less-comprehensive or authoritative WorldCat? Would the proposed uses draw a significant cash flow away from maintaining WorldCat? Would the proposed uses benefit some segment of the library and other memory institution community without materially diminishing the benefit and use of WorldCat by other members?" [Younger]
This last statement at least introduces the possibility that there could be uses of library bibliographic data that do not threaten WorldCat. Defining this line between threat and non-threat seems to be key to decision-making around record use. While possibly not appropriate for the policy itself, it could be defined in some detail in operational documents that are available to members and potential users of WorldCat records.

The Control Issue

There is an implication that allowing bibliographic data to "go wild" on the Internet would weaken OCLC. It seems obvious that the policy is designed to give OCLC control over the use of records in order to obtain revenue from the uses. Throughout Younger's talk she refers to "members" and "partners."
"Members see a future in which WorldCat is available for reasonable use on a non-discriminatory basis to members as well as to other partners." [Younger]
There is never any mention of the general public and no mention of open access. The vision here is clearly a closed system with usage controls in place. This was the problem with the policy as written, and it will continue to be a problem if OCLC (with or without its members) insists on maintaining control. There is no hint here that the OCLC model may need to change, that a walled bibliographic city no longer makes sense. It will be very disappointing if the review board does not challenge this basic assumption, if it does not explore other options for the future.


I hope that OCLC's members will insist on a clarification of the goals of the policy as well as on how those goals will be managed over time. Sticking my neck out, I conclude that:
  • there cannot be an workable policy without a clear problem statement to guide it
  • a library data silo is quite possibly not the best thing for the library community today, and this needs to be addressed
  • the idea that "what is good for OCLC is always good for OCLC's members" is unreasonable; no contract should be accepted that doesn't provide for negotiation between the library members and OCLC regarding uses of the WorldCat records


Barbara said...

Excellent analysis. Thanks.

Linda said...

Thank you for this very thorough analysis. Your conclusions are exactly the issues that we ought to be asking at every stage of this discussion.

My feeling is that OCLC sees as we all do the potential for releasing information from it's former corrals. They can imagine a world without WorldCat, and such a world would destroy their major revenue stream. They have diversified and globalized their business, but in their new business areas they are not unique providers. They are competing with other vendors who may be more flexible, adaptable and successful. I think it is very notable that most of OCLC's product suite has been bought, not developed in-house.

They need to have control of WorldCat both as the source of data and linked to their other products in such a way as to make those products uniquely valuable in the marketplace. I think they are also working to get other vendor's products linked in to WorldCat so that it remains at the center of the library management environment, but I sense they are not always consistent in this effort. There is a clear conflict of interest between OCLC helping to make a local (non-OCLC) resource sharing system work and OCLC promoting and developing their own RS system.

As you say, with OCLC's expansion into other product areas, their best interests (non-competition) and the libraries' best interests (a vibrant, competitive marketplace) are diverging more and more.

And, no, OCLC does not share any additional information about their finances with Members' Council, nor are they likely to do so with the new Global Council.

I would, however, encourage everyone going to ALA to find out about the organizational meeting for the "Americas Regional Council" taking place there. The new structure for councils is democratic, not representative. Anyone who belongs to an OCLC library can go to the Regional Council, can discuss, bring resolutions, run for membership on the Global Council, etc.

Anonymous said...

Upon reading your analysis I have this murky and vague sense that the monster in the room for OCLC is Google. As a cataloger we all trumpet the value of the data and yet it has been more and more rejected as unnecessary. But as Google and others obtain/provide more and more access perhaps OCLC is fearful that the Google culture is looking anew at our efforts - and wants it for their own! (conspiracy theories abound)

Whatever the motivation for these moves, I see them as somewhat of a backwards move. You are absolutely right that no policy should be promulgated unless a real and definable problem exists and can be defined.

Thank you for your analysis.

Jennifer Sauer
Hays, KS