Thursday, February 25, 2010

OCLC again

Someone slipped me Larry Alford's letter to OCLC members. This is the worst piece of "argument by innuendo" that I have ever seen. The members deserve better, much better.

I am pretty much unable to discern the message in these four pages of insinuations and scores of questions. The document is entirely devoid of facts or information. Still, I'm going to attempt to extract some sense out of it.

First, it's all about threats to WorldCat, in particular as libraries turn to other sources of bibliographic records. What these threats are should be easily quantifiable, but Alford doesn't provide us with any figures. Here's the information that is needed if one wants to make an assessment of the situation:
  1. Are member libraries adding fewer records to WorldCat? How many fewer, and what is the actual loss of revenue to OCLC? Has anyone interviewed them to ask why?
  2. Are former member libraries leaving WorldCat for other services? How many, and what is the actual loss of revenue to OCLC?
  3. What does OCLC charge for its various services? There is no information on the web site, and I've heard it said that contracts between OCLC and libraries are confidential. This makes it very hard to have a discussion about costs and how costs are affecting OCLC's services in the market. Alford makes reference to "alternate service providers" (*cough* SkyRiver) but makes no comparison of costs or services.
There are, of course, a number of red herrings in the text. I say "of course" because it is in the nature of this kind of emotional plea to bring up unsupported statements. As an example, he states that he has asked a series of questions, like
Should the OCLC cooperative create and support software that provides quality control and the ability to make global changes as librarians create new subject headings and revise authority records?

and ends with
I am pleased to note that the response of almost everyone to whom I have posed these questions has been a universal and enthusiastic "yes."

But let's look at those questions. He asks about "supporting" CONSER, NACO and BIBCO without saying the nature or cost of that support. Maybe there is something to think about there. He asks if OCLC should continue maintaining the Dewey classification. Well, what does it cost OCLC, and what revenue does it bring in? And would there be another venue for the community to maintain DDC if members decide that it's not a good activity for OCLC?

He also asks, rhetorically, whether it is better to have a single database for bibliographic and holdings information or
... is it preferable to sequentially search dozens or even hundreds of catalogs around the world to try to find that particular book or article that a researcher needs?

He should know that there are other options, but this document is not about facts but persuasion.

Oftentimes I am unclear at what he is alluding to. On page three he says that there are libraries who are doing their cataloging elsewhere but "still want to participate in the resource sharing made possible by WorldCat." I don't know what resource sharing he means, but as far as I know anything beyond a search in the open WorldCat database is done for a fee. Is he complaining that some libraries do not contribute records to WorldCat but subscribe to other services? That sounds like a revenue stream to me. He refers to these libraries as consuming more value than they return, but I don't know what the unit of the "value" is. As a matter of fact, throughout the document there are references to value that sometimes seem to be about OCLC's revenue, and at other times seem to be about the completeness of WorldCat. Mixing these two up in the discussion is not helpful, not at all.

The purpose of the mailing that this document was attached to was to let OCLC members know that a new, revised policy will soon be sent to OCLC's Council and Board of Trustees, and eventually to all members. If the policy was developed in the same kind of information vacuum that this document exhibits, I have little hope that it will be any better than the original policy that began this round of member dissatisfaction.


arkham said...

I've not yet seen this letter - or heard anything else about it.

However, from what you post, it seems par for the course for what I expect from OCLC.

You mention the confidentiality of the contracted amounts for services provided by OCLC (for a non-profit member cooperative, this seems a pretty blatantly profit-driven policy). As far as I am aware, this is true.

To be fair here, though, the competitor you mention as possibly part of the thrust behind this letter, does not seem to publicize any cost information, either.

The difference I see is that SkyRiver is a for-profit company, as far as I know. It makes more sense to me for a company to keep their contracts confidential than a non-profit member cooperative.

I wonder how many of the members of that member cooperative would be outraged by their fees if they could compare them to those of other members?

Karen Coyle said...

I will try to get the letter posted on the Code4Lib site that has all of the other background on the OCLC policy. I'll put the link in the main body of my post when it's available.

Mark said...

Sounds like typical FUD spreading.

But as to the resource sharing I believe it is probably referring to Michigan who due to drastic cuts went with SkyRiver [will they really save money?] and then realized they need to have their holdings in WorldCat so they can participate in ILL and now have to negotiate costs for that piece.

That is my understanding of the situation based on a short briefing here at IL.

Kelley McGrath said...

I sometimes think there must be a civil war going on inside OCLC. They send such mixed signals. I only wish I felt more confident that the forces fighting for openness, a new business model, and the long-term interests of libraries will win out.