Friday, April 09, 2010

OCLC record use policy

OCLC has issued a new draft of its record use policy for member comment. As others have remarked, while better worded and seemingly less draconian than the previous policy (the one that was withdrawn) the substance has not changed one iota. There are many things wrong with the policy itself, but the primary problem with it is not the text of the policy but the way that OCLC has chosen to define the problem it is trying to solve. Here are some of the issues I have with the approach:

1. Pushing the river
The central issue is that OCLC wants to limit downstream use of bibliographic data that is stored in WorldCat. This simply cannot be done. The same data is also stored in individual library catalogs, some union or consortial catalogs, and in bibliographic software used by many hundreds of thousands of researchers around the world. It also often closely resembles data created outside of OCLC's sphere, such as through publisher and retailer channels. Sharing of this data is absolutely necessary for the furtherance of intellectual pursuits and scientific progress, as well as the market for new and used items. Ironically, the policy would restrict use of the data by OCLC members without restricting its use by the multitude of non-members. It would be unacceptable even if it were workable, which it isn't.

2. One-sided
The policy has a section on member rights and responsibilities, but no such section on OCLC's rights and responsibilities. (Nope, I was wrong about that. The section does exist, I must have missed it.) The policy carries the assumption that, if anything, members are the problem, OCLC the solution, and gives no sense of the policy being the result of an agreement between the parties. OCLC can make unilateral decisions about record use, such as its agreement with Google, but members must ask permission of OCLC for many uses. There is nothing here that acknowledges that there could be a situation where the interests of a library and the interests of OCLC are in conflict, nor how that would be resolved. All-in-all, it reads as if the purpose of membership were to sustain OCLC (instead of the purpose of OCLC being to support libraries).

3. Transparency
OCLC, or one of OCLC's governing groups, will make decisions. Yet there are no criteria given for making these decisions, no timelines, no reporting back to members, no mechanism for feedback. Will members know how "their" WorldCat records are being used? Will they have any choice in the matter? Will there be a way to know what requests for use have come in to OCLC, which ones have been accepted, which turned down? If WorldCat is such a "community good" shouldn't the community at least have this information about the use of that good?

4. No options
In most agreements there is some give and take. If you do X, you will get Y. The OCLC record use policy does not give members options. An example of an option would be: if you do your cataloging on OCLC, ILL will cost you $X; if you do not do your cataloging on OCLC, uploading your records will cost you $Y and ILL will cost you $Z. With clear options, libraries can decide what is best for them in their particular situation. Without clear options libraries have no way to make rational decisions about their participation in OCLC. It's not a religion, it's a business relationship, and it should be treated like one.

5. Avoids facing the problem
The problem that OCLC is trying to fix arises, as far as I can tell, because of OCLC's particular mix of costs and expenses. Most of the revenue comes in to OCLC from its cataloging service, so having members choose to catalog elsewhere is the problem. Exhorting members to keep their records in their databases so that others cannot create a large database of bibliographic data is not a solution to this problem. Large bibliographic databases do and will exist. If their existence is a threat to OCLC, then the jig is already up. Rather than stew about what others are doing with bibliographic data, OCLC needs to find a balance of income and revenue that meets the needs of its member libraries, and that might include making some hard decisions about OCLC services.

6. Ignores market forces
If someone can do it better, cheaper, more conveniently, why should libraries stick with OCLC as their vendor? For the purchase of materials or library systems or other services, libraries move to new vendors when they see advantages. With the economic downturn there is a scramble by libraries to cut costs wherever they can. No amount of loyalty to the "collective" can overcome the economic situation libraries find themselves in today. In a sense, OCLC seems to expect the libraries to act irrationally by sticking with the service even if something more economical comes along. Libraries obviously cannot afford to do this.

I cannot tell what steps OCLC's members can take at this point. The web site points to a community forum where people can post comments, but posting comments on the policy doesn't begin to solve the underlying problems as presented here. If I were a member, I think I would feel like a row boat hitching a ride behind the Titanic, hoping it will get me through the ice floes. Nothing is unsinkable, as we have unfortunately found out in the past.


hharper said...

"There is nothing here that acknowledges that there could be a situation where the interests of a library and the interests of OCLC are in conflict"

It is my experience that many librarians do not see the potential for that situation either, and that there is blind trust in OCLC to do the right thing.

I'm in Diane's class at the UW. Nice blog-- I wish I understood more!

Anders said...

Very, very good post that sums up many of my feelings regarding OCLC as well as adding some more food for thought. Speaking from a perspective of not being an OCLC member, OCLC does not do very good advertising for becoming one. Seems like, if you happen to have any data that might have at some point travelled through WorldCat, you're gonna be OK as long as you are not an OCLC member. And most likely every library on earth has data that once passed through WorldCat.

Another concern for me is: OCLC are very clear that WorldCat is not considered a "public good" but is rather a "club good". Though I don't like it, I can understand why. But this makes it impossible to use WorldCat if you're library is actually required to treat your data as a public good.

Pat Banach said...

I think this comment says it all: "All-in-all, it reads as if the purpose of membership were to sustain OCLC (instead of the purpose of OCLC being to support libraries)." Recent actions by OCLC make me wonder whether they are adhering to their original mission.

Unknown said...

I agree, nice analysis. The blind trust in OCLC is a dangerous path. In this case, giving OCLC a path to try to create an information monopoly. That is one way to surely squelch innovation...and innovation is exactly what librarianship needs more of.

Anonymous said...

An excellent analysis. In these difficult economic times, it is getting more difficult to justify spending thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars on acquiring bibliographic records when there are less expensive options. And, with the move to open source choices for resource sharing, that side of the OCLC business will become less viable.