Those who don’t know me very well may be surprised by this, but I’m looking forward to the arrival of worldcat.org. I think it’s a visible step along the road to unlocking the chains with which this community has shackled its data for far too long. It’s the kind of thing I’ve agitated toward for a very long time, stretching even back into the mists of time before Lorcan Dempsey and I were at UKOLN. Way to go, OCLC.
Alane Wilson writes about it over on It’s All Good, pointing to a write-up by Paula Hane in Information Today, and to an earlier blog post of mine raising concerns about their closed silos of information.
Although undeniably a big step forward from the current Open WorldCat arrangement, there remains much to do, and a long way to travel before the antiquated, unnecessary and stifling data shackles are gone for good. Before getting down to the details, maybe a brief diversion into allegory would help?
Once upon a time, an enterprising farmer in Dublin recognised that his peers could not afford to look after all their grain. Working with those around him, Farmer O’Shelsey built huge silos on his land and rented out space in them to farmers in the surrounding area. Over time, the grain storage business grew and grew, and Farmer O’Shelsey gave up farming to concentrate upon collecting grain from further and further afield. A growing number of farmers saw the value in a safe store for their grain, and paid a lot of money every year to ship truckloads of the stuff to Ohio. The O’Shelsey’s recognised the value of the grain they held, and used money they received from farmers to build a huge wall around the silos. One of the younger O’Shelsey’s, a keen horticulturalist, spent some of the family fortune to plant many beautiful flowers around the base of the silos, and the family made yet more money charging admission to the Walled Garden for drivers bringing grain lorries from far-off farms.
Times changed, though, and it became increasingly feasible for grain stores to be built cheaply and effectively at each farm, and for farmers to work together to find completely new markets for their grain. O’Shelsey’s old silos and complex infrastructure were geared towards gathering all of the grain in Dublin, and shipping it from there to those willing and able to buy it. They simply couldn’t cope with new demands.
Facing calls to ‘open the silo’, the latest member of the family, Jay O’Shelsey, had a brainwave. He sent one of his team climbing up the outside of the tallest silo, where he cut away part of the wall and replaced it with a window. Now, they argued, everyone could see the grain they were paying to have stored in the silo. Going a step further, and fully embracing the new-fangled InterWeb, Farmer Jay pointed a webcam at the window, and set up a web site. Farmers could now visit the website and watch their grain rotting before their eyes on the screen. Those farmers who still clamoured to get their grain out of the silo so that it could be used in new and interesting ways (like growing crops) were offered a further innovation; Farmer Jay would use some of the money they had paid him to give them a ‘free’ television set. This could be set up in their own fields, so that passers-by could watch pictures of the grain silo. It didn’t quite seem as good as watching crops grow, though. Some of the farmers began to grumble that Farmer Jay had found a cheap job-lot of identical televisions from WalMart, when many would prefer to be able to choose the make and model for themselves. Others continued to call for access to their own grain, and marched on Dublin chanting “Let us grow grain, not televisions.”
Outside the farming community, bread makers like Giggle and YeeHaw!, and the Amazing flour factory began to realise that their previous grain supply deals with O’Shelsey were less useful than previously. So many farmers were now storing their grain locally or in other grain stores rather than paying to ship everything to Ohio. Consumers in the shops were increasingly conscious of their health, and their ability to assert choice. Rather than pay for produce sourced from O’Shelsey’s huge silos, they began to opt for locally produced goods, and niche products such as organic flour or GM-free bread. More efficient ways of working and significantly lower costs meant that third parties were able to offer standard grain and all these niche options to farmers and to bakers, flour factories, and anyone else who wanted them. The costs had shifted to such a degree that farmers were able to participate and contribute their surplus grain without charge. They even received some bread and other products back, in return.
What could the O’Shelsey’s do? Their huge family cost a lot to feed and had expensive tastes. They employed an army of people to issue bills to farmers, and a second army to count every grain of grain as it arrived in Dublin. Their machinery, although new, shiny, and well-maintained, had its expensive roots in an earlier era of centralisation and control.
This next evolution in WorldCat, then, is a good step forward. But it’s still on the basis that libraries have to pay, up front, to be able to give their data to WorldCat. With that barrier, how can WorldCat ever become comprehensive? It’s also not very open. An HTML fragment that you can drop onto a web page in order to direct a search back into the WorldCat silo is one thing. A suite of open, accessible and documented APIs, capable of facilitating integration and reuse in a plethora of genuinely useful ways is something else entirely, and within reach. One use of that might very well be in providing the HTML search box, but it’s also capable of so much more.
It surely isn’t for OCLC to decide how libraries, their patrons, and the wider biblio community make use of data sourced from member libraries. Nor is it for OCLC to constrain those uses by providing all the applications themselves. A more innovative, scalable, flexible and fair approach is to provide the underlying technology components and to encourage others to build with them. Smart people in places like OCLC’s Office of Research may very well demonstrate some of the things that this approach makes possible, and OCLC may even decide to productise some of those tasters and provide them to the market for a fee. So, though, could anyone else. And libraries would be free to choose the product that best met their needs. Costs would fall. Choice would grow. Innovation would bloom.
Taking a quick look at some of the discussion around worldcat.org would suggest that I am not alone in this belief;
“Several librarians pointed out that the question of having to subscribe to WorldCat on FirstSearch is a sticky one. O’Neill commented: ‘Many libraries, like Santa Monica, have subscribed to FirstSearch for years and use it for our ILLs [interlibrary loans]. For us it’s not a problem. The State of California set up a subscription to WorldCat for California libraries a year or so ago so that less well financed libraries could offer it to their clients. SMPL had already paid for that service so we saved a little money when the State picked it up. I suspect that all libraries will have to contribute to supporting this type of subscription sooner or later—unless the State can find the funds.’”
(Paula J. Hane, “OCLC to Open WorldCat Searching to the World”, 17 July 2006)
Why should any State or library ‘have to’ pay in this way?
“A lot of metadata in library systems is not ‘Open Access.’ This makes it much harder, less efficient, and expensive to manage… But we have about 1000 ETD MARC records in WorldCat. Technically, it wouldn’t be hard to write a script that updates all of these URLs, but WorldCat is locked down. We can’t gain access to the database to automate this process. We have to use Connexion, which was designed strictly for humans to interact with. OCLC does NOT want to share its metadata for free, that is how they make their money. Although technically we could update these ETD records quite efficiently, OCLCs security apparatus prevents us from doing so.”
(Brian Surratt, “Take my metadata, please!”, 22 July 2006)
“They have to pay for the right to be in there via a subscription to WorldCat. This means that if a library does not subscribe, they don’t get a link to their holdings. While, I understand OCLC wants to make a profit (even though they are a nonprofit cooperative), this program ends up harming libraries that are not paying for a subscription”
(Edward Corrado, “OCLC to Open WorldCat searching to the world”, 17 July 2006)
So. WorldCat.org is a step forward, and I’m sure I’ll find it useful. I’ll get really excited, though, when anyone can (freely) contribute their own data, anyone can (appropriately) use and reuse the data, and there is a far more wholehearted embracing here of the reality that OCLC infrastructure is a piece in a wider and essentially uncontrollable puzzle, rather than a black hole that sucks all data and clicks to Ohio…
Forget some stop-gap ‘destination’ web site, and a few HTML search boxes. The aggregate data to which WorldCat could facilitate access have the potential to dramatically change the ways in which libraries are exposed to the information-seeking world. To get there, though, requires us to ask some hard questions, and equally requires OCLC management to make some hard decisions. Are you global or aren’t you? Are you open or aren’t you? Can you drop your current restrictive charges to contribute or truly use, and instead find ways to leverage the value of the aggregate to generate a reasonable revenue? Are you interested in seizing huge opportunities to support a sustainable explosion in the visibility and use of data from libraries, or are you applying lipstick and sticking plasters to a house of cards, whilst the breeze increases in strength all around? Open up, for real, and I’m behind you all the way, for real. Keep taking baby steps, and I’ll keep asking for more.
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