Panlibus Blog

Keeping the WorldCat in the bag

I’ve been travelling, and preparing for it, over the last couple of days so haven’t had chance to update my thoughts on the OCLC Updated Record Use Policy saga.  In my previous post I was musing that whatever OCLC were trying to do in this area they were not making a good fist of doing it.

From that point of view things have definitely got a great deal better.  They re-released their policy, with many changes from the one they previously posted and took down almost immediately.  Thingology Blog has provided a interesting comparison between the two releases.

More importantly, and usefully for those trying to get their head around this, Karen Calhoun published a helpful post on Metalogue – Notes on OCLC’s Updated Record Use Policyexploring the reasoning and intentions behind this change in policy.

I’ve been asked more than once why OCLC felt the need to update its policy and why member libraries should support the updated policy. This post is an attempt to answer those questions.

One thing I believe everyone will agree upon is Karen’s starting point:

Time for a change
In Web years, the Guidelines for Use and Transfer of OCLC-Derived Records, last updated in 1987, are not just 21, but as old as Methuselah.  While the principles underlying the Guidelines have held up well with respect to sharing among libraries, the language and 1980s context of the document have made the Guidelines increasingly hard to understand and apply.  The Guidelines have also been frequently faulted for their ambiguity about WorldCat data sharing rights and conditions.

She then goes on to describe how the way records have been [or not] transferred around in the past is becoming less & less appropriate in this interconnected web world we are all operating in now – still not many arguments there.

Karen highlights that “in one recent five month period, 87% of the referrals to came from search engines and other Web sites; less than 13% came from a typed or bookmarked URL to itself” – as library catalogues are currently very deficient in enabling search engines to identify and hence point to individual records, this is hardly a surprising development.  She then uses this as a justification that WorldCat should increase it’s role as the global switch driving traffic from the wider web in to individual library catalogues.  This has some merit as an argument, but only as an interim solution until library catalogue software gets it’s act together and enables that access directly.

One of Karen’s justifications for the policy changes to defend the WorldCat database intrigues me. She quotes from the guidelines as to the rationale behind restrictions on record sharing:

"member libraries have made a major investment in the OCLC Online Union Catalog and expect other member libraries, member networks and OCLC to take appropriate steps to protect the database." 

That’s a bit like saying to someone offering to buy your car “it is worth more now because I invested lots of money taking it through a car wash every week to make it look good whilst I owned it”.  The value, or need to protect, something now is all to do with the comparison with the alternatives now, and very little to do with past investments.

There is much in Karen’s post about Creative Commons, GPL, Open source and other licensing models that I’m not qualified to constructively postulate upon with confidence. Fortunately Jonathan Rochkind and Rob Styles and others they quote have a far greater understanding of these things than I do.  Their very helpful forays in to the legal side of things seem to conclude, with reference to some legal precedent, that the OCLC conditions need some serious testing at best and are unenforceable at worst.

Despite the expressed good intentions behind the opening up of access to the WorldCat database it is being corrupted by an institutional fear ingrained in the OCLC DNA of letting the WorldCat [database] out of the bag – effectively giving away their traditional raison d’être and disappearing in an open access puff of smoke.

OCLC’s laudable history has been based upon providing valuable and relevant services to its membership and customers.  Things move on as Karen acknowledges, and what was is of core relevance and value changes.  In her presentation to  the Libraries and Web 2.0 Discussion Group at IFLA in August, she quotes from a post of mine, which I still believe, from about a year ago:

“OCLC is trapped in an increasingly inappropriate business model—a model based upon the value in the creation and control of data. Increasingly, in this interconnected world, the value is in making data openly available and building services upon it.  When people get charged for one thing, but gain value from another, they will become increasingly uncomfortable with the old status quo.”

Her landscape summary slide from the end of her presentation [which I hope she is OK about me reproducing here as I couldn’t see a Creative Commons, or other, license in it] provides an excellent summary.


The landscape rich in contradictions in which transitions are painful, is clearly on the button.  The key point for me is “Where the money comes from” directly impacts data sharing policy.  OCLC are building a portfolio of value added services and commercial operations which libraries benefit from and therefore should be willing to invest in – that is where ROI is visible and can be measured and justified.  In a world of commoditisation of data, and where the costs of it’s reproduction and storage are dropping like a stone, the value is moving towards the services that can be derived from analysing, interpreting, and identifying relationships within that core common record set.

So I believe that OCLC should stop worrying about letting the WorldCat out of the bag, embrace not resist this inevitable change, and have some confidence that their undeniable skills, experience, innovative drive, reputation, and resources will enable them to refocus themselves as a successful metadata value-added provider to libraries.    

Cat in bag, with scary snake outside, picture published in Flickr by Mr. T in DC.

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