Panlibus Blog

Does anyone have a marker-pen? An open letter to Karen Calhoun.

December 21, 2007

Karen Calhoun
Vice President, WorldCat and Metadata Services
OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.
6565 Kilgour Place
Dublin, OH 43017-3395 USA

Dear Karen,

Thank you for publishing your response to the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. You’ll forgive me if my open letter to you is a little less formal.

The working group’s draft presents the library world with a rallying point around which it can choose to really move forwards into the internet age in a way that it has not managed to achieve so far. You hold a unique position of power, this is clear from the fact that you get a mention in the working group report. But with great power comes great responsibility, and for anyone who’s watched Spiderman, it’s clear that often means giving things up.

Reading between the lines your response seems to be saying that you are, in fact, better placed and better qualified than the Library of Congress to take on the role of national data provider. That may very well be the case, you are certainly better funded – their budget of around $387 million for the national library has to work very hard looking after more than 134 million items as well doing all the other great work they do.

On the other hand, you have more than $234 million of your customers money to spend each year, without any items to look after. You also have nearly half-a-billion dollars sat aside to dip into should you have to do something big and important.

So if the community were to rally behind you as the centre of an effort to truly modernise, what would they have to demand of you?

Firstly, the community should insist you open up more. OCLC’s Office of Research gives quite a lot, but on the whole you could do more. The Library of Congress data is unambiguously in the public-domain, at least within the US. The community should demand that the data you manage on their behalf should be Open too. That would mean removing some of the technical controls you have in place, but most of all removing the restrictive terms you put in your membership contracts. The community should then protect any further contributions of their data by making them under a license such as the Open Data Commons License. Of course, lots of people would like to see LC move further in opening up too.

Secondly, the community should insist that the software they have paid you to write should be open-source. To say that you have released your FRBR algorithm when most librarys have no real chance of implementing it is somewhat disingenuous; give them the code. To say that crosswalks can be accessed through a web service is great, but not for everyone; give them the code. That would make Devon happy too, he wants his awesome work shared.

Thirdly, the community should insist you become more inclusive. Invite some vendors’ developers to join in the Grid Developer Network, or just invite everyone and see who comes. Tell everyone they’re free to blog about anything you’re doing – including your staff. Invite me to your symposium at ALA in June. Start a series of webcasts with great speakers who can influence the community.

Finally, the community should insist that you let go of control. That means not locking people in, it means not promoting worse solutions over better solutions just because you own the Copyright on the worse one – it means providing the tools for libraries to move from DDC to LCSH or MESH as well as the tools to move to it.

This last point is the key, letting go of control, as Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman describe it – the difference between the starfish and the spider. At the moment you’re a spider, but using the web as a platform means being a starfish. Skype, Craigslist, the many peer-to-peer networks, email and the very web itself all work precisely because Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf before him understood they had to let go of centralised control. Tim Berners-Lee got a Knighthood for letting go of control. We can’t promise you one, but you’d certainly earn the adulation of your peers.

Right now you’re too controlling, too centralised, too judgemental of your members, you’re a spider. Even your new logo with its big blue abdomen, green body and cute little orange head is just crying out for eight marker-pen legs, two marker-pen eyes and a cheeky little marker-pen smile. But the web wasn’t spun by spiders, it’s far more like the communication trails left by ants, another interesting social species.

The WoGroFuBiCo (as William Denton calls them) are asking the community to become a starfish, you need to stop being a spider.

Again, many thanks for making your response open and giving us a chance to widen the debate. Merry Christmas to all at OCLC from all of us here at Talis.


Rob Styles
Geek, Talis

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