Reading between the lines

By reeset / On / In Digital Libraries, OCLC

Like a number of people, I found the following piece (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i24/24a01101.htm) from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Open Library fairly interesting — in part, because of the topics that the author chose to highlight.  I tend to categorizes pieces such as this as fluff, in that one rarely gets any content of substance from them.  However, in a short article about the Internet Archive’s Open Library initiative, I found it interesting that so much of the article centered around OCLC, or, should I say, the silence coming from OCLC as members seek to clarify OCLC’s position in regards to the Open Library and it’s members potential participation in this project.  Two things that jump out:

  1. “Librarians are not just uneasy having nonlibrarians edit catalogs; they are also afraid of offending OCLC.”

    An exceptional understatement, though one that doesn’t extend just to the Open Library.  As a general rule, I find that librarians are way to concerned with offending OCLC, with many having a feeling that should an offense be taken, that it could have long running repercussions for the institution.  Are these concerns valid — for OCLC — I think not.  While I firmly believe that OCLC occupies the same vendor space as other entities like EBSCOhost, Elseiver and Serial Solutions, I think that they are much more responsive to their members customers — due in part to the organization’s roots as a large co-opt.  Of course, librarians and libraries have been conditioned to believing that consequences will follow if one rocks the boat or steps on their partner’s toes.  And unfortunately (and much to my chagrin), I’ve had occasion myself to say or post opinions that have cause push back from content/software providers currently serving Oregon State.  Fortunately, my director doesn’t mind when the pot periodically gets stirred, but not everyone is as lucky.  So, I can certainly understand where the nervousness is coming from.At the same time, I think that OCLC is contributing to this sense of uncertainty.  OCLC hasn’t been caught by surprise by the Open Library’s development work and certainly hasn’t been surprised by the Open Library asking OCLC members to contribute data to the project.  For close to a year, OCLC has had the opportunity to provide some form of guidance or position, as it relates to the Open Library project.  Instead, they have been silent.  This leaves librarians and libraries to consult their local OCLC representatives who have been given widely varying information regarding the legality of participating in this project.  While I’ve yet to hear of anyone being told that a library could not participate in the project, it has been quietly discouraged by OCLC’s deafening silence. 
  2. “But one OCLC official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said Open Library was a waste of time and resources, and predicted it would fail.”Again, it’s interesting that in a piece like this, that this comment would make it’s way into the article.  Whether or not this reflect’s OCLC’s current position on this particular project, I think that a number of good things may come out of the Open Library project, even if indirectly.  First, OCLC’s grid services.  While likely not a direct result of the Open Library’s project, I’d guess that the current desire to accelerate their availability is in response to the growing number of projects currently looking to move into the space the OCLC has traditionally monopolized.  Yes, let’s call it what it is, in this space, OCLC functions as a monopoly, because OCLC has essentially been allowed to rely on it’s position to squeeze out competing projects (RLG) and leverage their data to create services that would be otherwise impossible to create without the metadata that OCLC currently possess.  I think to some degree, projects like the Open Library give OCLC pause in the sense that at present, they see their bibliographic and holdings content, WorldCat, as their crown jewel.  It represents a body of work that exists no where else in the world and gives them a potential advantage over any cloud-based service being developed within the library community.  At the same time, as OCLC goes forward and libraries become more interested in building some of their own tools (either individually or as part of a consortia), I think that WorldCat, and the data beneath it will actually become less important for OCLC — rather, it will be the services that they develop on top of it that will hold the most value.  And I think that projects like the Open Library have accelerated this development.  As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing. 

    Secondly, I think that this quote is interesting in a larger sense as to how it relates to OCLC as a whole.  They are undergoing big changes — business changes, philosophical changes and I think that this represents that to some degree.  As the piece notes, OCLC’s public face see cooperation as a good thing, while maybe privately, that’s not the case.  But honestly, I think that this is healthy.  OCLC is hiring a lot of bright people and has traditionally had a lot of bright people on staff and what we see is that they are thinking about these issues and how they relate within the larger community (even beyond OCLC).  Now, whether or not OCLC is particularly happy that these disagreements are being aired publicly (something that hasn’t traditionally happen), well, that would be something to keep an eye on as well.

–TR

[update: Spell check fails me again, sorry Martha]

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One thought on “Reading between the lines

  1. “Librarians are not just uneasy having nonlibrarians edit catalogs; they are also afraid of offending OCLC?

    I’d take that a step further. Whenever there is ambiguity, we consistently presume people will become upset about whatever we want to do. We then we respond to this conflict that doesn’t even exist as if we were totally wrong and that whoever complained must have been right.

    Instead of explaining to others what good we can do and trying to see what compromises can be reached when others raise concerns, we use the slightest chance wacko will be displeased as an excuse for doing nothing. At the same time, we have no concern for any problems or emotional distress caused by inaction.

    I find it amusing that we advocate for publishers to be more open with high value data when we are so closed about fairly basic data we create ourselves at public expense. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

    Perhaps, someone should just issue a FOIA request for records of materials owned by the library….