What would it look like if OCLC was broken up?

The other day, I posted what I seen as some very big concerns with OCLC’s revised policy (currently being reconsidered) on the transfer of records (two of which, I would consider deal breakers).  In this post, I made the argument that maybe it was time to consider breaking OCLC up to reflect what it has become — an organization with two distinct facets: a membership component and a vendor component.  This comment led to a conversation from someone at OCLC who questioned whether I honestly believed that the library community would be better off if OCLC was broken up and it was obvious from our conversation that on this point, we would simply need to agree to disagree.  As a side note, I think that these types of disagreements and conversations are actually really important to have.  I’m always nervous of communities or groups in which everyone agrees since it usually means that people either are not thinking critically or no really cares.  Secondly, I think that we all (OCLC and myself for that matter) want what’s best for the library community — we just have different visions of what that might be. 

Anyway, back to my topic.  Now, I’m going to preface this discussion by saying that this is obviously my own opinion and one that may not be shared by many people within the library community (I really have no idea).  Even within the library open source community, where I’m sure this opinion would be more prevalent (or at least entertained), I’m pretty sure I’m still in the minority.  But as I say, I think that these conversations are important to consider — specifically as we move down a path where OCLC is very quickly positioning themselves to become the library community’s default service provider for all things library (in terms of ILL, ILS interface, cataloging, etc.).

So when I talk about breaking up OCLC, exactly what am I’m talking about?  Well, in order to follow me down the path that I am going to take you, we have to talk about OCLC as I currently see them.  Watching OCLC during the 10 years (I can’t believe it’s actually been 10 years) that I have been in libraries, I have seen a quickening evolution of OCLC from strictly a member driven organization to more of a hybrid organization.  On the one hand, there is what many would consider the membership side of OCLC, that being WorldCat, ILL and their research and development office.  On the other hand, there is OCLC’s vendor arm…a good example of this would be WorldCat Local and WorldCat Navigator.  So how do I make these distinctions — membership services are those that I would consider core services.  These are services that OCLC has developed to add value to what OCLC likes to refer to as the Library Commons (WorldCat).  OCLC’s vendor services are those tools or programs that OCLC sells on top of the Library Commons, of which, I think WorldCat Local/Navigator is a good example.  Now I think that at this point, I know that folks at OCLC (and likely in the membership) would argue that both WorldCat Local/Navigator do provide services that the OCLC membership is currently requesting.  I won’t deny that — however, I would answer that the fact that OCLC treats the Library Commons (WorldCat) as it’s own closed personal community has the unintended affect of limiting the library community’s (and I include both commercial and non-commercial entities in my definition of community) ability to develop new service models.  In effect, we become much more dependent on how OCLC envisions the future of libraries.  Let me try and tease this out a little bit more…

Philosophically, the biggest problem that I have with the current situation is the commingling of OCLC’s treatment of the Commons (WorldCat) and their current strategy of being the sole commercial entity with the ability to interact with the Commons.  I’m a firm believer that the more diverse the landscape or ecology, the more likely that innovation will take place.  We’ve seen this time and time again both inside (Evergreen and Koha certainly have shaken up the traditional ILS market) and outside (web browsers are a good example of how competition breeds innovation) the library community.  However, by isolating the Commons, OCLC is threatening this diversity of thought.  Now, I have a whole set of different issues with the current library ILS community, but in this case, I think that OCLC’s treatment of the Commons, and their ability to leverage that service unfairly skews the ability for both commercial and non-commercial entities to provide innovative services on top of those Commons (and before anyone jumps on me for non-commercial use, let me finish my thoughts here).  Commercially, I’m fairly certain that the current crop of ILS vendors would very much like to provide their own WorldCat Local/Navigator interfaces to their customers, and I’m sure, would be able to tie these interfaces closely with services already provided by the users ILS.  I could envision things like ERM (electronic resource management), simplified requesting, etc. all being possible if the likes of ExLibris or Innovative Interfaces were allowed to build tools upon the Library Commons (WorldCat).  Maybe I would like to develop my own version of WorldCat Local/Navigator that interacts with the Commons and sell it as a product (kind of the same way ezproxy was sold prior to being acquired by OCLC) or a group of researchers would like to do the same.  As a commercial entity, I’m fairly certain that this type of development model wouldn’t be kosher with OCLC unless I licensed access to WorldCat (and I’m not certain that they would given that this would compete against one of their services).  Likewise, open source folks like LibLime or Equinox may like to create an open source version of the WorldCat Local interface.  Under the current guidelines, I understand that an open source implementation of WorldCat Local can exist — but as I understand that agreement, I’m not certain that groups like LibLime or Equinox (or another entity) could not take that project and then sell support-based services around it (I’m unclear on that one though).  However, it’s very unlikely that the library world will see any of these types of developments (well, maybe the open source WorldCat Local since I have a group that could use this and a number of people interested in developing it) because OCLC has come to treat what it calls the Commons (WorldCat), as it’s own personal data store.  There’s that commingling again. 

So if it was up to me, how would I resolve this situation?  Well, I see two possible scenarios. 

  1. Open up WorldCat.  OCLC likes to refer to WorldCat as the Library Commons — well, let’s treat it as such.  Remove the barriers for access and allow anyone and everyone the ability to essentially have their own copy of the Library Commons and it’s data.  Now, rather than specifying terms of transfer and telling libraries under what conditions they can and cannot make their metadata available to other groups, the membership could consider what type of Open Data license that the Commons could be made available under.  Something like the creative commons share alike license which allows for both commercial and non-commercial usage, but requires all parties to contribute all changes to the data back to the community (in essence, this is kind of what Open Library is doing with their metadata) may be appropriate.  OCLC would be free to develop their own products, but the rest of the library community (both library and vendor community) would have equal opportunity to develop new services and ways of visualizing the data found in the Commons.  Does this devalue the Commons (WorldCat)?  I don’t think so — look at Wikipedia.  It uses this model of distribution, yet I’ve never heard anyone say that this devalues it’s content.  Would there be challenges?  For sure.  Probably one of the biggest would be the way that it would change what it means to be a member of OCLC.  If each person could download their own personal copy of the Commons, would libraries stay members.  I’m certain that they would — but I’m sure that what it means to be a member would certainly change.
  2. Split OCLC’s membership services from OCLC’s vendor services.  Under this example, WorldCat Local/Navigator development would be spun away from OCLC as a separate business (this happens in academia all the time).  Were this to happen, OCLC would be able to develop terms for license that could then be leverage by all members of the commercial library community removing the artificial advantage OCLC is currently able to leverage (both in terms of data and deciding who is allowed to work with the Commons).  In all likelihood, I think that this model likely represents the smallest change for the membership and would continue to allow OCLC to make the Commons more available to non-commercial development without artificially limiting other groups interested in building new services. 

One last thought.  In talking to people today, I heard a number of times that OCLC restricting access to the Commons was in fact good thing, in part, because it finally allowed the library community the ability to leverage resources not available to the vendor communities.  In some way, we could finally stick it to them.  That’s fine, I’m all for developing tools and services, but this particular type of thinking I find worrisome.  If we, as a community, feel that we are unable to develop compelling tools and services that are able to compete with other vendor offerings without an artificial advantage — well that’s just sad and says a little something about how we see ourselves as a community.  And this too is something that I’d like to see change because if you look around, you will see that there are a myriad of projects (Koha, Evergreen, VuFind, Fedora, DSpace, LibraryFind, XC Catalog, Zotero, etc.) where developers (some library developers, some not) are re-envisioning how they see many of the services within the library and putting their time and effort into realizing those visions. 



  1. Great thoughts! I’m not sure what everyone else thinks, but your two scenarios make sense to me. I think scenario #1 would actually increase the value of WorldCat, and certainly it would further the missions of libraries a lot more then the current strategy of keeping it closed. OCLC would have the local expertise to capitalize on the data and they would have a leg up on the competition – thus they would possibly increase their revenues in other areas. I am sure there are other business models they can use to protect their members investment in WorldCat as well.

  2. Interesting comments, as always. One question: do you think that OCLC is up to the technical challenges associated with actually accepting and integrating enhancements to metadata made outside of WorldCat into in the WorldCat database/infrastructure? From where I sit, I think development of this type of functionality this is incredibly important for the future health and viability of WorldCat (with our without a breakup), but I’ve seen little evidence that OCLC is prepared, organizationally or technically, to design and implement an architecture that would enable this to happen. OCLC’s strategy for protecting the integrity of the WorldCat database for years has been to massively restrict the ability to make changes to master records. Opening the system up to accept changes made by outside entities would require a major conceptual shift. Is OCLC ready to consider that?

  3. Shirley,

    I think to some degree they are trying to do this now (though abeit, at times poorly) with the import of metadata from various vendor sites, integration of Onyx metadata, etc. However, you do raise a good question. For a number of years I’ve actually been pestering folks at OCLC to open up their APIs for metadata contribution simply so I could integrate this functionality with MarcEdit — but even today, the ability to write to the database (even for the membership) is fairly restrictive (ie., limited to a handful of mechanisms). This is one of the reasons why I liked the Open Library project. This project is predicated on the idea that metadata creation could be sustained in the form of a wiki (or, at least, using wiki-like functionality). Personally, I would love to see OCLC embrace this type of model — though, I would imagine that this too would bring a shift in how we consider authority control, etc. But, I do think these are all good conversations for the membership to be having.


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