WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative — initial thoughts

By reeset / On / In OCLC

So yesterday, a number of messages were sent out letting folks know that the OCLC Record Use Policy Council had completed their work and have provided a draft document to the OCLC member community for comment.  Sadly, I’m in the middle of doing other work (travelling mostly) – but I have had an opportunity to look over this draft and have passed on a handful of comments to OCLC and our OCLC representatives.  I thought I’d also provide a general gist of some of my comments to folks here since I’ve been asked privately for my impressions. 

So let’s start with the good.  I’ll admit that I was very much not a fan of the first draft released over the fall.  For my tastes, the first draft took something that was very much an informal policy statement that had served OCLC and its membership for many years, and turned it into a legal license – and did so in a way that I personally felt poisoned long-term innovation for libraries looking to work independent of OCLC.  Knowing a number of folks involved in writing the first draft of this policy, I know that wasn’t the intent but the first draft had problems…problems with the language and problems with the way in which it was created.  And to OCLC’s credit, they may not have ultimately agreed with the membership, but they did ultimately decide to withdraw that draft and make another attempt at updating the current guidelines.  And I think that they do deserve some kudos for admitting that they may not have gotten it right…*AND* providing a mechanism for comments to help guide the future effort.  I can respect that.

Looking over the new draft of the record use policy, there are a number of things that I like.  First, the document is written to a very narrow audience, OCLC members.  While the implications of the policy reach beyond the membership community, the Record Use Policy Council did do a good job defining the audience and speaking to that audience.  Secondly, the document is much easier on the eyes.  Not perfect (more below), but easier to read and more importantly, is being presented as a set of best practices and guidelines.  While I know that the spirit of the document is to provide a policy that will govern record use – my take is that the document is fuzzy enough that appropriate use is left, in large measure, up to the individual organizations.  Does this allow libraries to give records to 3rd party groups like Open Library or simply post their metadata, en-mass, to an ftp server for download?  If you believe that it does, I think so.  FAQ’s 3 and 6 try to address these questions and in answering, essentially boil the answer down to judgment.  I’m fairly certain that given the above example, OCLC would prefer Open Library to enter into an agreement with OCLC and I’m also fairly certain that just posting a continually updated version of your catalog’s bibliographic data for anonymous download via FTP may not be completely in the spirit of this revised Policy – but I think that it’s fuzzy enough that so long as an organization feels that they are within their rights to do so, they could certainly argue that they are.  And of course, I bring both of these examples up because, indeed, there are grass roots efforts at many organizations doing both.

What else do I like?  I like that OCLC is looking for comment.  They’ve provided a public forum for comment, an email address to send comments directly to the Records Use Council, encouraged members to contact their representatives on the user council.  There seems to be a real effort here to collect feedback and take the pulse of the community.  Now, one thing that seems less clear, is how this comment period will impact this draft.  The first attempt at a policy in fall ‘09 was so bad and caused so much consternation within the member community that withdrawing the draft really was the only option.  However, what’s unclear to me is how comments and feedback from community members will be utilized in updating this draft and really, what impact that they will have.  My guess is that most will read this document and figure that its good enough (not perfect), but given its much softer language be easier to agree to.  So given that, how effective will the comment period be and what will be the process used to ensure that this document can be fixed should situations arise down the road that call for it.

Finally, I like that OCLC has defined how they view WorldCat because it lets me see where they are coming from.  In a previous post, I’d described OCLC’s record stewardship and WorldCat as a part of the public commons.  And that’s my sincere belief.  Libraries (both members and non-members) have contributed bibliographic data to the cooperative and I think that how libraries utilize data extracted from the cooperative should be restriction free.  OCLC is free to license access to the collective database as a whole, but individually, once libraries have extracted that data – they cease to belong to the cooperative.  However, this policy clarifies how OCLC views the cooperative and the records within by clarifying their understanding of public goods and club goods, asserting that OCLC’s role, WorldCat and the bibliographic data entrusted to it, are the latter.  I may not agree with them, but it certainly helps when framing the discussion.

So that’s what I see as the good, and if I’ve understated it, I do think that this draft has moved in a much more positive direction.  So, how do I think that it could be improved?  Well, I’m going to give you two things because I think that they are both important.

  1. While the document has become much easier to read, its still way too long.  We are talking about sharing bibliographic and holdings data, not brain surgery.  Having recently spent time working with OCLC’s Office of Research, I know that OCLC can write very concise, easy to understand, terms of use documents.  That’s what I think we needed here.  The OCLC Record Use Policy Council was asked to provide a record use policy – what they gave us was an opus on member responsibility and rights.  I can tell that a lot of thought and work went into the document, but in the end, I really wish that some of that focus and brevity that we find from the Office of Research would have made its way into this document.
  2. In some ways, I’m still very uncomfortable with this policy statement, and I think it comes down to the tone and focus of the policy itself.  And I think my uneasiness can be summed up in the first objective of the draft:?Maximize the utility and viability of WorldCat, enable and facilitate innovation based on WorldCat, and support the substantial network of relationships between OCLC members and their partners in today’s information landscape, while sustaining the integrity of the WorldCat database and its economic underpinnings?

    I may be the only one, but I think that this Records Use Policy should be separated from WorldCat.  I think a more appropriate objective (and class of objectives) would have been:  to promote and facilitate research, discovery, innovation and growth of the OCLC membership community.  Really, WorldCat is a brand, its the current product OCLC uses to curate the bibliographic and holdings data entrusted to it by the member community.  While I agree that OCLC needs to be mindful of the economic viability of the WorldCat database, I don’t believe the the policy document created to govern data use and reuse should join the two together.  As a colleague said to me recently, the policy should focus on the core issues of bibliographic and holdings data use and reuse – not the viability of a specific product.  I think shifting the policy from a WorldCat focus to a community focused model would completely change the tone of the document and go a long way to solidify, in my mind, that OCLC is indeed working on a policy document that places the needs and welfare of the community above a specific product or product line.  I realize that it may not be fair, but that is the position that OCLC has placed itself in, living in both worlds as trusted library cooperative and friend to the library community and that of a pseudo-vendor – competing directly against other library vendors that serve both OCLC members and non-members alike. 

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts.  I’ll be giving this document a closer read and will continue to provide my thoughts and comments to OCLC and our representatives – and I encourage everyone do so as well. 



4 thoughts on “WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative — initial thoughts

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