OCLC Critiques

2007 December 26
by Karen

Browsing my feeds a while ago I found are interesting set of posts regarding OCLC. One from Tim Spaulding of Library Thing and two from Steve Osberg at Family Man Librarian. I’ve been following developments at OCLC for some time and remember talking to Roy at some point long before he worked for OCLC, saying that in regards to some of the things that were coming out of OCLC (purchase of Openly, development of Open WorldCat) that “this could be bad”. It isn’t that I don’t think OCLC is a good organization. I admire the work that they’ve done and at times been greatly inspired by it. But monopolies can potentially be very bad things. Thus far, I don’t believe that OCLC has lived up to the anxiety I’d felt at the time.

One valid critique that underpins what is being said in these posts is that intentionally or unintentionally OCLC has created a situation where some libraries are shut out. Their holdings are not part of the system. Personally, I see this as highly undesirable both for the libraries who choose not to have OCLC membership due to cost, and for libraries in general. To be truly effective, a product like WorldCat should have comprehensive holdings. Perhaps OCLC should revisit pricing schemes and policies with this in mind.

At the same time though, libraries and librarians need to understand that OCLC, though a non-for-profit, needs capital to keep itself a float and serving its membership and libraries in general. All too often I think libraries such forget fiscal realities. Some would suggest that the open source software model as a possible solutions. However, in his keynote at Open Repositories 2007 James L. Hilton pointed out that open source software requires cost and organization investments as well. In fact, to deal with these very issues many higher education institutions had joined consortia to develop specific open source software (Sakai for example).

Libraries could choose to toss OCLC aside but would likely find themselves in some sort of similar arrangement within a short amount of time. (Case in point, look at all the other consortias that libraries belong to.) As many institutions are discovering, local efforts are simply not a viable solution to the massive challenges which libraries face today. (Look at the number of institutions collaborating on the eXtensible Catalog Project)

Most of these challenges require libraries to work in concert together. To collaborate, and to share the cost of these collaborations. In my institution, two such collaborations come to mind: LibraryFind and the Texas Digital Library. The UH Libraries plays different roles in each of these projects and there is always some discussion of cost (staff time and monetary resources) versus benefit. However, I believe, through these partnerships UH is able to move new projects and services forward in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

None of this is to say that OCLC is perfect. Frankly I’d like to see OCLC take a more open source approach and generate their additional revenue off of application service provision rather than selling data or software. Yet if libraries believe they can overcome the monumental challenges we face today and build comprehensive services that truly meet our users needs without consortia like OCLC they are kidding themselves. Not even the most prosperous library has the resources to go alone, the task is too large.

My advice to people who are unhappy with OCLC is to advocate for change within the system. Decisions at OCLC are made by the Members Council and Board of Trustees. Find out who the representative is for your area is and talk to them. Better yet talk to your regional service provider about how to run for one of the Council seats.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2007 December 30

    Parts of OCLC still think too centralized while we are in a networked environment. OCLC is the largest player in library world, but is only one player. Monopoly is bad, so libraries should easily be able to switch from and to OCLC like any other service. If OCLC does a good job (which it does), more libraries will participate. OCLC should not act like commercial vendors that make it difficult to leave them.

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