Thursday, April 12th, 2007

WorldCat: Think locally, act globally

OCLC just announced a “pilot” of WorldCat Local. In essence, WorldCat local is OCLC providing libraries with a OPAC.

That’s the news. Here’s the opinion. Talis’ estimable Richard Wallis writes:

“Yet another clear demonstration that the library world is changing. The traditional boundaries between the ILS/LMS, and library and non-library data services are blurring. Get your circulation from here; your user-interface from there; get your global data from over there; your acquisitions from somewhere else; and blend it with data feeds from here, there and everywhere is becoming more and more a possibility.”

I think this is exactly wrong. OCLC isn’t creating a web service. They’re not contributing to the great data-service conversation. They’re trying to convert a data licensing monopoly into a services monopoly. If the OCLC OPAC plays nice with, say, the Talis Platform, I’ll eat my hat. If it allows outside Z39.50 access I’ll eat two hats.

They will, as the press release states “break down silos.” They’ll make one big silo and set the rules for access. The pattern is already clear. MIT thought that its bibliographic records were its own, but OCLC shut them down when they tried to act on that. The fact is, libraries with their data in OCLC are subject to OCLC rules. And since OCLC’s business model requires centralizing and restricting access to bibliographic data, the situation will not improve.

As a product, OCLC local will probably surpass the OPACs offered by the traditional vendors. It will be cleaner and work better. It may well be cheaper and easier to manage. There are a lot of good things about this. And—lest my revised logo be misunderstood—there are no bad people here. On the contrary, OCLC is full of wonderful people—people who’ve dedicated their lives to some of the highest ideals we can aspire. But the institution is dependent on a model that, with all the possibilities for sharing available today, must work against these ideals.

Keeping their data hidden, restricted and off the “live” web has hurt libraries more than we can ever know. Fifteen years ago, libraries were where you found out about books. One would have expected that to continue on the web–that searching for a book would turn up libraries alongside bookstores, authors and publishers.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Libraries are all-but-invisible on the web. Search for the “Da Vinci Code” and you won’t get the Library of Congress–the greatest collection of books and book data ever assembled–not even if you click through a hundred pages. You do get WorldCat, seventeen pages in!

The causes are multiple, and discussed before. But a major factor is how libraries deal with book data, and that’s largely a function of OCLC’s business model. Somehow institutions dedicated to the idea that knowledge should be freely available to all have come to the conclusion that knowledge about knowledge—book data—should not, and traditional library mottos like Boston‘s “Free to All” and Philadelphia‘s Liber Libere Omnibus (“Free books for all!”) given way to:

“No part of any Data provided in any form by WorldCat may be used, disclosed, reproduced, transferred or transmitted in any form without the prior written consent of OCLC except as expressly permitted hereunder.”

We now return you to our regularly-scheduled blogging.

Labels: library of congress, oclc, open data, worldcat local

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