Saturday, June 14th, 2008

OCLC’s non-profit status

The New York Times ran an interesting story on non-profits that act like businesses. Apparently a number of states are taking a hard look at charities that “give nothing away,” or have amassed vast wealth. A lot of day-care centers are worried, as is Harvard, where the endowment tops the GDP of more than 100 counties.*

Of course, my mind went to OCLC, the Dublin, Ohio-based global library-data organization.

OCLC’s core business involves maintaining a central database of cataloging records, largely created by others, which member libraries pay to access. That OCLC was a great invention can hardly be denied. Personally, I think it has become a relic and an danger to the future of libraries. Agree with me on this or not, there’s no question it is highly profitable—driving a steady stream of acquisitions—and in its fee structure calls into question the core idea of the non-profit.

So, why hasn’t someone take away OCLC’s non-profit status?

I Googled it up, and discovered that someone DID! In 1984 Ohio state courts stripped OCLC of it’s charitable status on those very grounds:

“(A)lthough OCLC’s service may greatly enhance the ability of libraries to better serve the public, OCLC essentially offers a product to charitable institutions, for a fee exceeding its cost, and, as the board concluded, is not itself a charitable organization.”

So, what happened?

It seems the Ohio legislature passed some sort of private bill removing Ohio organizations involved in “library technology development” (and starting with the letter “O”?) from the court’s requirements. Well, I guess that’ll do it.

UPDATE: I’m working up a presentation on why OCLC’s (also unfree) Dewey Decimal System needs to be killed-off, and what distributed, open classification could replace it. I’m all ears for anti-Dewey examples. And if any bright young cataloger with no love of Dewey wants to talk to me about heading up the effort, I’d love to hear from you.


*$35 billion, doing a quick check against Wikipedia. Of course, GDP is wiggly as heck.

Labels: DDC, dewey decimal, oclc, tax exemption

2 Comments:

  1. Trifold says:

    This really a definitely well thought out post. I certainly enjoyed reading it. Thanks

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