Archive for May, 2009
Thursday, May 21st, 2009
The OCLC Review Board finally put OCLC’s Policy to bed. In a short speech to the OCLC Members Council, board chair Jennifer Younger, affirmed “that a policy is needed, but not this policy.” After the drubbing they got from the ICOLC and ARL—neither of which took into consideration OCLC’s recent push into the software market—you can be sure OCLC will take its board’s advice.
While the result was the right one, and I’m sure the members are good, conscientious librarians, I’m not going to echo others’ praise about their decision. The writing was on the wall. If they had pushed forward, OCLC would have met even more hostility than it already engendered. The speech itself, like their “push poll” survey, show where the OCLC Review Board’s sympathies lie. I don’t think you could read the ICOLC or ARL reports against it and conclude OCLC “gets” it. It was, as one of my email correspondents put it “all about protecting WorldCat, identifying ‘threats,’ and ‘appropriate use by members.’”
The Social Contract. The phrase “social contract” is an interesting one. The idea also appeared in the the ARL report*—and may well go have been used before. As everyone knows, it’s a key concept in political theory (hence the Hobbes’ frontispiece above) as the thing that, some believe, makes government power legitimate.
Why, therefore, does a cooperative need to express itself in terms of state-formation, rather than a voluntary cooperative? Why does OCLC want to cast itself as a government?
Sitting in OCLC’s Brobdingnagian Dublin, OH headquarters, with thousands of OCLC workers shuttling about like so many ministry secretaries, and an interior hall bedecked with flags like the United Nations, it must be easy to think of OCLC as a sort of “government of libraries.”**
Architectural criticism aside, OCLC’s answer might be that, unlike cooperatives, a government gets to enforce its will more broadly. If you run afoul of a cooperative, the mutual consent that bound you to the cooperative is withdrawn, and you leave or they kick you out. But if you break the rules of a state, they put you in prison, whether you consent or not. Indeed, while philosophers have sometimes proposed a formal ceremony of consent, states act on non-consenting members all the time. Anarchists go to prison too (indeed, they tend to go to prison for being anarchists). This model, therefore, fits in better with OCLC’s plan to bind former members and non-members use of library data. As a cooperative, OCLC is a purely member institution. With a “social contract,” OCLC get to dictate more like a state.***
If the idea of OCLC-as-state is accepted, however, there’s a gap between the ARL report‘s idea of a “mutual social contract”—a social contract between citizen equals—and Younger’s description of the “Social Contract between OCLC and its members.” The latter is a nice description of the more antique view of a contract between citizens and their sovereign. Even if libraries accept a government over them, I suspect they would be more comfortable with the more modern view of a contract between equals.
Nullum timeret? As libraries consider the matter, one factor can be put to rest: Fear.
Writing for the Next Generation Catalog for Libraries list, Karen Coyle speculated that libraries were responding to OCLC through organizations like ARL and ICOLC, out of a “combination of ‘strength in numbers’ and ‘safety in numbers.’”
“I’ve seen a remarkable tendency of libraries to not want to confront OCLC. Remember that the proposed policy had penalties for mis-use of records, and severe ones at that (loss of rights to use OCLC records altogether). There is an intimidation factor involved. Agreed, as a member organization the members should not be afraid, but I think they are.”
That fear should be much diminished. Members spoke up, and OCLC backed down again and again (by my count they postponed, revised, revised, revised, delayed for revision and now shelved). Libraries—and, quite importantly, lots of people who merely love libraries—rose up and forced OCLC to back down.
The frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan, shown above, quotes the Vulgate of the first clause of Job 41:33, non est super terram potestas quae conparetur ei (“There is no power on earth that compares to him.”). No doubt Hobbes or anyway his cover-designer felt this a good description of the legitimate sovereign.
But for our purposes, the second clause is particularly apt, qui factus est ut nullum timeret, “There is no power on earth that compares to him, who was made to fear nothing.” Job thought that whales were fearless.
Well, OCLC, you’ve met the architeuthis. And he is all of us.
*”In the eyes of the community, the guidelines expressed a mutual social contract, and the new Policy represents an authoritarian, unilaterally imposed legal restriction.”
**The trees growing inside are also a nice touch. The Assyrian throne room just had a carving of a tree, and the White Tree of Gondor was outside.
***Similarly, nobody minds if you belong to two cooperatives. But states tend to be jealous about allegiance. AS ICOLC wrote, libraries are involved in a “complex set of relationships,” of which, “OCLC is one vital component among many that libraries will use.” That’s not really a “social contract” idea.
Photo by Flickr user OZinOH.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
The International Coalition of Library Consortia, a very loose but extremely large group of library consortia, just released a Statement on the Proposed OCLC Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records.
For a while there it looked like OCLC was going to succeed in locking down the world’s library data, converting a wonderful sharing and coordination tool into an unbreakable data monopoly. But, together with OCLC’s recent, revealing decision to enter the library systems market, the ICOLC statement effectively ends that possibility. OCLC isn’t getting its new Policy, or anything like it.* Good night, OCLC Policy.
The details are worth a look. The ICOLC’s statement was short, signing onto the “substantial and broad” concerns highlighted by the Association of Research Libraries. It goes on to add three concerns, two of which address the risk to innovation—a topic the ARL report barely touched on:
- The proposed policy appears to freeze OCLC’s role in the library community based on historical and current relationships. We share the concern, voiced by many, that the policy hinders rather than encourages innovation, and we urge the Review Board to carefully examine this issue. It is unclear that the policy has been constructed with a focus on an evolving role of OCLC in enhancing the missions of an international library community with diverse and complex interests.
- The scope of the proposed policy goes well beyond any concerns about inappropriate commercial exploitation of WorldCat records. It applies as well to non-commercial uses. ICOLC member consortia are member-created, member-driven innovation agents. Our initiatives are generally non-commercial and undertaken with member approval based on member needs. Any OCLC record use policy should account for the rich and diverse innovation that takes place through many consortia.
- The proposed policy is legally murky. There is no mechanism for negotiation of terms and conditions nor is it clear what constitutes acceptance by member libraries. A new policy must address these problems.
As significant as the content was the list of signatories. Lyrasis, the former Palinet and Solinet, includes over 2,500 members. With “regional base and national scope” (their words), and about to merge with Nelinet, bringing their members to 4,500, Lyrasis is a major player. They’re no longer just a “regional service provider” for OCLC, and can be expected to collaborate or compete with OCLC as its members’ interests lead. They were joined by many of the big regional and state networks out there—MINITEX, NERL, the Florida Center for Library Automation, the Washington Research Library Consortium, the Michigan Library Consortium, WiLS, four Canadian consortia and both the Swedish and Finnish national libraries. Some of the signatories ought to have been sympathetic. Orbis Cascade, a source of much original cataloging, is also an important OCLC partner in developing consortial software. In Ohio, OCLC’s home state, OhioLINK, OHIONET and INFOhio all signed. Other members will add their names to the list as they affirm it.
The Next Step. It’s time now for the library world to step back and consider what, if anything, they want to do about restricting library data in a fast-moving, digital world. Some, including some who’ve deplored OCLC’s process and the policy, want restrictions on how library data is distributed and used. Once monopoly and rapid, coerced adoption are off the table, that’s a debate worth having, and one with arguments on both sides.
From my perspective, restrictions on the use and transfer of cataloging data—which is not usually copyrightable and is most frequently created by bodies responsible to the public good—is legally dubious and ethically stingy.
Instead, libraries should embrace “radical openness,” a commitment to sharing what they know freely, something that looks less radical in light of the library’s historic dedication to the free exchange of information. Selling other people’s library records isn’t a real threat, but, if it were, the answer would be more openness, not less. When you sell tickets, you get scalpers. But nobody makes money selling passes to Central Park. (A few people make money walking dogs around it. Most just enjoy the free grass and sunshine.) And in a world that’s looking less and less friendly to the long-term success of libraries, an unwavering commitment to sharing and openness may well be libraries’ saving grace.
So, three cheers to ICOLC for speaking up on this issue. Now, librarians and library programmers, let’s get back to work. Let’s earn our freedom.
Artwork: “Flickr is Freedom.” Creative Commons, Attribution, by Timtak.