Thursday, April 08, 2010

Response to "OCLC's Uncommon Dilemma."

Today is Fox Day at Rollins, so I finally have a moment to respond to Barbara Fister’s LJ column “OCLC’s Uncommon Dilemma” of March 18th.

First, let’s deal with the metaphor of the “tragedy of the commons” that I used in response to her column “Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Wall” of March 11th. It seems clear from the tone of her piece that Barbara thinks that the end of OCLC, at least its current business model, would not be a tragedy and certainly not a tragedy of the commons. While I think it is good for the OCLC members and leadership to take the challenges we face in a new digital environment seriously and to consider alternative ways of continuing to serve libraries, I do think it would be a tragedy if we walked away from forty years of progress and experience to follow a relatively untested and rather utopian idea of a, to quote Barbara’s quotation from Yochai Benkler, “new modality of organizing production.” The important word in the quote Barbara takes from my response, which she does not seem to address, is “comprehensive.”

Although OCLC WorldCat is not completely comprehensive, it is the closest thing we have to a global bibliography of the contents of the world’s libraries. This very comprehensiveness makes it a valuable resource. If I need a cataloging record, it is likely to be in OCLC. If I want to borrow an item from a library, I am likely to find a willing lender in OCLC. Such one stop shopping is a huge efficiency for libraries, even if it is only as a resource of last resort after the resources of ones local consortia have been exhausted. So, the membership needs to plan a future that maintains and expands this comprehensiveness. I think it is worth investing some money in ensuring that.

Comprehensiveness is not very useful if it does not last. Long term sustainability is important. OCLC has been a remarkable success for libraries over the last forty years. Apart from the books and print journals my predecessors purchased four decades ago I can’t think of too many other significant resources from the last 1960’s that our staff and users make use of every day. Our library building was not built until 1985, our own OPAC is not that old, we disposed of the physical shelflist last year, and none of our staff were working here in the late sixties. NLM’s Medline might be the only example of a similarly long-lived and stable resource. As a director of an OCLC member library I feel a responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the OCLC bibliographic database for the long term if only for selfish long term planning purposes. We live in an age of enormous turmoil in the information economy, much of it very valuable creative destruction, but some of it just plain tumult. A reliable resource that we depend on to underpin many of the information resources and services we make available to our users, now and for many years to come, is extremely valuable and worth paying for to maintain. Barbara offers Wikipedia as an example of this new modality, but Joseph Janes in American Libraries (What Do You See? March 2010) cites recent work by the Augmented Social Cognition Group at Xerox’s PARC indicating that the rate of expansion in both articles and the number of contributors at Wikipedia has slowed. He wonders whether, “it is a lot harder to than it looks to make an encyclopedia using boldness and no firm rules.” And Wikipedia is just nine years old.

That sustainability has to be balanced with innovation. If the OCLC database had the same interface librarians began using all those decades ago, or even the same one I used when I became a librarian in the early 1990’s (anyone else remember the F11 key?) It wouldn’t be half as useful as it is today. This blog is littered with URLs to records of books in WorldCat and now WorldCat Local. I can now imagine, perhaps even begin planning for, a future without an integrated library system because the bibliographic record of the Rollins library collection is secure within the OCLC database and OCLC staff are making impressive progress on taking library systems to web scale. This innovation comes from a solid, long-lived, membership based not-for-profit organization, not from a hot startup, and not from a privately held, or publicly traded for profit corporation, and is not the result of, “loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands.” (Benkler.) That again, is worth investing in.

I do not want to leave the impression that I am opposed to Open Access, I am not. In fact, OCLC already provides open access to the WorldCat database. It is freely available for searching at I also don’t want to come across sounding like a cheerleader for OCLC, which really isn’t the case. Rollins College is a Summon customer. We are committed to using this unified discovery service to provide the kind of information retrieval experience our students demand. Summon would be even more useful for our students if it included the bibliographic records from WorldCat; that way our users could quickly find a book and request it through interlibrary loan, through our link resolver, without having to sequentially search Summon and then WorldCat. But I don’t think Serials Solutions (and ultimately their parent company, ProQuest) should be able to load all that wealth of data for nothing. Serials Solutions should share with the members of OCLC in the cost of sustaining the comprehensive database. I also don’t think that OCLC should act as a monopoly and use its access to the database to deny access to that database to competitors to its own web-scale unified discovery service –WorldCat Local.

So, how to balance these apparently conflicting goals? The answer might be to divide OCLC into two parts. OCLC1, the bibliographic utility, responsible for maintenance and development of the bibliographic database and records of library holdings, with a specific charge to attempt to be as comprehensive in terms of containing the record of the bibliographic production of humankind, and to provide unfettered access at the lowest price (the same price for everyone) that guarantees sustainability; and OCLC2, a systems and services vendor like any other (except that it is member owned and profits are ploughed back into development and to support the members) that seeks to compete with other vendors to create innovative services for any library. OCLC1 should be low priced enough to obviate the need for any other entity to find it necessary or profitable to attempt to duplicate a similar comprehensive bibliographic database, also other vendors will have a vested interest in maintaining the comprehensiveness of the database since their own systems will be layered on top of the bibliographic utility, and OCLC2 can sink or swim in the marketplace based on price and innovation.

I doubt if Barbara will like my solution. It is based on hard-nosed self interest (albeit organized collectively.) But then so was the enclosure of the English commons in the 17th and 18th centuries. Powerful landowners forced Parliament to provide a legal structure that enabled them to enclose common land and disempower villagers and landless peasants. This was a painful and violent process, but ultimately it contributed to a rise in English food production, the creation of an urban working class, and ushered in the Industrial Revolution leading to raised living standards for all; because landowners were prepared to invest in sustainability and innovation, while commoners were not. While I don’t want to down play the pain my ancestors endured as they left rural Lincolnshire to enter the maw of industrial Sheffield, the tragedy here was the underinvestment in the commons prior to enclosure.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and full reply. I still am not sure why letting records be shared and letting cheaper alternatives compete threatens comprehensiveness. Admittedly I may be a Pollyanna, but I think most libraries would be happy and very willing to upload records to a union catalog without the incentive of a credit toward a large bill. I would also need to do more research to have an informed position on whether enclosing the commons was a business model that was needed because peasants were acting selfishly; a very superficial search (hurrah for old-fashioned reference books!) suggests the motives of those "preserving" the resource were 't entirely pure. Perhaps I am over-identiying with the peasantry.

At the very least, I do find the classic "tragedy of the commons" article to be overly reliant on capitlist assumptions that deserve skepticism.

Hope my typing isn't hopeless - I'm typing on my phone and all thumbs.