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Reading OCLC’s Uncommon Dilemma

I just finished reading OCLC’s Uncommon Dilemma by Barbara Fister published on Library Journal.com March 18, 2010.

Barbara brings up some interesting points. But I think a bit of history may help in understanding.  First, what is  OCLC?   OCLC is a, hmm, Well. OCLC is…hmm.  That is a darn good question. 

Here is a brief, very brief, description of the origins of OCLC…OCLC started life as an Ohio Community College consortium back in the early 1970s (or was it the late 1960s?). They formed to share cataloging.  This was just after Library of Congress developed the MARC format. The rest of the cataloging world took note as to what these community colleges were doing and wanted in on the wealth of records.  The consortium said sure but only if you organize yourselves into regions for us to deal with (rather than deal with all those libraries individually).  So regions were formed and life went forward – multitudes of catalogers created and edited records. The records were shared and records were marked for ‘holdings’ thus resource sharing began (or rather continued but in a more automated manner). Time marched on, the world changed and last year OCLC stopped requiring the regional interface – libraries now can go directly to OCLC for all services.  Nowadays OCLC is the major distributor of MARC records and the only place I know of with resource sharing on such a large scale.  [and yes, there is way more to all of this]

OK, so what is this “WorldCat“?  This is the database (mega database) of the cataloging records created by and for librarians and maintained by OCLC. It contains millions of MARC records with kajillions* of  ‘holdings’ noted (that is, which library in the world owns what item as represented in that MARC record). Of course, it is not comprehensive since in order for your holdings to be so marked you have to be a member of OCLC. Also, not all libraries will list all their holdings in OCLC (for various reasons that I might discuss in a separate post someday). However, it is the largest database out there with this type of information.

Fine. What is the “Uncommon Dilemma” then?  Again I have to start with a bit of history – A bit over a year ago OCLC revised their “Guidelines for the Use and Transfer of OCLC-Derived Records” to become their “Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat® Records”.  A huge bruhaha ensued.  You can read the background and the fall out here http://wiki.code4lib.org/index.php/OCLC_Policy_Change – including the commentary that occurred on AutoCat list serv.  On March 2, 2010, OCLC announced a new draft policy that will be

submitted to the Board of Trustees for distribution to Global and Regional Councils in April 2010. During April and May the Council will incorporate member input, and a new proposed policy will be submitted to the Board of Trustees at the end of May 2010.

I suspect a great deal of discussion will hit the lists and blogs as soon as it is released. Especially since Larry Alford’s essay “The Value of the OCLC Cooperative” seems to be a prequel to this policy (and one of the catalysts to Barbara’s article).

So, the “dilemma” is how should these records, created by catalogers to be used by catalogers and stored in the membership-only service of OCLC’s WorldCat, should be utilized.  Should anybody be able to use these records, even if they do not subscribe to OCLC? What about a company getting these records and re-selling them? Or what about only non-profit organizations using these records even if they do not pay OCLC? What about records that initially come from government organizations such as the Library of Congress? Once the records are ingested to WorldCat, do they then ‘belong’ to the cooperative? Or can non-members use the records so long as they do not get the record straight from OCLC?

Whew. Now back to Barbara’s article OCLC’s Uncommon Dilemma.  Her main point seems to be that the world business model has changed and sharing does not negate the value of the product but rather enhances it (using examples from Open Library and Wikipedia). She compares OCLC to other non-profit organizations, looking at the funding as well as the salaries and workforce. She examines the way OCLC has traditionally done business and how business models have changed in recent years. She looks at the dichotomy of the “openly shared” resources available only to members.  Barbara makes some excellent points – she is looking at this in a way I haven’t seen on other blogs/lists to date. Again, really interesting points. I hope you read it. Please do.

Oh, and this might all someday be a moot point given what Diane Hillmann and Karen Coyle and many others are talking about with regards to “records”.

* note, I made the ‘kajillions’ part up, I don’t know how many libraries have noted their holdings but I know it is higher than I can count.

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