Smoke and mirrors, or good intentions?

Update: Karen’s presentation has now been made available.

Yesterday, despite the best efforts of Worst Great Western, I travelled to the British Library in London to hear Karen Calhoun, Vice President WorldCat and Metadata Services at OCLC presenting on Working collectively – the way forward in an academic environment (not available online as far as I can tell).

While Karen’s presentation was interesting it was, inevitably, mainly a sales-pitch for WorldCat, OCLC’s global-scale union catalogue of bibliographic records. Based on a fee-paying, membership business model, WorldCat provides value to member libraries mainly through the economy of scale to be derived from processing such data centrally, and through the expectation that concentration, as Lorcan Dempsey has characterised it, will provide greater traction on the Web and, consequently, more discovery and use. Karen used an array of metaphors to convey this idea: WorldCat was variously described as a ‘switch’ (as opposed to a ‘destination’), a bicycle wheel, and (bafflingly) a funnel.

I get the ‘switch’ idea, although I’m not sure that I entirely buy into it. WorldCat is positioned as a service which switches the user from a generic search engine (where they begin their typical enquiry) to the member library system. OCLC are clear that they do not intend WorldCat to be the destination site. From a systems architecture perspective, I recognise the value in this. What I don’t yet see is the business model.

A little over a year ago, Richard Wallis commented:

OCLC are trapped in an increasingly inappropriate business model. A model based upon the value in the creation and control of data. Increasingly, in this interconnected world, the value is in making data openly available and building services upon it. When people get charged for one thing, but gain value from another, they will become increasingly uncomfortable with the old status quo.

Now Richard is employed by Talis, who might be considered to be competing with OCLC to some extent in the library domain. And, it has to be said, there are some of us who aren’t entirely convinced that Talis will be able to build a viable business out of their undeniably interesting Talis Platform initiative.

Karen, in her presentation offered a rebuttal to Richard’s comment, which led to more about the ‘switch’ idea. During the Q&A at yesterday’s event I suggested that I didn’t feel that Richard’s comment had been answered. Again, invoking the benefits of concentration, Karen suggested that if all the world’s libraries made a record about every single copy of every book available as a URI on the Web then this would present scaling problems which even Google would balk at. I’m afraid I just can’t believe that this is problem of scale. It has also been suggested to me that concentration is necessary to allow the user to cope with the massive amounts of potential duplication - i.e. if I search for a book on a search engine like Google then I want one or two results, not one result for every copy in every library. Well, I think there are other strategies for dealing with this issue. Personalisation is one. Google seem to agree anyhow.

Recently, OCLC became embroiled in a controversy surrounding changes it made to its Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat® Records. (See also an FAQ). I won’t revisit the arguments here - there was significant commentary criticising the changes (e.g 1 2 3 4 5) and a response from Karen Calhoun: essentially the concerns revolved around the perception that OCLC was seeking to reduce the control which member libraries can exert over the use of the data which they have contributed. OCLC withdrew the changed policy shortly afterwards and have launched a process for engaging the community in reviewing its policy.

In the course of the presentation yesterday, I was very struck by the similarities between this situation and that of Facebook’s recent attempt to change its terms of use. Both OCLC and Facebook:

  • tried to introduce these changes quietly
  • were hauled up immediately by an outcry from users and others in the general domain, especially in the blogosphere
  • quickly withdrew the changes
  • have engaged with the community directly in an attempt to create a mutually acceptable arrangement

They have other things in common. Both require what is, in its broadest sense, a monopoly, to be useful. Facebook is a walled garden, while WorldCat is certainly more open, but both need to be the dominant player or their value-proposition of concentration just doesn’t work. And I was fascinated to hear Karen talk about the community using norms, or socially-enforced rules. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has started to talk about ‘philosophy’ in a similar vein.

It seems to me that both OCLC/WorldCat and Facebook are trying to figure out how to make the best use of their position. One is driven by the search for profit, the other by delivering the best value to fee-paying members. Both have a monopoly of sorts, and both are seeking to exploit the Web, albeit in very different ways. They have custody of a huge amount of content, which has potential value but which is also an expensive burden. Because of their dominant position they are generally the first to expose some of the absurdities in user-expectations (witness the widespread belief by users of Facebook that they could really ‘delete’ their content from a distributed system), but they are also under constant, close scrutiny, which is A Good Thing.

I’m grateful to Karen for her clear presentation yesterday, and for her part in this process. When I put the comparison to Facebook to her yesterday, she didn’t recoil from this as she might have done. I think there has been a significant advance in recent months, in that communities are beginning to glimpse the complexities behind what were imagined to be more simple issues of rights, ownership and control. Both OCLC and Facebook have responded gracefully to having been called out by their respective communities and, crucially, have invited those communities to participate in solving the knotty problem of reconciling the desire for useful services with the expectations of ownership and control.



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