November 16, 2017

OCLC and Michigan State at Impasse Over SkyRiver Cataloging, Resource Sharing Costs

MSU says cost prohibitive; OCLC board chair and OCLC’s De Rosa defend shared model

  • Dispute over cost to use non-OCLC records for ILL
  • MSU lays out cost, declines OCLC’s offer
  • Would arrangement risk WorldCat’s long-term value?
  • SkyRiver has much at stake

When SkyRiver launched an alternative to OCLC’s bibliographic utility in October, part of the expectation was that libraries could continue with popular OCLC services aside from cataloging. But only recently has this expectation been tested, and the outcome is less clear than SkyRiver and a number of its potential customers had hoped. SkyRiver, a very recent arrival in the cataloging martkeplace, was founded by Innovative Interfaces owner and cofounder Jerry Kline.

This first test came in the form of a request from Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, an Association of Research Libraries (ARL) member. According to Nancy Fleck, associate director of technical services and systems, the library signed with SkyRiver last fall for a new cataloging utility. She then informed OCLC on November 1 that the library would be dropping its cataloging subscription, but that it desired to continue to batch load records for the purposes of resource sharing.

Since then, however, negotiations with OCLC over costs for this added service have stalled, culminating with a forceful letter sent yesterday by Clifford H. Haka, MSU director of libraries, to the university’s ILL partners, the directors of ARL libraries, and others. MSU now finds itself in a bind, without a written agreement as to how it will continue participating as broadly as possible in resource sharing with materials cataloged through SkyRiver.

The price of resource sharing

In the letter, Haka discusses his motivation to find savings for the libraries, laying out some of MSU’s costs, and registering his surprise at the price quoted to share the university’s resources via WorldCat.

MSU had expected to pay $6000 to upload roughly 26,000 records per year, Haka indicated, writing that “OCLC’s current pricelist of service charges suggests that the cost for such record uploads would be $0.23 per record, a charge they verbally quoted to another library utilizing SkyRiver” (see below for more on the $0.23 per record quote).

Haka went on to say that the estimate from OCLC was $31,000, through June 30, a figure that would account for original cataloging credits. He said that these costs, extrapolated over the course of a full year, would “virtually eliminate” the savings the library was hoping to achieve, and that the library had declined the offer. Haka also added that MSU pays an additional $88,500 to participate in resource sharing via OCLC.

Haka wrote, “I regret that our newer holdings will not be available for others to consult,” and that MSU would “aggressively pursue alternative avenues for cooperative document delivery arrangements” until the university and OCLC can reach a new agreement. (MSU materials previously entered into WorldCat are still available, and MSU remains an OCLC cooperative member).

The cost-share model

Cathy De Rosa, VP for the Americas and Global VP of Marketing for OCLC, sought to clarify the situation in a conversation with LJ.

“OCLC membership is based on two things,” she said: “an institution’s desire to contribute for broader use, and their active participation in sharing those resource.” OCLC has moved to a subscription-only model for services like cataloging and resource sharing, said De Rosa, adding that the per-record charges being discussed are transactions that “are additive to subscriptions,” not in lieu of.

De Rosa framed MSU’s request as essentially a request for the cooperative to perform “data stewardship” duties for MSU’s records, in addition to the services provided by the resource-sharing subscription, but said “that’s not the way the cost-share model works today.”

“We share the resources, and we share the costs,” she concluded, noting that the cooperative also invests significantly in activities such as: “data stewardship, infrastructure and standards support, FRBR, controlled vocabulary services, WorldCat Identities, crosswalks between metadata formats, record enhancement, automated record delivery from vendor partners, MARC format updates, name authorities management, audience-level data work, mapping and visual data discovery, and a growing number of WorldCat APIs for linking to Web services, to name a few of the shared services.”

Due diligence

A dean of library services at a smaller institution on the Southeast coast, who asked that his name be withheld, told LJ that he was similarly surprised to hear the amount quoted to MSU.

As a potential SkyRiver customer, he said that had received a “very informal” quote of $0.23 per record months ago when he asked an OCLC rep by phone what the cost would be to add an OCLC symbol to records to continue using resource sharing, while canceling all other OCLC services. (He did not indicate to OCLC that he was investigating a switch to SkyRiver). He said the cost quoted to MSU was far beyond what he imagined given his preliminary investigation.

“I would not have been surprised had I been called and told [a per-record cost] would be $0.40,” he said. “That would make sense.”

He also made clear, however, that he would have gotten an agreement in writing before canceling any of the school’s OCLC services.

OCLC position

As indicated by De Rosa’s comments, OCLC strongly maintains that all of its services are built on the contributions of its members.

In comments made to the OCLC membership’s Americas Regional Council in January, and distributed recently to OCLC members, Larry Alford, OCLC Board of Trustees chair and dean of University Libraries at Temple University, touched on the implications for the OCLC membership (video of the speech is available on OCLC’s web site). Though he did not name MSU or SkyRiver directly, his arguments imply that a decision like MSU’s to go with SkyRiver puts at risk a cohesive, holistic, global-scale union catalog.

In a letter accompanying his remarks, Alford wrote:

As you may know, some alternative service providers are offering OCLC members services that enable them to bypass the WorldCat cataloging service and to find cataloging records at a reduced cost.

Viewed at the individual library level, these alternative services may provide practical and economical sense in the short run. Unfortunately, they also hold the potential to undo the work that libraries and the OCLC cooperative have done together these past 40 years, since the subscriptions to the cataloging service support far more than just access to easy-to-locate bibliographic records.

In his speech, Alford said:

[T]hose decisions, compounded over a number of libraries, could have a profound impact…. In some ways, I believe this is the equivalent of ‘skimming the cream off the top without buying the whole bottle of milk.’….

[T]hose libraries want to receive the benefits of a world-class U.S. and global union catalog, but feel they can’t help support it in other ways….

[I]f enough libraries—not a lot, but enough—choose to consume more value from the cooperative than they return to the cooperative, then we risk losing WorldCat….

I am talking about this issue in some apocalyptic terms because in fact I do believe that the loss of WorldCat would be apocalyptic for many libraries….

In practical terms, the OCLC cooperative is going to have to decide how it will relate to those libraries that want to choose the cheaper Z39.50 capture and/or the ‘lite cataloging’ route, although I would argue that increased labor costs may well mean it isn’t cheaper, but instead is more expensive. But, if those libraries make that choice, then should they also have access to the resource sharing and other value-added that those who are full participants and members enjoy? And if they do have access, then at what price? Should they be asked to pay the full freight for that resource sharing?”

Regarding these statements, MSU’s Haka wrote, “The contention has been made that actions such as ours seek to undermine the WorldCat database. I would simply respond that the price currently quoted to upload these records into the database is the factor that should be questioned.” He also notes that the $88,500 MSU pays for resource sharing “does not seem like freeloading.”

“The cooperative is being diminished by a financial decision,” Haka later told LJ. “We’ve been OCLC members for 40 years—we’re the ones who built this database.”

SkyRiver has much at stake

In the background of this dispute stands SkyRiver. With much at stake, the company has waited to see how these negotiations will affect its ability to attract customers.

Leslie Straus, president of SkyRiver, made her position clear: “OCLC claims this is uncharted territory—this is disingenuous.” From a technical perspective, she said, allowing SkyRiver customers to participate in resource sharing would seem to be no different than other services OCLC offers.

As did MSU and others, SkyRiver operated for months under the assumption that the additional cost of uploading records for the purposes of resource sharing would be in the range of $0.23 per record. With that belief proven faulty, SkyRiver’s future is uncertain.

“We certainly expected some sort of nominal and reasonable fee,” said Straus. But, she added, “if we can’t assure [potential customers] there’s a nominal and published price, it’s problematic.”

Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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