April 23, 2018

ARL Says OCLC Should Revise WorldCat Policy

By Josh Hadro

  • Report faults process and language of new policy
  • New "social contract" called for
  • OCLC to issue its own review board report in May
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In the first formal response to OCLC’s much-criticized (and suspended) policy regarding use and transfer of WorldCat records, an ad hoc task force of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has essentially advised going back to the drawing board.
Relatively brief but pointed, the ARL report (PDF) faults OCLC for its unilateral dissemination of the policy changes, the impenetrable language in the policy, and apparent inconsistencies between the policy’s legal language and the accompanying FAQ, which is more clearly written but non-binding.

The task force recommendations, submitted to the ARL board on January 30, were released publicly on February 20. Accompanying the report is a legal memorandum by attorney Jonathan Band that examines the enforceability of the policy, and its authority to govern usage of WorldCat records by parties other than member institutions that have explicitly or tacitly agreed to OCLC’s license.

Community review
In the first of six recommendations, the report states flatly, “OCLC needs to develop a new policy regarding the transfer and use of WorldCat records that results from a wide community review of issues; from member library engagement that builds understanding and consensus; and from a careful, widely discussed exploration of how the policy will achieve articulated goals, including whether or how restraints in record sharing may be needed. The currently proposed policy does not meet these criteria.”

The report also suggests “greater accessibility” in terms of the policy’s written language, an “explicit and specific” clarification from OCLC of the policy’s intent, and a call for a “continuing review board” to address changes in the member community and environment in order to recognize the policy as a “living document.” 

Community acceptance
A section called “community acceptance,” meanwhile, hints at why so many librarians initially bristled at the policy’s tenor and substance, calling its “legalistic language” difficult to interpret, offensive, and confusing about scope and intent.

More than just an academic point, the report indicates that library practice and behavior—what it calls the "social contract"—will prove significantly more important than the policy’s enforceability. It is therefore necessary, says the report, for OCLC to have "wide community engagement and member library ‘buy-in’" for the policy to succeed.

“The current document focuses on what libraries cannot do without sufficient attention to the actual wide scope of ‘reasonable use’ and has thus been widely interpreted as more restrictive than it actually is,” the report states. “The extensive FAQs that have been written since the introduction of the policy provide guidance in language that needs to be incorporated into the policy itself.”

Next steps
After much criticism and discussion in the library community, the ARL ad-hoc task force was convened in December 2008. OCLC, however, has since announced the delay of the policy’s implementation until the third quarter of 2009 and the creation of its own Policy Review board, which is expected to issue a report in late May.

In the interim, the report’s challenge to OCLC to draw up a new "social contract" with its membership still looms, though comments made by OCLC VP Karen Calhoun at a session during the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Denver indicate that the OCLC review may discuss "community norms" in addition to the policy text and its implementation. The product of this discussion likely will help address the apparent disconnect between the broader set of OCLC member institutions and the administrative process that led to the policy.

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