February 16, 2018

Tough Questions Emergeon OCLC's Competitive Advantage and Data Policies

By Josh Hadro

  • Questions tied to ongoing debates about OCLC
  • Vendors express concern about their business
  • Would large libraries stay away?

(Updated April 28 with quotes from Karen Schneider and Richard Wallis)

See also: News of OCLC’s original announcement and a breakdown of how the new system will work.

Major market moves elicit strong reactions, and there have been a lot of those since OCLC’s announcement April 23 of a new cloud-based library management system. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the comments from library observers fit into the larger discussions related to the Ohio-based membership organization, such as the ongoing debate over OCLC’s WorldCat records policy, and perceptions of the nonprofit’s increasingly dominant marketplace presence.

Though reaction from OCLC customers has not yet fully emerged, in response to a Hectic Pace blog post by Andrew Pace, OCLC’s executive director for Networked Library Services, some OCLC customers embraced the news as a positive step. 

On his own Life is a Mystery blog, library technology consultant Eric Celeste wrote: "I think this could work for OCLC. I think libraries are finding the old model unsustainable and are open to a new approach."

Bad for (others’) business
However, the immediate reaction to the announcement was generally less mixed. Tim Spalding, LibraryThing founder and one of the most ardent critics of OCLC’s data curation policies, was among those who saw a full-scale OCLC library system in the works two years ago following OCLC’s initial release of WorldCat Local.

In a post yesterday, Spalding recalled the phrasing of OCLC VP Karen Calhoun’s blog post clarifying OCLC’s position on WorldCat records use: "The move casts new light on [OCLC’s] Policy defenses. OCLC isn’t ‘curating’ library records; it’s leveraging them to enter a new market. WorldCat isn’t a ‘switching mechanism’ to local catalogs. It will replace them."

On the NGC4Lib mailing list, Spalding also echoed the fears of a number of vendors of ILS systems and add-on products, saying "[t]his is terrible for my business, LibraryThing for Libraries, an add-on for catalogs. I don’t see WorldCat allowing libraries to add LibraryThing code to WorldCat, do you? Allowing us access to the data in order to provide it? If there’s going to be innovation, it’ll be on OCLC’s terms."

Similarly, in a note to LJ, Spalding added "WorldCat Local is a much worse threat to my business…than the OCLC Policy was. I will eat my hat if libraries can install third-party plug-ins."

Fitting in with records use policy
Likewise, Carl Grant, longtime industry executive and current president of Ex Libris North America, told LJ that OCLC’s silence on the issue of data ownership was questionable. If OCLC is expanding beyond bibliographic data curation into other spheres relating to circulation and acquisition, he asked, what would that mean in terms of OCLC’s incentives to make that larger aggregate data transparently available?

The concerns still surrounding the WorldCat bibliographic record use policy loom large in librarians’ minds, he said, and "that issue is going to have be resolved before [OCLC] can have an open hearing on this new product." 

On the company’s Panlibus blog, Richard Wallis, technology evangelist for Talis, extended similar worries to the area of circulation data, writing:

Some have also expressed concern that a library going down the OCLC cloud services route, will be exposing themselves to the risk of ceding to OCLC control of how all their data is used and shared, not just the bibliographic data that has been at the centre of the recent storm about record reuse policies. Against that background, one can but wonder what OCLC’s reaction to a library’s request to openly share circulation statistics from the use of their OCLC hosted circulation service would be.

Karen Schneider, community librarian for open source support vendor Equinox Software Inc., also mentioned how she saw the announcement fitting into the larger discussion, telling LJ: “We are pleased to see renewed interest from OCLC in the ILS marketplace after a 25-year hiatus. Their announcement is particularly interesting in light of their recent ‘clarification’ of data usage policies for member records. The many successful approaches to library management software demonstrate that open source projects and proprietary, closed-data software can peacefully coexist.”

Appeal to smaller libraries?
Grant also told LJ that he thought that the planned OCLC system would appeal mainly to smaller- to medium-sized institutions. He said he "can’t see large, complex libraries jumping on this," suggesting that the OCLC system would have to compromise on functionality and customization to be "web scale," as OCLC is describing it.

Larger institutions, especially the research-oriented libraries where much of the largest value in the industry remains, would likely stick with their locally hosted ILS systems in order to continue their tradition of detailed, low-level system administration and in-house server and hardware management, he predicted.

A muscular nonprofit
Finally, Grant cited an observation that’s been on a lot of vendors’ minds and a lot of librarian’s lips: for a nonprofit membership cooperative, OCLC seems remarkably and increasingly similar to the for-profit vendors in the marketplace. 

Aside from generic long-standing complaints from many librarians regarding the blurred difference between profit and cost-recovery, Grant noted that OCLC’s nonprofit status confers upon it a significant tax advantage not available to rivals. "That’s not fair," he said, adding that his company could potentially do a great deal with a similar savings.

Instant web reactions
Though generally briefer, the quick takes and instant reactions to the announcement were on full display on Twitter and in the blogosphere.

Some of the highlights:

  • Becky Yoose (yo_bj): oclc now in the ils business. not surprised. waiting for oclc accredited library degrees…

My first thought on reading about all of this yesterday was that all those pilot WorldCat Local schools must be steamed that this is now free…. I’m pleased that this is yet another competitor against the current lumbering giants in the ILS market… On the other hand, this means that that pesky new policy on the transfer and use of OCLC records really wasn’t just about protecting a bunch of member-produced data after all. There were bigger plans afoot, and these plans involved leaning even farther toward the vendor model rather than the service model. And if OCLC is a vendor rather than a service, that new policy feels even more like a land-grab rather than an effort to protect member investments.

  • Brook Westheimer (sbwesty): What are we going to do tonight, OCLC? The same thing we do every night, library worker… http://bit.ly/ujGlL

I can’t help but think if this kind of service were being offered by a different commercial entity (say one whose name starts with “G”), the library world would be up in arms. I’m not saying we should be up in arms, I just think we would be. Tell me what I’m missing here, ‘cuz the folks at LibraryThing have a compelling argument

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