OCLC: Expert Community Experiment and Data

OCLC recently held a number of webinars summing up their Expert Community Experiment. These webinars should be posted soon on their Expert Community Experiment website.

Basically, the information summarized was a compendium and brief analysis of the monthly reports on the Expert Community Experiment. As the monthly statistics indicated, the experiment was a success. The number of institutions that helped enrich records increased. Also, the number of requests to change records sent in to OCLC decreased. Furthermore, many sent in positive comments as to the nature of the experiment. As a result, this experiment is no longer an “experiment”. OCLC catalog members with full level authorization can continue doing the types of changes they did during the experiment.

While the news was not really news, as I listened to the webinar, my attention wondered to the increase in members’ participation and that OCLC has non-profit status. In terms of members’ participation, there was definitely an increase in the level of activity. This was proportional to a significant decrease in the number of change requests sent in one form or another to OCLC. This decrease in requests allowed OCLC to re-direct this extra time to other clean up projects. The idea of other clean up projects is much needed. As many know, there are numerous records in OCLC that definitely should not be there or need to be enriched in one way or another. One of the maintenance priorities is the duplicate record deletion project, which will help clean up the database. Despite these projects, I kept asking myself why I would spend so much time to enhance a record which I might not have access to later on or might have to pay in order to get that data at a later date. For the time being, I work with OCLC. I put a lot of my energy into finding good records, sometimes enhancing others, and various other database maintenance at my own library that inevitably involves consulting Connexion. I know that my work might help another cataloger. Good records makes everyone’s lives easier. However, just who does this data belong to? Who can use it? With the record use policy, why are librarians being asked to make these enhancements if the data is not openly and freely accessible? I thought of these questions in particular when librarians from member libraries are spending their time and energy to enhance these records. It seems that OCLC is profiting from all of this hard work.

This spurred another question. Just how is OCLC a non-profit organization? How does the work we do help us as members of this organization?

Library thing posted on this subject on June 14, 2008 (http://www.librarything.com/thingology/2008/06/oclcs-non-profit-status.php). This is not the first time that OCLC’s non-profit status has been questioned as the article explains:

OCLC’s core business involves maintaining a central database of cataloging records, largely created by others, which member libraries pay to access. That OCLC was a great invention can hardly be denied. Personally, I think it has become a relic and an danger to the future of libraries. Agree with me on this or not, there’s no question it is highly profitable—driving a steady stream of acquisitions—and in its fee structure calls into question the core idea of the non-profit.

What’s interesting is the post goes to say that thanks to a court decision involving library technology development OCLC can keep its non-profit status.

This point was just recently raised again over at “blog.ecorrado.us” in terms of the expansion of WorldCat local towards an ILS type system. The problem justly raised in this post is that OCLC holds a monopoly over library data -data created and maintained by librarians worldwide and done so in the spirit of cooperation and “experiment”. As the article in the April 4, 2009 of Library Journal said, OCLC has a large share of the “marketplace” in spite of its non-profit status. This article as well as the silent undercurrent to the webinar I listened to suggest that OCLC intends not only to make a profit but also control data that libraries rely on daily.

One problem is that OCLC is about the only player in town. Biblios.net is nowhere near as sophisticated or has the amount or diversity of bibliographic records in their database. This means that many if not the majority of libraries rely on OCLC. The question becomes just where will libraries let their reliance take them?

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