Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cataloging Matters Podcast #2: Skyriver, OCLC and the Enclosure of the Commons

Here is the next podcast of "Cataloging Matters."


SkyRiver, OCLC and the Enclosure of the Commons

Hello, my name is Jim Weinheimer and welcome to the next installment of Cataloging Matters, a series of podcasts about the future of libraries and cataloging, coming to you from the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world, Rome, Italy.

I would like to devote this podcast to some thoughts I have had concerning the SkyRiver-OCLC lawsuit, which has been a hot topic in library news and on the listservs, therefore, I have titled this piece SkyRiver, OCLC and the Enclosure of the Commons.

Reading over the debate concerning the lawsuit seems to me to offer an excellent illustration of what is currently happening in many parts of the world, both in the real world and in the world of information. There appears to be an attempt to “fence off” much that has traditionally been public. Not only are we seeing it with businesses such as the NY Times and business leaders like Rupert Murdoch, who now want to put their newspapers and magazines behind paywalls, I am concerned that even library catalogs are becoming a part of this struggle over building fences.

Before I discuss these concerns and their relevance to libraries and the SkyRiver-OCLC lawsuit however, I would like to provide a short history of OCLC and the background concerning the lawsuit.

Libraries have created catalogs for their collections for millennia, and when printing arrived, libraries could print copies of their entire catalogs for others, but primarily for other libraries, who could then get some sort of an idea what materials were in another library. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century, when the industrial revolution reached the point where machines could create massive amounts of card stock cheaply, that libraries could then begin to share among themselves the individual records from their catalogs by copying and sharing catalog cards, thereby minimizing the duplication of work.

Computerization in the 1960s allowed even greater efficiencies in the sharing of these catalog records, but to do this back then was an enormous undertaking. Libraries did this by creating large, shared databases of their bibliographic records. Each participating library would send its computerized catalog records for loading into the shared catalog, and when that same library was cataloging something new, the catalogers could also search the shared catalog to discover if another library had already cataloged it. If so, the record could be downloaded for use and editing in the local catalog. Various computer networks were set up for this purpose and the non-profit organization OCLC (at that time called the Ohio College Library Center, now the Online Computer Library Center) was one of the earliest and most successful.

As the years went by, it turned out that OCLC was better than the others at marketing their services; it gradually became bigger and bigger, taking over its rivals, until finally in 2006, it took over the last of its competitors, RLIN, to become the largest, and essentially, the only library network in the world. OCLC has created several other library services based on this huge, shared database of catalog records. One of the services that is extremely important for the library community is inter-library loan. Only with such a shared catalog can one library know exactly which items are in exactly which other libraries so they can then be borrowed. There are other services that OCLC provides that are very important to libraries, many of them based on this large shared database of catalog records.

It has taken a few years, but a possible competitor has appeared in the guise of SkyRiver, a for-profit company, who is trying to break into the library market for sharing catalog records, but not for the other library services, at least not yet. In the meantime, now that OCLC has become so powerful, even though it is supposed to be a non-profit library cooperative, it has done some things that some librarians consider to be highly suspicious, such as claiming ownership over any record that member libraries exchanged using the shared database, a statement that has proven to be highly controversial, and then when a research library (Michigan State) decided to switch to the less expensive service offered by SkyRiver, and still wanted to be in the inter-library loan system run by OCLC, OCLC raised their price to Michigan State for loading records into their database from 23 cents per record to $2.85, an enormous hike that eliminated much of the savings the library had sought. (http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/886099-264/skyriver_and_innovative_interfaces_file.html.csp). SkyRiver sued, stating monopolistic practices and, as a Library Journal summary put it, (quote) “... the lawsuit's argument involves practices that leverage a monopoly in one area of business activity to create or protect its monopoly in another.” (end of quote)

I do not want to enter into the debate whether this lawsuit is right or wrong; these are extremely intricate discussions where I admit I am not competent to comment, and in any event, I realize that much is determined by how well the suit is written and designed, while more often than not from the outset, everyone has a view toward settling the case out of court. I recognize that while I have my own opinions about right or wrong, they are not of much use: a judge and/or jury will decide, or OCLC and SkyRiver will settle; in either case, it will not be me.

What I do find much more interesting however, is something with a wider perspective: the realization that this cataloging information, which librarians once took for granted as a mere accessory to the “real meat” of the library, i.e. the collections themselves, has become valuable property for other organizations. In the past, nobody much was interested in our catalog records except for other librarians, or occasionally the public, who rarely understood or cared for them much one way or the other, but saw the catalog and its records as the only means to access the information in the collections.

Today, these same records are seen as highly valuable in themselves, worthy of costly battles in courtrooms. At the same time, Google has scanned millions of books residing on the shelves of libraries, books that the libraries have purchased, organized and protected at staggering costs over decades or even centuries, and then put them behind what looks to become a pay wall, where it seems as if everyone will get paid something, except the libraries, who in fact will be expected to pay out even more!

So, in several ways, the environment that attracted many librarians to the profession: a feeling of openness and helpfulness toward all patrons who sought it out, seems to be changing in subtle ways because of money. There is certainly nothing wrong with money, but adding it to the equation definitely changes matters.

And this finally brings me to the subject of this essay: it seems possible to me that we are witnessing a modern version of the “Enclosure Movement” that took place in England starting from medieval times, but primarily it happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, and similar events are even going on today in other countries in the world.

What was the Enclosure Movement? In short, in England there were certain patches of land owned by one person, but essentially, from time immemorial, these patches had been used in common for the good of the local communities. This meant that these “commons” could be used by local people in different ways, for example: common pasturage for animals, for getting wood, or sand, or whatever, and sometimes these lands could be used only in highly specific ways, for example, only a certain number of certain types of animals at certain times of the year could graze, or someone could only take a certain amount of wood that they could pick up off the ground but there could be no cutting of trees, along with other restrictions.

Eventually, these commons were taken back by their owners and fenced off so that they could be sold or used strictly for the owners’ profit. The result was that while it may have been good for the owners, the villages suffered terribly, sometimes becoming completely depopulated. With the “Inclosure Acts” of the 19th century, this practice became regularized and incidentally, I find it interesting that the term for the pasture land held in common was: “wastes,” although these areas were certainly anything but wastes for the local villagers.

Of course, waste did not have exactly the same connotation as today; it was a legal term, but reading in the OED, it seems that even then it held the same idea we have today: waste being a type of wilderness or uncultivated land. (OED: A piece of land not cultivated or used for any purpose, and producing little or no herbage or wood. In legal use spec. a piece of such land not in any man's occupation, but lying common)

It shouldn’t be surprising that people did not appreciate watching their homes, their villages, the work they put in on the commons, and their entire ways of life, all disappear, and they resorted to riots and rebellions, which were put down brutally. Of course, whether this was for the better or for the worse, in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter. The lives of the villagers changed forever, while the lands stayed fenced and enclosed.

Is something similar going on in libraries now? It seems that what had been thought of as more or less communal property for a long, long time (and I mean communal not in the idealistic sense of belonging to “everyone” but in the sense of belonging to a town, a university, a school, similar to the medieval commons as belonging to the locality), and libraries have been seen more or less as a waste in the medieval sense of the term, (let me explain) while money flows in, what comes out is far more difficult to measure, especially using modern accounting methods. While the general populace still apparently considers that libraries provide an important function for society, based on what I have read of the decreasing budgets allocated to some libraries, some verging on the draconian, there does seem to be some dispute over the relative usefulness of libraries.

But then, in an almost contradictory way, library collections and their metadata are starting to be considered items of tangible value. In other words, library holdings and their metadata are becoming monetized. And the first step to monetizing something, just as those owners understood back during the enclosure movement, is to make it inaccessible, to fence it off from others, enclose it, put in a gate, and not let anyone in except after paying the person owns the gate.

It remains to be seen if this will be good for libraries, librarians, or our patrons. SkyRiver and OCLC obviously believe it is good for them and they will fight it out in court, if necessary, while the libraries will stand on the sidelines, cheering one side occasionally, but in essence watching others decide what may turn out to be the future.

But I ask: do libraries have to stay so passive? Do libraries have any other options or are they completely at the whim of outside forces, even if one of those outside forces claims that it (quote) “... form[s] a cooperative to help members share resources, reduce costs, and increase their visibility and impact in the communities they serve”? (end of quote) This is taken from the OCLC Record Use Policy, which, when read in its entirety, can certainly be interpreted quite differently from this statement. [http://www.oclc.org/worldcat/recorduse/policy/default.htm#cooperative]

I think that if we look at our collections and our metadata more as a type of “commons” that must be wisely managed for the good of everyone, and that these are the materials that others really want, then libraries could be far more powerful in this entire affair, that is if they choose to be.

SkyRiver, OCLC, Innovative, and the other bibliographic vendors may see opportunities that are highly promising in the future, but secretly, deep in their hearts, I’m sure the future must look equally threatening. Technology has changed in such fundamental ways that many of the older accepted notions must simply be cast aside. For example, what used to take significant amounts of funding, a large and highly-trained staff, and a major IT environment, can today be achieved with much less money on relatively inexpensive machines, and by people who have far less training. Barriers to entering the high-tech IT world are much lower than they were 30 years ago, and we can only expect that these barriers will become even lower and will fall at a faster rate than what we have experienced.

Right now, with open source software, you can quite literally download for free a reliable and fully-functioning ILMS system that is as good, or better, as many other systems out there. Of course, the individual institution must take the responsibility to load it onto a server or servers and maintain it, and that takes resources, although these catalogs can be hosted as well, but no matter what, it is almost always much cheaper to do this than to contract with a vendor. Even more important, with open source you have what is strange for many catalogers: freedom; the freedom to make the system do what you want it to do, not what the company who owns it wants it to do. Finally with open source, you can share your version with others, or it can even happen that different people and organizations can collaborate to build catalogs exactly in the ways they want. It seems to me that this is potentially a genuine “game changer” and must give many vendors pause.

There is even another option for WorldCat that is not SkyRiver. It is called biblios.net at http://biblios.net/ and it is completely free. All you need is access to the Internet and a browser. It works on Z39.50, which can be rather clunky but you can search for catalog copy and download them. You also download directly from another library’s catalog, so that you can choose to download from libraries that are “more trusted”, in this way you can benefit from their local edits and not be stuck with the master record. A shared and truly open database would provide opportunities not only for librarians, but for scholars and students, for businesses, as well as for the interested citizen. It would be like a medieval commons that all could benefit from, and perhaps the benefits could be returned to the commons in some way. Otherwise, we seem to be witnessing a movement to enclose it.

So, it seems obvious to me that if libraries could get together--and technically this is easier today than ever before--they could begin to control their own destinies. The problem is: to make the decision to embark on such a course, and that is admittedly, a very big step.

Therefore, I suggest that libraries begin to consider their collections and metadata as similar to the commons of old. Although the villagers back then failed to stop the enclosures, perhaps it really was for the ultimate good of everyone and did represent “progress,” yet for libraries today, it would seem to be very difficult to maintain that a similar enclosure would be “progressive.” It is our responsibility to husband these materials wisely into the new age for the benefit of everyone, and not just for the benefit of a few companies who claim to be on “our side”.

Well, that’s it for this installment of Cataloging Matters. I hope you have enjoyed it. As always, if you want to make a comment, please contact my blog, or in the listservs. So far, the response to my podcasts has been positive, so I have decided to continue them. The next podcast will deal with FRBR from my own point of view, that is: FRBR, a personal journey.

I would like to close with an excerpt from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, part of the “ritornello” taken from the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/details/RitornelloMonteverdi). The address, along with all of the other URLs, can be found in this podcast’s transcript. Sorry that I don’t have any information about the performance: who, where or when, but I guess this is an example of why cataloging matters.

And with that, so long from Rome, Italy, the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world.


  1. Excellent podcast this week, the brief history of collaborative cataloging was very interesting, as was the analogy to the commons of the past. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on FRBR.

  2. Very insightful look at the theories behind the OCLC and Skyriver lawsuit, especially on the monetization of catalog records. Speaking as a cataloger, the bibliographic records in WorldCat have always been seen by librarians as a community resource, and not the private property of OCLC.