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OCLC Policy Change Radical Reference Salon Discussion

WorldCat is a great idea—libraries band together to share catalog records in a single repository. Libraries add their own records and download others, spreading the work of maintaining a library catalog across the profession while enabling services like interlibrary loan. But these good acts are in danger of being compromised by a rapacious, monopolizing OCLC that is seeking to severely restrict the ways libraries can share their own data. The new Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records is scheduled to go into effect in the third quarter of this year. What does it mean for libraries? For open access projects like LibraryThing and Open Library? What does it mean for library activists committed to freedom of information, including the freedom of data we ourselves produce? What might meaningful resistance look like, before and after the policy change?

Event Specs

Date/Time: Friday, January 23, 8pm

Place: ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington St., Manhattan

Cost: Free, but a $1-2 contribution for ABC No Rio would be nice

Organized by: The NYC Radical Reference Collective

Contact: Emily or Jenna


  1. Please add items you think people should read ahead of time.
  2. Please keep them alphabetical.
  3. Feel free, encouraged even, to provide some annotation.
  4. Please volunteer to summarize one item for the group at the salon by putting your name after it in parentheses, like this: (Farfel)

Beall writes with fervor about the problems he sees with OCLC. First, he argues that OCLC represents a monopoly that steals and consolidates the labor of catalog librarians and then sells it back to them at an exorbitant rate. Because they have no competitors--or buy them up, as they did with netLibrary--libraries have little recourse. Second, OCLC has notoriously dirty data and provides no incentive for librarians to clean that data up. Third, despite their reliance on computer science and business majors, OCLC fails to implement software well. Connexion, the cataloging client, goes down with regularity and OCLC is nonresponsive. Beall touches throughout on labor problems with OCLC including their failure to hire degreed librarians, a parochial reliance on Ohio State graduates, and the poor working conditions of temporary catalogers.

Guiding Questions

We expect the conversation to take on a shape guided by who shows up and what they're interested in. Here are some guiding questions we might keep in mind as we read and respond--feel free to add your own.

  1. Is a true cataloging cooperative possible under capitalism?
  2. Considering the reach of OCLC's power and products--could we do interlibrary loan without them?--what are strategies libraries and librarians can use to resist them?
  3. What can open access movements teach us about how to approach OCLC today?

Some notes from Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat Records: A Moderated Discussion

Please note that these are my personal notes and not verbatim.

Karen Calhoun – VP of OCLC WorldCat and Metadata Services

Moderated by Robert Wolven (from Columbia University Libraries)

This discussion/question & answer session was video-taped and will probably be made available to all NyLink member libraries.

Overview by Karen Calhoun

OCLC hasn’t updated its policies since 1987

  • with the Guidelines
  • update on current process –
    • policy created by their board [she says that it wasn’t just OCLC people, but it was their board so wouldn’t that mean it was their people since it was people they chose to be on their board?]
    • policy implementation has been delayed until the third or fourth quarter of this calendar year
    • review board has been created to review the policy and discuss policy with community

Expand record sharing

  • member and non-members
  • archives and museum

Revised Policy to address

  • commercial and non-member sources using/copying member records
  • via z39.50
  • she calls them ‘attacks’

See FAQs for more information about questions already asked

  • will be considered part of the policy
  • some of the questions asked during our session may end up here for future reference


  • adds non commercial sharing or archival & museum records
  • framed as legal document when the first document (the Guidelines) were not
  • is about reaching agreement with outside organizations that are not members of the cooperative and a fair return for the coop as a whole fair return
    • new – enhanced content
    • cataloging partners – vendors
    • search engines


  • the records belong to the member that contributes them & OCLC
  • to OCLC if you paid for a record to be exported to your library’s catalog (copy cat.) your library does not actually own that record, it belongs to OCLC
  • pool analogy here

Data sharing environment

  • everyone has right policies (this is OCLC’s stab at ‘everyone else is doing it’)
  • degree of rights policy usually related to financial viability

[here the speaker becomes a little condescending]

my questions – is OCLC a business? Does OCLC rely on content/data to make money? How are they still a non-profit?

Data sharing environment, continued

  1. reduce operations costs
    1. data creation, management
    2. resource sharing & public services
  2. enable exposure of library data
  3. more traffic to libraries from popular websites [like Google Books – she brings this up all afternoon]

For more comments or questions email: mailto:recorduse@oclc.org

Discussion between librarians and Karen Calhoun, moderated by Bob Wolven

Parts of the discussion – Bob was trying to keep us on track

  1. What is the need for the policy?
  2. If there is a policy, what should it be?
  3. What about process?

What is the need for the policy?

Z39.50 – don’t you have control over who accesses your database and can’t you just approach the issue with those that ‘attached’ you?

  • yes, they can deny access to non-authorized users and they have approached those that ‘attacked them’
  • between libraries and non-commercial use the use of z39.50 is ok

Price – dropping per use of cataloging transaction

  • changes depending on location/geography

Identified companies that were harvesting records – but cutting off all commercial users?

  • OCLC has partner agreements with vendors
  • Specifies guidelines but those superceded by these agreements

Once customer uploads record to OCLC for customer…

  • that record belongs to OCLC and OCLC ‘membership’ or ‘coop’ not vendor
  • [so the general rules of OCLC record ownership doesn’t appear to apply to vendors? Or those records are counted as belonging to the member institution? Either way taking the vendor out of the equation]

legal document?

  • yes for provisions for what happens if you violate
  • also for negotiations with Google’s of the world
  • isn’t about libraries, about people outside of the coop that want to use member records
  • more like a contract

WorldCat API – developers

  • want to encourage this
  • OCLC is developing this more in the international community right now – with other union catalogs
  • Strongly endorsed by OCLC for future development

Harvest set available

  • free of charge but have terms & conditions required

Policy ended up being more about control than openness – and hopefully review board will push more towards openness

  • need to integrate services

If you want to use these records you have to reach an agreement with OCLC to contribute (give back to), etc to the coop.

If there is a policy, what should it be?

Basically, if a vendor/library share – its ok, but its NOT ok if they (vendor) retains our records and later uses them for profit.

No connection between policy and cost.

Algorithms add value to the records

  • therefore OCLC copyrighted the entire database
  • ‘curatorial role’
  • [most of these are added values aren’t actually passed on the members after the record has been exported to the local ILS, because the record isn’t updated by OCLC ever – only if its done by an outside vendor]

Records created or purchased by the library are not covered by the policy

  • original records are not included
  • ownership rules come from existing Guidelines

If you are going to share your records with an institution that would sell them to others

  • not ok, without an agreement with OCLC
  • basically, if OCLC is loosing money, etc. from your relationship with someone else – then you have a problem and an agreement needs to be negotiated

Seems like they are trying to ensure their place outside and within the library community – vendor lock.

OCLC’s idea of adding value is subjective, because there are some libraries that have closed collections and don’t want their information shared with outside ‘Google –like services’

  • there are opt-out settings/options for each member, so if they don’t want their information contributed it doesn’t have to be, but it is considered a service to the larger coop even if everyone doesn’t consider it that way

What can OCLC do with unique data?

  • use records to support coop
  • allow others to process/edit data

What about process?

This is never really discussed – and really number 2 is really just wishful thinking on Bob’s part. The entire moderated discussion is mostly just question and answer, and every now and then people throw out their ideas for why this is good or why it isn’t, etc. etc.

Some referenced OCLC documents: