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Maelstrom Over Metadata

November 14, 2008

A debate is carrying on in the undercurrents of the academic Web, pitting those who defend libraries' core mission of open access against the membership organization that collects and operates a massive online catalog on which many of them rely.

Early this month, the OCLC (for Online Computer Library Center) announced the first significant change in its policies governing how libraries use and share bibliographic records since 1987 -- years before the World Wide Web existed. Some of those rules were considered overly vague or out of touch, representing an era before Google searches and online catalogs transformed the way students and researchers use library databases.

A major part of libraries' evolution since then has been a demand for more openness and the ability to search for materials that might exist at any number of institutions worldwide, driven by the ubiquity of search engines and an increasing commitment to digitizing texts. But those trends place them on a collision course with OCLC, which was originally founded by libraries to collect and store records of their holdings so that they wouldn't have to be created anew with each acquisition.

That partnership has grown into the large, member-supported organization today that owns WorldCat, which holds tens of millions of online records that members can use, relieving individual libraries of laboriously typing up so-called metadata -- information about individual holdings like the title, author and publisher, and plenty more -- and, in the process, standardizing the catalogs they use for their books and reference works.

In an attempt to protect WorldCat and the resources needed to keep it running, while making it sufficiently accessible to its members, OCLC announced a policy change that would have placed a notice in each record to the effect that it is governed by the WorldCat terms contained in an accompanying Web address -- terms that could presumably change over time. Libraries would also be encouraged to add the text to a specific field within each of their own records that originated from WorldCat.

Some bloggers interpreted the change as a power grab, an attempt to block libraries from using records for purposes that could conflict with OCLC's goals. For example, some libraries are considering using their records to generate revenue to support their own growing operations, and that could fall into OCLC's "commercial use" prohibition. Print-on-demand services, which make use of WorldCat records, could be affected; so could planned "discovery" interfaces that span dozens of libraries.

"From [OCLC's] perspective, it makes a lot of sense for them to want to assert and be overt about their rights to this material because WorldCat really represents ... a major portion of their revenue, and it also ... supports essential services for libraries such as resources sharing," said Anne R. Kenney, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University.

Debates over who owns the rights to the records -- and whether it's possible to copyright them at all -- aren't new and have led to open-source alternatives, such as OpenLibrary, whose database can be updated by contributors and is free and available for any purpose.

In any case, the initial reaction to the policy change was swift, complete with an online petition.

"Not satisfied with controlling the world's largest source of book information, it wants to take over all the smaller ones as well," wrote Aaron Swartz, one of the founders of OpenLibrary and a widely read Internet thinker, on his blog Thursday. "It's now demanding that every library that uses WorldCat give the copyright to all its catalog records to OCLC. It literally is asking libraries to put an OCLC copyright notice on every book record in their catalog. It wants to own every library."

By the time news of the policy, which is to take effect in February, spread across the blogosphere, OCLC posted a new draft softening some of its requirements -- for example, by making it optional to use or keep the text referring to WorldCat's policies and clarifying that non-commercial use of the records was generally protected, except in cases where it could interfere with OCLC's mission. And while the shift signals some openness to members' concerns, some still aren't satisfied, especially with the way the initial decision was made.

"They saved individual libraries a lot of money over time by collective resource sharing and cataloging. But having said that, I think part of the problem is that in their need to assert their rights, they did not broadly consult ahead of time of the release of this policy," Kenney said.

Terry Reese, the Gray Chair for Innovative Library Services at Oregon State University Libraries, said in an e-mail that it is partially a philosophical issue: "At its core, libraries have always been about providing access to our information and our metadata. We don't make value judgments as to why people may want/need to use our materials -- but that's essentially what OCLC is doing now (whether intentional or not)."

He continued, "As OCLC is oft to bring up, WorldCat is a member created resource -- yet, OCLC seems to be the only organization that is allowed to have unfettered access to that data. There are many ways to protect the membership's investment in the data that has been created."

But for OCLC, the issue is one of adapting to a Google-oriented world without sacrificing the value of WorldCat. In a blog post acknowledging the criticism, Karen Calhoun, OCLC's vice president for WorldCat and metadata services, wrote: "To play the role it is now playing on behalf of libraries, OCLC needs to be a player on the Web, and not just any player, but an influential one. It therefore needs to be a Web company, with data sharing policies and practices appropriate to the Web."

 

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