OCLC– thoughts on Z39.50

I sent this email to Larry P. Alford who is the OCLC Board of Trustees chair. The response from OCLC is from Bruce Newell of Helena, MT, a member of the board. I would appreciate any thoughts on this exchange. The original remarks titled “The Value of the OCLC Cooperative” were delivered at the OCLC Americas regional council meeting, January 15, 2010 in Boston MA.

To: Alford,Larry
Subject: The value of library cooperatives

Dear Larry,

We are just a small public library. We subscribe to OCLC and use your collection dev. products for a price. I read your remarks from the OCLC Americas Regional Council Meeting dated Jan 15, 2010. I am sorry that you think the Z39.50 protocol is a threat to the well being of OCLC. For some libraries it is their only option for creating bib records. All around the world collections are being created in a myriad of applications and not just libraries.
When you disparage Z39.50 as “lite” cataloging you sound a little bit like Sirsi’s Stephen Abrams taking shots at the Open Source community in an “alleged ” white paper and I think he works for Gale now. The world is changing and World Cat is definitely a player in the info management business. But if you don’t mind a little advice from a client and member, OCLC needs a paradigm shift. You have become a monolith in a world that values interoperability and freedom to move and migrate information without restriction. Your rhetorical question on page three reads like an admonishment not an inquiry. Threatening the privatization of World Cat adds to the concern regarding the development of World Cat Local and QuickStart, because it seems you are already headed in the proprietary direction.
You have some of the best and brightest at OCLC, Lorcan Dempsey for example. Why not think about where all this data streaming everywhere is going and what the retrieval and delivery system will look like in the next five years (long range planning). OCLC would be better positioned by embracing Z39.50 and helping libraries to integrate that data in whatever format they build their records with.
Lastly, we are all in this together and we are only as strong as our smallest library, extend a hand to those who see the value of creating their holdings digitally regardless of the protocol they use. If you can’t find it – it is lost.
Just ask all the serials folks, from D-space dark storage for thesis’s that no one would pay to read, to resolvers that now search across all holdings regardless of their format. No one is buying a subscription to Time as a serial…it is available via the internet, free. So this is my basis for a rethink of Z39.50 on the part of OCLC.

Best Regards
Lee Phillips

The response:

Lee,

Thanks for your e-mail in response to Larry’s remarks. As an OCLC Trustee I am replying to some of the responses to his letter. Since we’re neighbors, I’d welcome the opportunity to speak with you about this in person some time, but, for now, let me address your concerns and comments with this e-mail.

Butte-Silverbow is OCLC, or at least part of the cooperative body. OCLC is its members, and the Board and staff try our hardest to work as partners with you and other member libraries. There are no second-class OCLC members, and the Board would like the costs of cooperative membership to be affordable, and the benefits to be tangible, to the largest and smallest of OCLC institutions, regardless of type or location.

WorldCat is the product of decades of work by tens of thousands of librarians. While OCLC’s biggest asset is itself, that is, its member institutions, WorldCat is our singular resource. The trick, as I see it, is making this asset as widely useful as possible while protecting its present and future value to the cooperative — that is, to Butte Silverbow and tens-of-thousands of institutions like yours. I agree, protectively clutching WorldCat to our chests will not increase its value to you and other member libraries, but there are obvious drawbacks to letting others (for-profit or not-for-profit) wrest WorldCat from our collective grasp. Butte-Silverbow, as things stand now, is a controlling member of WorldCat. If there were dozens of WorldCats, the unique value of WorldCat would be diminished, it certainly would be harder to build a truly global union catalog, and others would be sitting in multiple drivers’ seats. OCLC members, now drivers, would become passengers in a fleet of buses going every which direction. It would be tougher (and considerably more expensive) to build this cooperative resource with other-then member memory institutions guiding our shared content and services. In WorldCat we’ve got a terrific resource, now, how can we use it to best benefit (in the short- and long-term) our members and their users? Keep in mind, for better or worse, for historical reasons OCLC is largely funded by WorldCat-related activities.

I have, I think, a practical appreciation of the power of Z39.50, as well as its significant limitations. We never got it to work reliably while I was at MSL, mostly, I think, because of the many-to-many relationship between the relatively few institutions trying to present and synchronize services using a hodgepodge of applications, data-links, staff, and computer hardware. I wished and continue to wish Z39 was going to be ‘the answer,’ but I don’t believe that Z39 (by itself) is. If we’re going to serve the world’s libraries (museums, historical societies, and archives) and their users, by necessity we’re forced to build systems that will scale-up to tens-of-thousands of member institutions — and billions of endusers. We are mindful of this as we construct cloud-based data-sets and services. Likewise we’re keeping in mind that what we build has to work conveniently, accurately, affordably, and all the time for you and your users.

You know how hard it is to build services that are great, convenient, and cheap, but that’s what we’re trying to do with WorldCat and associated services. And we’re trying to spread the cost over member institutions in a way that let’s everybody play (who wants to). We’re always open to suggestions of how to improve what we do, and how we all pay for them…

You wrote in conclusion, that: “Lastly, we are all in this together and we are only as strong as our smallest library, extend a hand to those who see the value of creating their holdings digitally regardless of the protocol they use. If you can’t find it – it is lost.” I agree, and I hope that you continue to be engaged in this discussion. We’re trying to move ahead in directions that have value for you and your users, and trying to do so in ways that include all in an affordable manner.

Let me know if you’d like to discuss this further. I’d value your thoughts.

Bruce

Bruce Newell

OCLC Board of Trustees


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