Information Today, Inc. Corporate Site KMWorld CRM Media Streaming Media Faulkner Speech Technology Unisphere/DBTA
Other ITI Websites
American Library Directory Boardwalk Empire Database Trends and Applications DestinationCRM Faulkner Information Services Fulltext Sources Online InfoToday Europe KMWorld Literary Market Place Plexus Publishing Smart Customer Service Speech Technology Streaming Media Streaming Media Europe Streaming Media Producer Unisphere Research

News & Events > NewsBreaks
Back Index Forward
Twitter RSS Feed

WorldCat Record Use Policy Changes at OCLC
Posted On April 12, 2010

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. In November 2008, OCLC ( issued a new policy directive, scheduled to go into effect February 2009, which defined the acceptable use of records in WorldCat, the world's largest library union catalog. The firestorm of protest that ensued led them to vacate the policy and set up a committee to review the situation. That committee proposed another committee to come up with a new policy. A draft of the policy from the Record Use Policy Council (RUPC), entitled WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative, has now arrived ( This time, the RUPC and OCLC hope to have allowed sufficient time and places for OCLC members, and even non-members, to review and comment on the draft before a final version goes to OCLC's Board of Trustees for further tuning. The RUPC predicts a finished policy will be issued by the Board by mid-2010.

The previous policy document, which the 2008 document was meant to change, Guidelines for the Use and Transfer of OCLC Derived Records (, was published way back in 1987, the pre-web era. So a change in policy was overdue.

However, as RUPC co-chair, Jennifer Younger, president-elect of the OCLC Global Council and the Edward H. Arnold director of the Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame, expressed it, "The last time, people didn't know the purpose of the policy. There was too much legal terminology and the process didn't develop members' roles. It sounded too ‘top-down.' Now we have taken a completely different approach to writing the policy. We really want to focus on member rights and responsibilities, to vest members with the understanding and making decision on their transfers in context." This policy draft focuses on member rights and responsibilities, a "code of good practice."

The controversy that led to this regrouping involved petitions of protest, attack documents from leading library associations, such as the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC), as well as endless commentary on librarian listservs and blogs. (For a detailed (and just short of endless) list of links and a chronology of the policy controversy, try the Code4-Lib site and its wiki on the topic,

A Balancing Act

Basically, the 12 members of the RUPC, representing different kinds of libraries from around the world, strove to come up with a policy that would, as expressed by the draft:

  • Maintain the viability of a shared community resource that benefits the cooperative of OCLC members
  • Reinforce the collective commitment to shared values, self-governance, and a spirit of reciprocity and trust
  • Provide the underpinning for a viable business model to sustain WorldCat for the benefit of the cooperative that supports it

Trying for generosity and openness in the spirit of librarianship and within the ever-improving technological environment for sharing and networking had to be balanced against the economic realities of sustaining WorldCat and its "steward," OCLC, and the welfare of OCLC members versus the world at large. A tricky assignment, one must admit.

This draft policy is not the only evidence of controversy for OCLC. Recently Michigan State University's cost-saving switch to SkyRiver Technology cataloging services ran afoul of OCLC, with allegedly punitive pricing increases for adding records created in SkyRiver to WorldCat. Clifford Haka, director of MSU's libraries, does not consider the draft policy to affect this issue directly.

Issues and Controversies

The controversies built into the WorldCat issues are not likely to go away quickly. For example, Steve Coffman, vice-president of public libraries east at LSSI, a leading library outsourcing service, commented as follows after looking over the draft:

OCLC nor WorldCat didn't create any of those records nor do they belong to OCLC or WorldCat. The records belong to the libraries that created them-many of them, by the way, created by the Library of Congress and other institutions using public taxpayer money. The value-added that OCLC and WorldCat has provided, heretofore, is aggregating those records so that other libraries could find and reuse them.

The fact of the matter is that it is no longer difficult to aggregate those records, nor to find and reuse them without the help of OCLC or WorldCat. For example, I do not use OCLC or WorldCat for most of my bibliographic records. I get them from other libraries through Z39.50 connections. Meanwhile others, like Open Library, LibraryThing, etc. are aggregating and enhancing records in large bibliographic databases and often doing a better job of it than WorldCat, which is precisely why OCLC is trying to promulgate a policy that would limit use of those records so others cannot use them in any way that would undercut WorldCat. But I say, when it comes to aggregating bibliographic records and bibliographic control in general, competition is a good thing. Let's let a thousand flowers bloom.

OCLC's draft record use policy is an attempt to shut down that competition and preserve its own particular aggregation of those bibliographic records, known as WorldCat, as the only one. It is also shutting the barn door after the horse has already got out.

I spoke with Tim Spalding of LibraryThing. The company offers an open service for individual bookaholics to maintain catalogs and share comments on books. An ancillary service ( can enrich library catalogs with user-generated content on books. Spalding says he gets only a very small percentage of his bibliographic records from WorldCat (most come from Amazon or other bookseller sources). Even when he needs a WorldCat record, according to Spalding, he usually goes to the library doing the original cataloging. Under the previous guidelines, the original cataloging library was entitled to considerable independence in re-using and sharing its data. Spalding pointed out that the draft policy does not address that policy. Spalding actually regretted the abandonment of legal language in the new draft, saying, "Legal documents offer concrete protections. It's clearer when it's a legal document. It reminds people of what is theirs and when."

When asked about this ownership issue, Karen Calhoun, RUPC member and vice-president of OCLC WorldCat and Metadata Services, responded:

The Record Use Policy Council did not take up the distinction that the Guidelines for Use and Transfer of OCLC-Derived Records made between "original" and "OCLC-derived" records because it is no longer a helpful or relevant distinction given the approach taken for the current draft policy. This draft policy takes a different approach: it is not about who owns which records and what kind of records. Instead, the draft policy looks at the value of WorldCat as a whole, the services and network effects it supports, and the outcomes it produces for members of the OCLC cooperative and the communities they serve. To sustain this value over time while also empowering the widest possible use of WorldCat bibliographic data, the draft policy sets out a set of member rights and responsibilities for WorldCat data that they have extracted for their own systems.

Within this context, a national library that is also a member of OCLC, like the Library of Congress, has in its systems some bibliographic data that it has extracted from WorldCat. It also has a great deal of bibliographic data that it has produced itself. As a member of the OCLC cooperative, the national library continues to have a broad set of rights for transferring or making available (for example by Z39.50) not only its own bibliographic data, but also data it has extracted from WorldCat to individual scholars, to libraries, cultural and scholarly institutions, and others. The draft policy suggests only that the further transfer of the extracted WorldCat data be in keeping with an approach that supports the ongoing viability and utility of WorldCat and the services it supports.

And new controversies emerge. As mentioned in a recent NewsBreak ("New Strategies for OCLC; More Content for EBSCO Publishing," Mar. 25, 2010,, OCLC has major plans to launch "cloud-based" competition for integrated library services in its growing "Web-Scale" library management services. Several people with whom I spoke expressed serious concerns that OCLC might use WorldCat as a hammer to push users away from their current ILS/OPAC services and into OCLC's.

When I asked Karen Calhoun about this issue, she responded strongly that they would not follow such a strategy, that their services would be "platform independent." Calhoun stated that OCLC strategists recognized that "most libraries are on other platforms. We respect that and expect it. Ours will be a service-neutral platform. We're very excited about our new services, but we know that different libraries have different needs, different wants, and different timetables. We plan to continue to serve all libraries."

Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and an RUPC member, took a centrist stance. He thought the RUPC "did a pretty reasonable job" by focusing on WorldCat as "a living thing." He added, "The purpose paramount in my mind was not to optimize revenues for OCLC, but how to keep this resource healthy while using it to the maximum extent consistent with the mission and values of the institutions that built it."

Lynch recognized the existence of some anti-OCLC sentiment:

OCLC did a bad job on revising the first time. They understand that now. They made a lot of people legitimately nervous. That's the stock of distrust we're trying to dissipate or address with better processes. I can't underscore enough that this is a draft. I've already seen some feedback where it could be clearer in some places, as well as some serious talking based on concepts. One of the things I found interesting in the early comments was that people were mixed up about what the policy was about and inserted views of OCLC's success and failures in other areas. Lots of other issues people have with OCLC are starting to surface with this policy. One of the challenges is to discipline which ones are really relevant to the policy and which are real issues for [an]other forum or need addressing in other ways.

Please Read and Comment

The RUPC urges OCLC members and non-members to study the draft policy, including its FAQ ( and comment throughout April and May. A community forum has been set up (, along with an email site ( There will be a series of three webinars where participants can interact with RUPC members. The webinars are open to all. Register for April 14 at; April 28 at; and May 11 at

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Related Articles

1/15/2009OCLC Still Reviewing Policy for Use of WorldCat Records
3/2/2009ARL Calls on OCLC to Develop New Policy for WorldCat Records
4/30/2009A Quick Start for OCLC’s Web-Scale Management Services
5/14/2009ICOLC Urges OCLC to Formulate New Records Use Policy
9/17/2009OCLC Convenes Council to Develop New WorldCat Record Use Policy
3/25/2010New Strategies for OCLC; More Content for EBSCO Publishing
6/24/2010New OCLC WorldCat Record Use Policy Approved
8/2/2010SkyRiver and Innovative Interfaces File Antitrust Suit Against OCLC

Comments Add A Comment

              Back to top