OCLC and the Great Library Scandal

November 14, 2008

A couple of months ago I was doing some research into various sources of book data, and one of the things I was interested in was seeing if it was possible to hook into local library data. For example, if I was building a site that contained lots of book info, it’s easy to point to a place to buy that book online, and there are increasing ways to find things if they’re in your local bookshop (e.g. localbookshops.co.uk and LT Local). But what about seeing if it’s in your local library?

If I want to check my local library, I can use their website, but it’s not a great service, and I have to find my local library on a host of different local government sites, which use different protocols. Surely there’s a central database of this stuff? So I called up the library, and was passed around a bit, and was finally told about OCLC, the organisation that holds all catalogue records for UK libraries. I’d come across the OCLC before in the form of WorldCat – a huge database of library holdings that, yes, does allow you to search for titles in your local library. However, its terms are quite restrictive, there’s no open API, and I didn’t use it much, preferring more free and more open services.

What I didn’t know is that the OCLC is the supplier of library data for all UK libraries, which have to pay to upload their data – and then pay to get it back out again. I spoke to someone at OCLC (briefly – they’re not that interested in individuals) and was informed that while it is possible to interact with their data at a programmable level, the fees for doing so are immense: in the thousands and thousands of pounds.

To me, this was a scandal. Why are our publicly funded libraries locked into a monopolistic relationship with a clearly greedy data supplier? Why are they paying thousands of pounds to access their own data? Why are the public, whose money is paying for this, locked out of the system?

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one to notice. The Open Library project was set up to provide a direct alternative to the OCLC, and yesterday Aaron Swartz, one of the people behind Open Library, posted Stealing Your Library: The OCLC Powergrab, a summary of OCLC’s monopolistic practices and their latest, most damning initative:

Not satisfied with controlling the world’s largest source of book information, it wants to take over all the smaller ones as well. It’s now demanding that every library that uses WorldCat give control over all its catalog records to OCLC. It literally is asking libraries to put an OCLC policy notice on every book record in their catalog. It wants to own every library.

It’s not just Open Library that’s at risk here — LibraryThing, Zotero, even some new Wikipedia features being developed are threatened. Basically anything that uses information about books is going to be a victim of this unprecedented powergrab. It’s a scary thought.

Fortunately, the new rules haven’t gone into effect yet and it’s not too late to stop them. But we need your help. Please, spread the word about this disaster and share this blog post. Sign our petition demanding that they stop. And, if you’re a librarian or at a library, there’s a lot more you can do. First, you can share your library catalog now, before the new policy takes effect. Second, you put your own license on the records you contribute to OCLC, insisting that the entire catalog they appear in must be available under open terms. And third, you can use your OCLC membership status to pressure the organization to listen to libraries instead of dictating to them. Together, we can stop this thing.

I’m going to be following this up in a number of ways. I’ve started by filing a freedom of information request with my local council, to see how much they’re paying the OCLC and what, if any, efforts they’ve made to find other suppliers. Why don’t you do likewise?


  1. I really shouldn’t be surprised these days when yet another example of ridiculous lock-in comes to light, but luckily I still am. Petition signed.

    I didn’t know about localbookshops.co.uk, so thanks – I expect I’ll use that in future. I want a service that will take my Amazon wishlist and let me know when nearby bookshops or branches of Oxfam, etc. get any of the books in stock.

    Finally, I don’t know if you’re aware of Jon Udell and his LibraryLookup service? It doesn’t quite give you the one centralised library search facility, but maybe with a mashup of Google maps and a dash of crowd-sourcing it could be…?

    Comment by Adrian McEwen — November 14, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  2. Very interesting post. I’ve posted a request to my borough, Tower Hamlets:


    The public catalogues are atrocious. And in Tower Hamlets at least, the libraries no longer seem to be able to request inter-library loans (I’m sure public libraries used to do this).

    It might be worth asking OPSI’s unlocking service to investigate: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/unlocking-service/

    Comment by Anna — November 17, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  3. @Adrian – Shall look into LibraryLookup, thanks for that.

    @Anna – Excellent. Please let me know if/when you get a response, and I’ll look at OPSI too.

    Comment by James Bridle — November 17, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  4. […] [in a weary voice] Do you know anything about an organisation called the OCLC and how they license the use of local library book information? […]

    Pingback by Are free libraries locking up their data? | Tom Watson MP — November 17, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  5. […] OCLC and the Great Library Scandal is a good introduction and there’s a summary of the Talis Podcast about OCLC WorldCat Record Use Policy with Karen Clahoun and Roy Tennant which reveals some of the OCLC thinking. […]

    Pingback by Libraries, Cooperatives, OCLC and TTLLP | Software Cooperative News — November 21, 2008 @ 7:35 am

  6. The OCLC powergrab seems to have been delayed for the time being: http://www.oclc.org/news/releases/200939.htm. Summary and comprehensive links here: http://wiki.code4lib.org/index.php/OCLC_Policy_Change.

    Comment by Guy Bolton King — June 29, 2009 @ 9:32 am

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