OCLC and WorldCat: Consolidation and Monopolization of a Core Library Service

  • Author(s) / Creator(s)
  • Created in 1971 by the Ohio College Library Centre (OCLC), WorldCat was rapidly established as the profession’s largest collaborative catalog. Four years after its creation a study of 47 libraries showed that the shared catalog had virtually eliminated the need for internal cataloging in small libraries and significantly reduced the time required for cataloging in larger institutions.
    Since WorldCat’s birth was enabled by advances in computing in data storage, the technology can be seen as a disruption of the sort described by Tim Wu in The Master Switch. Wu’s book describes a cycle of innovation that begins with a breakthrough, moving through a period of proliferation before becoming guarded, restricted and centralized. This presentation applies Wu’s model to the WorldCat catalog by tracing OCLC’s rapid growth, expansion, and questionable policy changes spanning 40 years of shared cataloging and other library services.
    The word “monopoly” was first used to describe OCLC in 1979, after anti-competitive tactics were used to deter libraries from participating in alliances like the Washington Library Network and the Research Library Group. OCLC exhibited protectionism in the 1980s when it announced plans to copyright its catalog, and in the 1990s when it realized that networked libraries could download and share catalog records without contributing new data. In the ensuing decades, OCLC has staved off competition through horizontal and vertical integration, including the acquisition of other shared catalogs, eBook publishers, interlibrary loan and proxy services. Many do not know that OCLC even has full control of the Dewey Decimal System.
    As OCLC has grown, it has become less responsive to its members and has shifted towards policies that emphasize self-preservation and control over increased information access and data sharing. Two recent examples include attempts to thwart the Open Library from reproducing its service and a multi-year legal fight with Innovative Interfaces, Inc. and Skyriver over their accusations that the organization operated as a monopoly.
    OCLC’s evolution closely mirrors the innovation cycle outlined in The Master Switch, creating an ironic situation where an institution known for information access is increasingly left to the whims of a centralized, unresponsive entity that emphasizes its own preservation over its own founding values. As a result, OCLC’s shared catalog service is ripe for disruption.

  • Date created
  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Type of Item
    Conference/Workshop Presentation
  • DOI
  • License
    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International