A somewhat rambling essay, but one that is important nonetheless:
Joe Wilcox has posted an interesting essay at Microsoft Watch regarding Google’s merger with DoubleClick, the internet advertising company. I strongly disagree with some of his interpretations (he tries to have it both ways, and by defending Microsoft and chastising Google, he simply muddies the water), but the essay has me thinking about the good and bad of monopolies in libraryland.
First, is the love-hate relationship I have with “monopolies”. Oftentimes a monopoly reduces choices for the user/consumer, and oftentimes the litmus test for this is whether the company/organization channels its energy towards preventing competition, rather than out-performing competition. Efforts towards providing a better product/service than one’s competitor are rarely in vain. Even if a company fails, the level of product/service is usually improved across the board.
Next, the concept of open standards is, for better or worse, tied up with monopolies. A group with a monopoly is able to set standards much more effectively. If the standards are set in a fair manner, i.e. not simply to prevent competition against one’s own product/service, then the monopoly can actually be more efficient. If not, it isn’t truly an open standard, as much as it is a proprietary standard.
Libraries, then… we are swimming in a sea of standards, and companies that create them. We are living with standards that work only for us, such as MARC, and aren’t of much (if any) benefit outside libraries. The bibliographic information contained within them is of great benefit and value, but the standard is not very useful.
However, so much of our energies are tied up in this standard (and others, if we think about it), and it is dragging us down. It is important to understand that the information is what has value; the value in how we store and access it is reflected in the ease of use, and the interest in using that storage/access method.
MARC has lost it’s luster, and we should move forward. The information, however, is more valuable than ever, and we need to figure out how to maximize this value. Making it easy for everyone to use, not only libraries, should be our top priority. When Amazon or Google (or companies/groups like them) really want to access our bibliographic records, and use their structure, this will be when we know we have fixed the worst of our problems. Is FRBR/RDA the answer? I suspect not, simply because a new way needs to be much easier to describe and apply.
Google is, and has been for a while, the 800 pound gorilla in the search business. This came about because their search tools were, and are, simply better than their competitors. I don’t think this will last forever, but there are many benefits to their dominance. They are able to set “standards” for web design that encourage compliant web site design and discourage link farms and spam sites. They have mastered, to a large extent, the art of interpreting the keyword search. People now think in keywords when they search (which is why the natural language search engines are languishing in obscurity).
In libraryland, OCLC is our 800 pound gorilla. When they come out with something new (and the last couple of years have been fantastic, with WorldCat leading the way), libraries pay attention. If they set a particular course, it makes a great deal of sense to follow that same path.
Is this the best way, though? Should the 800 pounders lead the way in information discovery? How might they prevent innovation from happening, or are we doing that to ourselves already? Is the slow pace of FRBR/RDA a reflection of the size of the beast as it slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, or simply the complexity of the solution?
One thing I have noticed on many blogs and listservs is that we love to talk about what is wrong and right about libraries and technology and search, but it is usually individuals and small groups taking the lead and deciding to blaze a new trail. Open-ILS and LibraryThing are but two examples of dozens where people saw a need and decided to take charge of fulfilling it.
Why haven’t we come up with a new way to deal with bibliographic information? Does one person, or a group, need to simply decide to do it? The library community seems to be spinning its wheels on the issue, so perhaps this is the case.
Who wants to take on the challenge?