OCLC Control Numbers – Lots of them; all public domain

For the last few years I have been part of a group of OCLC staff charged with articulating data sharing practices that are consistent with the WorldCat Rights and Responsibilities for the OCLC Cooperative. We’ve made good progress towards openness while making expectations and practices more regular and consistent. The recommendation to use the ODC Attribution license, the release of substantial sets of bibliographic data and the understandings we reached with DPLA and Europeana are all part of that progress.

http://www.oclc.org/support/services/worldcat/documentation/cataloging/cards.en.htmlRecently we recommended that OCLC declare OCLC Control Numbers (OCN) as dedicated to the public domain. We wanted to make it clear to the community of users that they could share and use the number for any purpose and without any restrictions. Making that declaration would be consistent with our application of an open license for our own releases of data for re-use and would end the needless elimination of the number from bibliographic datasets that are at the foundation of the library and community interactions.

I’m pleased to say that this recommendation got unanimous support and my colleague Richard Wallis spoke about this declaration during his linked data session during the recent IFLA conference. The declaration now appears on the WCRR web page and from the page describing OCNs and their use.

We think this is important to do to counter act some practices based on misunderstandings that emerged from concerns about OCLC having an overly restrictive record use and re-use policy.

One of the most unfortunate grew up around the OCLC Control Number (OCN). The OCLC Control Number is a unique, sequentially assigned number associated with a record in WorldCat. The number is included in a WorldCat record when the record is created. More than one billion have been assigned. (Yes, a billion.) Some people thought that the Control Number represented a mechanism for identifying a record as having originated with OCLC and therefore subject to the cooperative’s record use policy.

This caused institutions to strip the OCN from bibliographic records. For similar reasons commercial information users would sometimes delete the OCN from the data that they used. This is unfortunate behavior that diminishes the value of the OCN as an identifier and compromises some of the innovation that could occur if the OCN were more universally used. It’s an important element in linked library data that helps in the creation and maintenance of work sets and provides a mechanism to disambiguate authors and titles.

More importantly the OCN is also widely used within the broad system of information that flows among libraries, national information agencies, commercial information providers and organizations that supply consumers with book and journal-oriented services. For instance,
• Cataloging and IT librarians download OCLC MARC bibliographic records to the library’s local system
• Resource sharing librarians using third party ILL management programs store or use the OCLC number for searching.
• Reference services librarians with WorldCat Local use it to help a patron locate an item

Publishers, vendors and others that partner with OCLC and libraries also use the OCN. For example,
• Integrated Library Service (ILS) vendors use the OCN to manage changes and updates within their application environment,
• Publishers, material suppliers and eContent providers use OCLC MARC bibliographic records in their systems and rely on the OCN as an identifier,
• Developers maintaining or expanding services use OCLC Control Numbers as an integral component of their application architecture.

All these good things can happen because of the identifying power of the OCN and its ubiquity in the library description domain. Everyone should use them and take advantage of what they can help you do. This declaration removes any residual concern that may have incorrectly informed operating practices. We hope it makes a difference.

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About Jim Michalko

Jim coordinates the OCLC Research office in San Mateo, CA, focuses on relationships with research libraries and work that renovates the library value proposition in the current information environment.

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