Aggregation – somebody has to pay.
In an earlier post I referred to an article by Lorcan Dempsey in which he’s quite convincing about the power that flows from aggregating supply and aggregating demand. He expands on this in a recent post about Libraries, Logistics and the Long Tail (which you ought to read although it is “long, long, long” but only for a blog entry.) One of the obvious things to take away from his discussion is that organizations other than the individual library, museum or archive are better suited to effectively aggregate demand. For some reason this kind of plain-speaking about the ways in which our information infrastructure has changed and the challenge that it poses to the boundaries of institutional thinking invokes irony (see this post) or sarcasm as a prerequisite to reflection. For instance, his entry drew the following in a reactive post:
“So, if exploiting the long tail requires aggregating demand, libraries aren’t the institutions to do it. You would need another institution, perhaps one that already is engaged in the business of bringing together supply and demand for bibliographic data. And who could that be? Oh, I don’t know, could be anybody really…like, say…OCLC???”
This did prompt what turned out to be an interesting and thoughtful exchange and it got me thinking about how often I’ve had to hear comparable things from people at organizations RLG was created to serve. I can’t explain this desire to label the pot of your own creation black. Maybe some of it is dysfunctional family behavior or residual academic attitude – we get cranky amongst ourselves.
RLG just got a bit of this in reaction to the release of ArchiveGrid (which is discussed elsewhere here by Anne). There was dismay at RLG’s attempt to monetize access to archival cataloging because we might have to revert to a subscription fee for the service if we’re unable to find continuing sponsorship. (And by the way the business model for archives and all cultural institutions is subsidy but that can be for another post…) This is Rumpelstiltskin economics – we say we can do it for ourselves, then when we have to rely on somebody else to accomplish the task there’s an argument about the fact that payment is in order,which engenders foot stomping, etc.
My point is that nobody in this arena is generating wealth, we’re all in it for the mission, and not only is it completely in order for organizations like RLG and OCLC to step up and provide the venue for the demands of the new environment, it ought to be expected.
That’s why these organizations were created. Our communities should insist that we take on these challenges, that we recreate ourselves in order to deliver what’s newly needed and then manage us so that the system of which we are all a part can thrive.
For me the future of collaboratively-owned, collaboratively-managed organizations like OCLC and RLG is to deliver on the need to collaboratively source (in Lorcan’s phrase) many of the functions that have long been thought to belong to an institution and have only been considered from an institution-wide perspective. At his valedictory to the assembled ARL librarians back in October 2005, Bill Bowen, the outgoing president of the Mellon Foundation said
“I probably should have said “system-wide perspective,” not just “institution-wide perspective,” because it is so clear, at least to me, that many of the most important developments will occur on a system-wide basis, will require new collaborations, and in many instances will need the catalytic contribution that a trusted third party can provide. It is important to avoid being trapped by too much institutional hubris and too much institutional competition. Technology demands a scale larger than that available to any single institution.”
Of course, he was thinking about Mellon’s own efforts to create new trusted third parties but his thought certainly applies to those supporting organizations we already have and which have earned that trust over more than thirty years.