Sustainable stewardship: WorldCat as a membership good

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the Open landscape and OCLC’s place within it. This post describes the distinctive ‘membership good’ business model that underpins WorldCat and the services it supports, and explores the broader benefits of this model for the library community.

An open garden gate with flowering vines. Membership goods, like community gardens, are managed as shared resources, with some level of access control.
Photo by Peter Mason on Unsplash.

WorldCat is community infrastructure – a data platform built with and for libraries, developed and maintained by OCLC, sustained by library investment. Launched in the 1970s as a shared cataloging environment for academic libraries in Ohio, it has evolved into the world’s largest bibliographic data network, comprising more than 500 million titles and three billion library holdings. Today WorldCat supports a variety of core library operations from cataloging to discovery, delivery (inter-library loan), and decision support for collections management, and is used by tens of thousands of libraries worldwide. It is the fabric of library cooperation, constituted by and through shared workflows on a common platform.

In the complex and rapidly evolving Open ecosystem, WorldCat provides a model of shared infrastructure that balances the benefits of open, interoperable networks with the responsibilities of long-term stewardship of community resources.

Membership goods

In economic literature, a membership good (sometimes referred to as a ‘club’ good) is defined as a product, service, or resource whose benefit is limited – to a greater or lesser extent — to members who contribute to its upkeep. The property of ‘excludability’ – i.e., the ability to regulate access – is an essential characteristic of membership goods, vitally important to the long-term sustainability of shared resources.

Membership goods occupy a distinctive space on the continuum between ‘Open’ (or public) and ‘Closed’ (or private) goods. They are neither completely closed – since membership is voluntary – nor entirely open – because some access controls are imposed. While the sustainability of a membership good requires some excludability, it doesn’t necessarily require complete or absolute enclosure. For example, a museum will offer members free entry (and additional benefits) while also providing access to non-members, often pricing tickets on a sliding scale.  The sustainability of all economic goods – whether they are public, private, or somewhere in between – requires some level of resourcing. What is distinctive about membership goods is the fact that they favor community investment, since members who benefit from the shared resource have an incentive to contribute to its preservation.

WorldCat is an example of a membership good, built and managed by OCLC on behalf of the library community. Member libraries contribute data and financial resources (in the form of service fees) that ensure WorldCat’s sustainability as community infrastructure. Members benefit from the positive network effects of participation in the WorldCat network – operational efficiencies in metadata management, access to resource-sharing networks, a global view of library resources for discovery and collections management – as well as rights to share and repurpose WorldCat metadata within the member network. Non-members (individual libraries, library service providers, and non-library technology providers) are not completely excluded from this ecosystem but are subject to more stringent access controls including special fees and licensing agreements.

OCLC member libraries can share and exchange contributed bibliographic data (MARC records) in its original state but are restricted from redistributing metadata that is curated and managed within the WorldCat data network, subject to provisions (known as WorldCat member ‘Rights and Responsibilities’) established by OCLC’s governing bodies in consultation with community stakeholders. These rights and responsibilities are the hallmarks of a membership good – they provide balanced regulation that ensures longevity of the shared resource so that the collective investment continues to generate value for members. OCLC also provides multiple APIs that members and non-members can use to interact with WorldCat, supporting platform interoperability and service innovation. WorldCat is not a ‘closed’ system, it is a community resource curated by OCLC on behalf of its members.

The purpose of regulating access and use of WorldCat data is not to maximize protection of WorldCat; it is to maximize the value of WorldCat to the OCLC membership by ensuring its continued utility and vitality.  

The membership good model is widely used by non-profit organizations, because it provides a mechanism for sustaining community infrastructure and services that deliver quasi-public benefit but do not receive public funding. Think of the HathiTrust Digital Library, for example. The collective benefit of a vast and permanent archive of digitized library content is tremendous – it gives libraries the confidence to manage legacy print inventory differently and more efficiently. Benefits are maximized for member libraries (consider the innovative Emergency Temporary Access Service, or the HathiTrust shared print network), but also accrue to other libraries in less direct ways. Similarly, members of the Center for Research Libraries enjoy the specific benefits and privileges, some of which (like access to the shared collection) are available to non-members based on per-use fees. Think of JSTOR or Portico – infrastructure that has enabled the digital transformation of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences – whose sustainability depends on ongoing investment by participating libraries. These are all examples of membership goods managed by non-profit organizations that exercise reasonable regulation (access controls and subscription fees) to ensure the sustainability of the benefits they provide.

At their best, membership goods can deliver expansive and sustainable benefits to participating members, support value-added services that generate additional revenue from non-members, and create a surplus (i.e., revenues in excess of operating costs) sufficient to subsidize the provision of collective or public goods that benefit the wider community. This is the path that OCLC has pursued successfully for more than fifty years.

WorldCat as a membership good

We are sometimes asked: why isn’t WorldCat made freely available as an ‘open’ data platform? Why are limitations placed on access and use of bibliographic metadata in WorldCat that is sourced – in part – from member libraries?

Consider these factors:

  • WorldCat is dynamic data ecosystem, not a static repository of inert MARC records. Library-contributed metadata is programmatically transformed, enriched, and enhanced within this ecosystem by OCLC. Library data is combined with metadata from publishers and other sources by expert systems and human expertise within OCLC. These operations ensure that the scope, quality and utility of WorldCat continue to evolve alongside library needs. In practical terms, the value of metadata “as contributed” to WorldCat is different from the value of metadata integrated within the shared data network. As the steward of this data network, OCLC is responsible for protecting and preserving its value so that it continues to benefit libraries. 
  • WorldCat is community infrastructure on which tens of thousands of libraries depend for metadata management, discovery, and fulfillment via resource sharing networks. While some member libraries may have the resources to pool some bibliographic metadata to be managed as a shared resource outside the WorldCat network, most do not. The primary purpose of a membership good business model is to ensure the sustainability of a shared resource for collective benefit; reducing participation weakens the network, jeopardizing libraries with the fewest resources.
  • Centralized curation of WorldCat reduces costs for libraries and enables cooperation to scale globally. Significant ongoing investment is needed to manage data ingest, normalization, and other processes that make bibliographic metadata and library holdings information ‘fit for purpose’ for discovery, fulfillment, decision support and other uses that connect libraries to the WorldCat network. The costs of delivering comparable benefit outside of WorldCat would be even higher, and those benefits would be more unevenly distributed.
  • The costs of maintaining and evolving WorldCat are significant. Substantial and ongoing financial investment is needed to deliver robust data and systems security that comply with national and international standards and regulations, over and above the costs of supporting core data ingest and quality assurance operations. OCLC invests tens of millions of dollars each year to ensure that WorldCat continues to deliver value to libraries. This is an essential component of responsible stewardship.   
  • A completely ‘open’ WorldCat, permitting free and unrestricted access, use and exchange of curated metadata would be financially unsustainable. The prevailing membership good model ensures that infrastructure developed with and for libraries over the past half-century, survives and can continue to evolve with changing library needs. If all restrictions on use and reuse of WorldCat data were eliminated, there would be little incentive for libraries to participate in the OCLC service ecosystem, which would lead to disinvestment and ultimately the demise of WorldCat itself. Core services that depend on WorldCat – metadata management, resource sharing, discovery – would be put at risk, jeopardizing an entire ecosystem on which many libraries depend.  
  • WorldCat is not ‘closed’ or a ‘private good’ even if access and use are regulated. Members benefit from maximum flexibility in how WorldCat data can be used and shared. Non-members, including commercial library service providers, can use a variety of OCLC APIs to access and interact with WorldCat, subject to reasonable terms and conditions.

Membership goods and public benefit

Managing WorldCat as a membership good has the distinct advantage of ensuring the sustainability and continual revitalization of shared infrastructure while also enabling OCLC to deliver collective benefits to all libraries – members and non-members alike. Any surplus that is generated by services on WorldCat (cataloging, discovery, resource-sharing, decision support for collections management) is reinvested to evolve our data infrastructure so it remains fit to purpose, and advance global library collaboration within and outside our service ecosystem. In short, library investment in WorldCat enables OCLC to deliver both member goods that benefit contributing libraries and public benefit to the world’s libraries.

Here are some examples of public benefit that are subsidized through this membership good model:

  • Technological innovations that advance library science and increase library impact. Innovative services like VIAF, Classify, FAST, and WorldCat Entities are subsidized by revenues from core WorldCat services. The same is true for projects like the integration of controlled vocabularies like Ngā Upoko Tukutuk (Maori subject headings) or the Répertoire de vedettes-matière (bilingual French-English language subject headings) – strategic investments in internationalizing WorldCat that are costly to implement and revenue neutral but important to OCLC’s mission.
  • Global visibility of library resources in, which enables users on the web to locate global and local library resources in a single search environment. A variety of participation levels ensure worldwide library holdings in WorldCat are visible to anyone with an internet connection, while members benefit from enhanced visibility that links users to local fulfillment options.
  • Community engagement opportunities that bring libraries together to share expertise, challenges, and solutions — encouraging collaboration and library partnerships to flourish. These opportunities include public programming (e.g., OCLC’s Distinguished Seminar Series) and opportunities to participate in community governance. OCLC also contributes subject matter expertise to national, regional, and international library organizations and standards bodies through professional service on advisory boards, committees, and working groups.
  • Educational content and library learning programs developed by OCLC’s WebJunction team, tailored to the needs and priorities of public libraries. Teaching and learning materials on the WebJunction platform are available at no cost to libraries and are licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) so that they can be widely shared and reused. Over its twenty-year history, WebJunction has served more than two hundred thousand learners. While external funders and state library partners provide some financial support for WebJunction, OCLC subsidizes a significant share of its day-to-day operations and ensures sustainability of the learning platform.
  • Research programs and publications designed and produced in collaboration with library partners. Outputs of OCLC Research are published as Open Access (OA) resources with Creative Commons attribution (CC BY) licensing. When research outputs are published in scholarly/professional journals, OCLC negotiates rights to publish OA preprints to maximize access and readership. OCLC produces a dozen or more research publications each year, providing timely thought leadership on a wide range of topics important to libraries.

OCLC invests significant financial and human resources to support these non-revenue generating activities so that the benefits of library collaboration can be shared by all. Those investments are made possible by a combination of prudent financial management and a business model that ensures that library investment in WorldCat and the value-added services it supports remains within the library system and are not diverted to shareholders or private owners.

In short, the membership good business model is a strategic choice that enables OCLC to fulfill its mission to serve libraries: delivering shared infrastructure that increases library efficiency and visibility on the web and fosters global library collaboration. This model has sustained WorldCat for more than half a century, providing stability for member libraries, reducing costs for library system vendors (who would otherwise need to develop bibliographic infrastructure), and delivering public benefit to the library community at large.

Special thanks to my colleague Brian Lavoie for sharing his expertise on economic concepts and their application to WorldCat. His comments (and those of other OCLC colleagues) on an early draft of this blog post helped to improve it. Any errors or mischaracterizations are my own.

If you are interested to read more on the concept of membership goods and its application to digital infrastructure, I highly recommend Cameron Neylon’s article “Sustaining Scholarly Infrastructures through Collective Action: The Lessons that Olson can Teach Us” (DOI: