Thursday, February 21, 2008

Free Online Catalog?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting in its February 22, 2008 issue on Aaron Swartz's initiative to build a competitor to WorldCat--a "free online book catalog that anyone can update." You will need a Chronicle account in order to read the story online. Mr. Swartz is only twenty-one, but has already helped to write the code for RSS. His project is called Open Library, and it is expected to go live in March. At that point, Open Catalog should have records on about 20 million books. Its goal is expansive--"to create a comprehensive Web page about any book ever published. Each page will include not just author, title, and publisher but also links that direct users to the nearest library with a copy and to related. Other links will allow users to buy a book online or write a review of it. The pages will be created or updated by anyone, in the style of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Some Web pages will also connect to the full text when its copyright has expired. Or users will be able to pay about 10 cents a page to have an unscanned out-of-copyright book at a college library digitized." There are similarities to WorldCat, but while WorldCat includes only records from OCLC libraries, Open Library will include records from anywhere. WorldCat is a fee-based service, while Open Library is free. Finally, WorldCat records are presumably created by librarians using established standards, while Open Library records will be created by the public. Mr. Swartz has other ideas about integrating Open Library with Wikipedia and LibraryThing, a site that enables the public to catalog their books. Should his project succeed, it could well change the way libraries maintain catalog records. At the moment, however, many librarians are cautious about Open Library, and few libraries have contributed their records. I am left with the question I often have when I read about innovative ideas for facilitating access to information--why are they coming from outside the library profession?


Jacqueline Cantwell said...

I have looked at these non-library specified catalogs. I actually think that OCLC's worldcat is more innovative than these spin-offs. The marc record is a form of intellectual property; its descriptions and entries are a way of stating, how many questions can this document support. Of course, libraries will not want to give away this work. It is already free on worldcat and their own catalogs.

These library competitive catalogs reflect the interests of contributors. I found that none of them supported my interests. They are good for popular books and helping a group collect documents (and that group could use oclc's list function in worldcat).

Libraries don't get credit for their innovative thought in technical services. OCLC sponsors research that is fascinating. We law librarians need to participate in cross-disciplinary discussions to publcize the value of libraries.

Marie S. Newman said...

Agreed, but OCLC's price structure puts it beyond the reach of many smaller libraries. Plus, competition is usually a good thing because it brings down prices and gives options to consumers.