Why should we even bother?

Often a thought that crosses my mind on a Friday evening when a Saturday shift looms large. In this instance however, I’m talking about reasons for sharing library metadata openly.

With services and budgets being slashed in all sectors and publishers continuing to hike fees well beyond inflation, it does seem like a needless extra that may detract from the value of our core service.

To top it off, sharing data well takes time, expertise and more than a little effort to get right.  So why bother?

Owen Stephens and others apparently gave a few good reasons at LibraryCamp this week.  I skipped it to eat cake but thankfully Girl in the moon had me covered :

Library catalogues have imposed on them librarian or supplier-made decisions about what can/can’t be searched and in what way.  Some of these decisions are limited by current cataloguing rules, but not all; often the data is recorded, but not in a usable way, or is there but isn’t tapped by the interface.  For example, in most catalogues you can limit by publication type to newspapers, but you can’t limit by frequency of the issues.  Releasing data means that people can start to use it in the way they want to.

To reiterate, the model of viewing the OPAC in the library building and nothing else is all but gone. Consumers of our data exist in many environments and consume in many different ways. They should have the freedom to do so in a way that suits them, not in a way facilitated by the data structure chosen by its creator or imposed by its silo of origin. Why should they have this right? Because they are the taxpayers and research funders who paid for it to be created in the first place.

Of course, if you need an official line, here is the business case for the Discovery initiative:

We conclude therefore by highlighting some of the local benefits that might arise from a commitment to the release of open metadata covering library, archival or museum collections. Here is a short list of five considerations out of many more:

  • Libraries can enhance support for efficiencies such as collaborative cataloguing and collection management
  • Memory institutions can combine information to provide a more complete set of signposts to support a richer range of narratives and user quests
  • Any special collection can become more discoverable and therefore more widely used
  • Aggregators can be enabled to work more innovatively to promote exposure of contributing collections
  • The wider community of developers, of finding aid authors and of narrators can be leveraged as co-creators to benefit access and articulation in both planned and serendipitous ways
  • Overall, institutions can focus their efforts on adding service value and providing authentic raw material, rather than on preserving the dikes and halting the waves

This is unlikely to mean freeing up everything – but it should precipitate a step change in core thinking, where the first business case question becomes ‘Why not?’ – that, in the words of the Discovery principles, ‘institutions and agencies should proceed on the presumption that their metadata is by default made freely available for use and reuse, unless explicitly precluded by third party rights or licences’.

The Discovery initiative and this movement more broadly is about embracing and facilitating the growth of new business models, not only rethinking our value proposition but also reflecting on our very purpose. We hope you will join us, not in blind pursuit of an ideal but rather by contributing to the community dialogue about rationale and business case and consequently to the shared reservoir of open metadata.

When you put it like that, it sounds like a better way to prove the value inherent in the data. Once open data sharers start pooling and collaborating efforts, we could see great savings and efficiencies in is production and maintenance. Open data for myself has as much promise for the library back office as it does for resource discovery.  Of course, you also expose your mistakes, but that is the very nature of transparency.  We can make big wins quickly if the larger stakeholders continue to open data as they have done so. Those with smaller collections may want to consider limiting efforts to small or unique collections.

The worry is that the benefits from this sudden change of thinking could be lost as budget cuts limit innovation and dampen the will to experiment and try things differently. Again, centralised shared services built across platforms of truly open data from the big players could help to prove the value of the new model.  I would argue that the best use cases and eventual services could come from the top and operate on a national basis.

I’ve been very kindly invited to talk about changes in data consumption to colleagues in Oxford next month as one of several people talking about the transition from cataloguing to metadata. My angle will be that of a hacker / developer as well as a Librarian. Thankfully, I’ve some time to crystalise my thoughts, but any ideas would be welcome!

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