Tim Spalding, perhaps the most innovative of Internet library entrepreneurs, made a number of interesting points in the LibraryThing blog, Thingology, recently. However one may feel about the details of his argument, he is partially correct that:
the failure of the LC and other libraries to get their data "out there" on the open web has hurt them... It has made them seem irrelevant, standing silent and apart from the great conversation....
I believe Tim's charge that we're responsible for our own irrelevance is true, at least in part. He is way too hard on LC, though, dumping the sins of the community all in one place. And it isn't as though nobody on the Web knows about anything going on in libraries. But still... as a community we have been slow to get the data out there. There are lots of reasons for this, having to do with business models, capitalization, culture, public mission, and more. It is far too complicated to unpack in a blog post.
What Tim has achieved almost singlehandedly is to demonstrate both the power and appeal of remixing bibliographic data and people in system that is engaging, accessible, and useful. If you're a librarian and haven't explored LibraryThing, then do so, and you'll get a glimpse of what Web 2.0 means for our community, and more importantly, to our patrons. Keep in mind that this system became, by some measure, the 100th largest library in the US on less than a single person-year of development effort (and an enormous amount of Web 2.0 patron-contributed effort). I hope my admiration is evident.
Tim goes on in this same post to say:
The first culprits are the online catalogs, ugly, backward things lamed with session-based URLs. If you want to link to the LC, you can't. The URL you get will only work for you, for ten minutes. Linking--the very soul of the Web--is impossible.
It may be that it is impossible to link to LC's catalog, but it just isn't an issue. It is not the place anyone should link to. Web blaspheme? No. LC is not (for most of the Web's clientèle), a lending library. It is the source of most (and arguably the best) of the cataloging that libraries depend on. Why not link to these records? Several reasons, foremost of which is that while such links are suitable as citation links, they are not connected to the content itself -- that last mile problem again -- and arguably the problem at the center of the "very soul of the Web".
So, are libraries thus marooned forever in Real Life? No. If you want to link to library materials there is exactly one best way to do it: WorldCat.org. By using a WorldCat identifier, you provide a persistent identifier that links not only to an authoritative citation record, but to the items themselves. The Worldcat database is supported by the holdings data of the OCLC Cooperative, thus allowing patrons to find the library closest to them that holds the item. There are also links to electronic content, directly accessible, even though it isn't 'held' by a library: an example. There are even links to buy items if one would prefer to own rather than borrow (and libraries get a cut!). Check it out... buy a couple of my wife's books just to prove that it works.
If it sounds like I'm flogging my employer's product (and Marguerite's books!), I suppose I am. But the fact of the matter is that when WorldCat.org came online last summer, the world's library content became web-addressable for the first time in a soul-of-the-Web way with persistent, globally-scoped identifiers that will work anywhere in the world that members of the collective provide services. Even if OCLC went belly-up next year, can anyone seriously imagine that the community could afford to not sustain the WorldCat database?
Now, if only we could get the WorldCat team to stamp that permalink prominently at the top of every record. Stay tuned.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this, and all of my posts, are mine. The are not reviewed by anyone at OCLC prior to publication. I'm trying my best to make them the opinions of my employer.
image: Winter lights in my front yard, when I was still enjoying the snow.