January 29, 2009

Dueling databases keep libraries out of the internet mix


Put the title of a book into the search window and what do you get? Right, its Amazon page. Or, if you’re using Google, maybe its Google Book page. If you’re lucky, its Powells.com page. And then a bunch of other pages of places that are selling that book in one way or another. In other words, “the hits will be dominated by commercial sites run by retailers, publishers, even authors,” observes Wendy M. Grossman. “Despite the internet’s origins as an academic network, when it comes to finding a book, e-commerce rules.”

But as Grossman observes in an article for The Guardian, “That’s strange, because almost every library has an electronic database of its books — searchable either at the library’s own website or via its local council. The wrinkle is that at the book level, those databases aren’t accessible to the search engines; and you may not be able to search all the libraries in your area at once.” There is a shared database that would make this possible — Worldcat, which is run by the Online Computer Library Center.

But OCLC recently passed a rule dictating that is member libraries are not permitted to make their databases publicly searchable. Why? “It’s safe to say that the policy change is a direct response to Open Library,” according to Aaron Swartz, the founder of Open Library, “a project to give every published book its own Wikipedia-style page.” Swartz tells Grossman, “Since the beginning of Open Library, OCLC has been threatening funders, pressuring libraries not to work with us, and using tricks to try to shut us down. It didn’t work — and so now this.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives