Monthly Archives: June 2008

Next generation vendor lock-in?

I’ll be attending the One Big Library unconference later this month and I am hoping to hear some discussion on some of those sticky ownership and control issues. Yes, libraries are all about sharing and open access, reducing barriers to ensure information and knowledge for all, and so on. And of course many Big Library developments are very compelling – even essential – to furthering the interests of the communities we serve. But I think we need to be more vigilant about our strategies and options to ensure our content (and the content we rely upon) remains sufficiently within our access and influence, and also think carefully about our moves in the context of investment decisions with longer term consequences.

It’s important to note that control doesn’t mean not giving up control. There are numerous circumstances in which our interests and those of our clients can be best served by just giving it away. Just get our metadata and full-text accessible from where our users go to for search and discovery. But it’s one thing to give it all away and yet another to give it away and still have your data to give away to another service on another day.

But what about the ownership and control vested in so many of these “public” repositories? Enormous amounts of data are being submitted to repositories, many of which have no explicit public interest mandate to speak of. So maybe it’s compelling to showcase your photographic collection on The Commons (Flickr), but what rights will you have to the possibly enormous amount of user contributed social content (tags, reviews, comments, etc.), say, after many years of being part of that service? What happens if Flickr goes bad or if a competing service becomes the better way to go? Are we setting ourselves up for the next generation vendor lock-in? There are many that believe that the web offers some sort of unique protection from the effects of concentrated ownership and domination of content supply that other forms of media have suffered, but I’m not convinced.

So from the conference, I’m hoping to see some discussion on:

  • What models supporting One Big Library are likely to offer the best service and greatest freedom?
  • Does it matter where we invest our resources? What criteria could we use or what principles should we adopt to ensure our investments in One Big Library don’t lead to ‘one big lock-in’?
  • Simplifying the mind-numbing legal issues regarding who owns what, especially for user contributed content. What assurances do we have that all the intellectual effort put towards tagging, reviewing, selecting, filtering, adding comments, etc. is not going to be usurped or otherwise restricted in ways detrimental to our long term interests? Who will own all that intellectual output, and again does it matter?
  • There are many paths towards one big library – which direction makes sense for your particular type of library and/or specialized type of content?
  • When is it a fair exchange for libraries to get a service (sometimes “free”) in exchange for giving up full control over their data?

I’ve often thought that the only way to keep large repositories “in check” is to maintain the right to to withdraw your records & contributions and “take your business elsewhere.” But participation in large repositories challenges conventional notions of ownership and control. Which records are “yours” to withdraw? What data are you entitled to if you wanted to switch services or participate in more than one similar service? In the Flickr example above, would the Library of Congress have rights to copy user contributed data (tags, etc.) and have them for use in some other repository (maybe even a competitor to Flickr)? Once you’ve contributed your metadata, how much is it yours anymore? Does it matter?

Anyways, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by all that could be possible in our current understanding of One Big Library. There are so many exciting developments to watch and move towards, but I’m also concerned about participating in network systems with often unclear or otherwise unchallenged contracts about ownership and access for user contributed data – especially long term implications.

I think this may be a big problem for us in the future.