Open Library and the Gatekeepers

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Open Library and the Gatekeepers


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


One of the internet's longstanding themes is that it will free people from the tyranny of the experts and the gatekeepers: those who control information and define how it is used by "the people." According to this notion, people will use the power of the internet to take over from the gatekeepers and make information freer, from both costs and limits. This puts the gatekeepers on the defensive, including seemingly helpful folks such as travel agents, newspaper classified section editors, encyclopedia publishers, and librarians.

And it's true that much of the gatekeeping has been disaggregated. Being a travel agent is not a growth career. Newspaper classifieds have been superseded by craigslist and eBay. Wikipedia is the people's encyclopedia of choice.

But a peculiar thing happened with libraries. They did not go away. Of all the information gatekeepers, libraries--it was thought by some--were the most threatened. But instead of withering away, they are thriving. Libraries of all kinds are doing new and important things for all sorts of people. It seems that the internet can replace some kinds of gatekeeping but not others.

The Open Library Premise

Open Library (OL) is a case study in the durability of gatekeeping. Open Library (http://openlibrary.org) is a project to create "one web page for every book" (in its own words). Basically, the plan is this: Using Open Library's simple platform, libraries and individuals will flock to create webpages (aka catalog records) for all books, thereby providing access to every book on a scale that surpasses the efforts of library gatekeepers. Its founder, a young, successful internet entrepreneur, was browsing in a library and wondering why he didn't know about all of these marvelous books, according to the OL creation epic. The great irony of this story is that, by then, WorldCat (www .worldcat.org), which is OCLC's massive library union catalog, was al ready up and running in its public web version, with records and holdings information on more than 60 million books.

Nevertheless, OL was launched in 2007 as a project of the Internet Archive, producer of the Alexa Internet, Inc. traffic site, and host for numerous digital content collections. OL, which is supported by the Internet Archive, receives funds from the California State Library and the Kahle/Austin Foundation. The Internet Archive also provides ebook content to OL. In addition to the Internet Archive startup content, OL received initial catalog record input from several libraries and has since been adding records from groups and individuals. Its platform provides easy entry to add bibliographic records and create simple catalog-type pages for them.

OL Today

Today, 3 years later, OL continues to amass bibliographic records and ebooks, but the project isn't threatening the old-time gatekeepers. There are four subcollections in OL: a catalog of bibliographic records, a collection of ebooks, and two lending collections (one is directly through OL, and the other is a partnership with a group of libraries using Over-Drive, Inc.).

OL Catalog

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The OL bibliographic database contains about 20 million records obtained from libraries and individuals. It is a highly idiosyncratic collection, representing its uneven record acquisition methods. Although 20 million records is a large collection by any measure, the OL catalog lacks many books, including standard fiction and nonfiction titles that you would expect in a medium-size public library. On the other hand, a large share of its records is for items that are old, obscure, or very specialized.

This is not to say that OL should have a record for every book that is in the Cleveland Public Library, for example, or that it should not have records for books that are "old, obscure, or very specialized." However, it is important for OL users to know just what they are getting with OL and under what circumstances they would choose to use it. …

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