The library blogosphere is reacting with shock [1, 2], anger , and disappointment [4, 5, 6, 7] at the news that LC has asked (as in “ordered”) Ed Summers to take down his wonderful experimental LCSH.info service. It’s not entirely clear why they did this, and Ed has been carefully circumspect about the reasons. LCSH.info was a project that Ed had accomplished largely on his own initiative, and despite the fact that he certainly had some important support within the institution for building it, he too readily takes responsibility for not gathering the broad institutional support that appears to be a necessity for sustainability at LC. Still, it’s easy to speculate that others were embarrassed by it (as in “embarrassed that Ed could do it, and yet there’s still no official service”), particularly given the fact that the domain was not “loc.gov.”
LC has been “planning” (or so they say) to create just such a service since well before the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control but we’ve seen no real evidence of it, except for what Ed has done. I was one of the people who spoke to that group during its fact-finding year, making the point that the vocabularies that LC manages for the library community (LCSH, LCNAF, LCSAF, etc.) should be available as web services for the benefit of the that community (I was assured then that such plans were afoot.) LC could have wisely allowed Ed to maintain the site until such a service was in place and then Ed could have made a simple change that would have redirected lcsh.info URIs to the official service, and all would have been well. Instead, LC has let the world know that its management is technically and politically clueless as it destroys, without even an official announcement, a service that many organizations, regardless of disclaimers of its experimental nature, had welcomed and some had come to depend on. This had roughly the equivalent impact on the confidence of the Linked Data community in LC that letting Lehman Brothers fail had on the investment markets.
Although LC frequently cites the legal necessity to do cost recovery on the vocabularies, their poorly-supported subscription services are a constant source of annoyance for those who must rely on them, and if they were really expecting to recover significant costs it’s probable that the group that supports that effort would be adequately staffed, which it isn’t. (This same lack of adequate support was the likely reason that the ALCTS continuing education workshops are now freely available, but that’s another story.) In short, we’ve seen little evidence that there are serious efforts to replace these outdated services with the web services that the Working Group and the library community have called for—except, of course, the late LCSH.info service.
I’ll make the point again that I made to the Working Group in 2007—these are vocabularies that were not created solely by LC—particularly the Name Authority File (LCNAF) which has seen significant investment by the library community through the NACO Project (Name Authority Cooperative, please note), and the Series Authority File (LCSAF) now being built entirely by the community since LC unilaterally withdrew from the creation of series authorities in 2006. It was that decision, clearly made without adequate consultation with anyone outside LC (or many within—I happened to be visiting a colleague there a day or so after the announcement, and most of the staff were surprised, too), which resulted in the furor that led to the creation of the Working Group in the first place. But obviously, lessons were not learned from that debacle, and we’re back at the barricades, frustrated yet again.
Contrast this with the recent post on the LC blog (posted on 12/11) announcing the report on the Flickr Pilot, one of the most innovative projects LC has done in a very, very long time. The report, ironically entitled “For the Common Good” (summary available) describes the overwhelmingly positive response to the project, and how LC used the information provided by viewers to enhance their information on the photographs. Most telling is this snippet from the report on the project taken from the LC staff newsletter and included in the blog post:
“The popularity and impact of the pilot have been remarkable,” said Michelle Springer, project manager for digital initiatives in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, who said total views reached 10 million in October. The site is averaging 500,000 views a month, she said, adding that Flickr members have marked 79 percent of the photos as “favorites.”
“The report recommends that the Library of Congress continue to participate in The Commons and explore other Web 2.0 communities.”
Clearly by “other Web 2.0 communities” the writer could not mean the library community, which has been stymied for far too long by LC’s reluctant and too often less-than-competent leadership, and are still some distance from being a “Web 2.0 community.”
What we see here is an institution with no coherent strategy for moving forward, despite a year long study of the issues, and clear recommendations for action. This is an institution where decisions are still being made by one hand that the other hand may not know about or have been consulted about—decisions that are ill-considered and fray LC’s credibility and its relationship with the rest of the library community (not to mention the Semantic Web community). This decision may well draw attention away from the other supposed library leadership institution—OCLC—caught making its own self-serving decisions without reference to its members real needs and interests, though members pay for the records that make the monopoly possible.
As the New Year fast approaches, perhaps we need a resolution that says: “Stop expecting the 8000 lb. Gorillas to lead us; start leading ourselves.”