Archive for April, 2010

Responses to “On the Record” – Bringing Awareness

April 30, 2010

On the Record (OTR) provided an examination of library services today and a vision for the future, with a focus on the Library of Congress (LC), but with implications for all libraries, nationwide.  The Working Group investigated the current bibliographic control practices and formulated several goals and steps that should be taken to make libraries relevant for the 21st Century.  I want to share my thoughts on one result of this report – that of awareness of the implications of remaining with the current standards and technology and a push to move forward (with a sprinkling in of action, too).


On the Record elicited numerous in-depth responses, crafted to address recommendations in the document.  The report addressed the areas of

  1. Bibliographic production and maintenance
  2. Rare, unique, and other special materials
  3. Positioning technology for the future
  4. Positioning the library and information community for the future, and
  5. Strengthening the Library and Information Science profession.

These five areas were evaluated, consequences of maintaining the status quo explained, and recommendations issued.  The Working Group (WG), made up of individuals from a variety of library and information science arenas, defined three broad principles that were to frame the report: bibliographic control, the bibliographic universe, and the role of the Library of Congress.  The ultimate vision outlined by the WG was that of, “bibliographic control that will be collaborative, decentralized, international in scope, and Web-based.”  As a result of this broad investigation, any public or academic library that looked to the Library of Congress for leadership either 1) became aware of some of the challenges facing librarianship today, or 2) received acknowledgement of the challenges they had already recognized in their own experience.  Generalized action steps were enumerated, but the document did not provide significant direction in regards to practical implementation.

Waking the Sleeping Giant?

It is almost a recognized fact (I say almost…) that AACR2 and MARC cannot fulfill the needs of libraries in the 21st Century.  This is with the assumption that one of the major needs of the library is to be of useful, timely, and relevant service to the user.  The web environment, the proliferation of search engines like Google, and the private enterprises such as Amazon are the first stop for most of the connected world to find their information.  Evaluative rankings, reviews, book cover pictures, and sample chapters are providing the reader’s advisory service from the comfort of the living room easy chair.  However, the WG’s recommendation to halt the work on RDA threatened to make libraries even less connected and relevant to the public than they are now.  Certainly people can look up the catalog online and even access WorldCat, but the entry points are limited and evaluative information non-existent.  The LCWG section on RDA stated: JSC: Suspend further new work on RDA until:

  1. more, large-scale testing of FRBR has been carried out against real cataloging data, and the results of those tests have been analyzed (see 4.2.1 below);
  2. the use and business cases for moving to RDA have been satisfactorily articulated; and
  3. the presumed benefits of RDA have been convincingly demonstrated.

This recommendation was one addressed in almost every response to the document I read even if they did not feel it their response was directly called for.  Seemingly, the section on canceling RDA development may have been designed to push the Library of Congress into reevaluating their timeline and strategy regarding its testing and implementation.

The Library of Congress, as the national leader (although it is not an official national library) is in the position to inform and propel RDA’s development and testing.  And as a result, the report excited a very prompt response from the Library of Congress which outlined four processes that would take place to evaluate RDA.  It also brought together the LC with the National Agricultural Library (NAL) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) for the purpose of executing these processes.  Together they were to:

  1. Jointly develop milestones for evaluating how we will implement RDA
  2. Conduct tests of RDA that determine if each milestone has been reached; paying particular attention to the benefits and costs of implementation
  3. Widely distribute analyses of benefits and costs for review by the U.S. library community
  4. Consult with the vendor and bibliographic utility communities to address their concerns about RDA.

The final statements addressed the implementation timeline and the commitment to continue the work along side their international colleagues.

As I see it, a significant result of OTR was the push the Library of Congress to commit to testing RDA and put their support behind the idea of testing RDA.  There is nothing like the threat to suspend work that has had much investment to re-energize an organization and propel them to more defined and decisive action.

Other organizations get their say

Along with the Library of Congress, other organizations also had formal responses to On the Record ranging from, “yes, suspend it please,” to “no, this just maintains the status quo.”  These responses were, in my mind, an extremely significant outcome of the report because they brought together individual stances into a cohesive organizational statement with direction, action steps, and criticism.  It gave a voice to segments of the library profession in a formalized manner than the members provide input and help shape their organization’s policy concerning RDA.  Even more so, the Joint Steering Committee (JSC) and the LC would have succinct, collective reports to influence their decision-making.

The Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) Task Group formulated at 16-page Recommendation for Action response which addressed all five sections of the report.  Amazingly, section three, which dealt with technology and RDA was the longest response.  Their stance was the RDA should not be suspended and the LCWG recommendation would, “maintain the status quo.”  Although not explicitly in favor of RDA, they asked for the benefits of maintaining this status quo versus going forward with RDA.  They also questioned the idea of an alternative strategy; who would provide the leadership, and where the collaboration would come from?  Beyond these concerns, the ALCTS Education Committee voiced interest in collaborating on assessing usability and training needs for the purpose of creating RDA training materials, as referred to in the footnote to  Moreover the ALCTS Board said that they could be in a place to provide evaluative assistance for determining what a “business case” for RDA might look like, as well as address the question of trust in the Library of Congress as a whole.  The LCTCS report is a prime example of a collective response meant to 1) address the original report and 2) motivate the association’s membership.

On the other side of the RDA issue was the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL).  The introduction to their response, however did articulate that they had some, “broad comments,” and “specific concerns regarding a number of the recommendations.”  Interestingly, this association wanted Web technology to work around MARC and fully supported the suspension of RDA.  However, what is important is that On the Record got groups of people talking and prompted some formal stances on the issues that were brought forth in the document.  In fact, the ALCTS called 2010 the Year of Cataloging Research as a response to sections of On the Record. (

Propelling Discussion towards the Web

The section that discussed RDA was titled, “Positioning our Technology for the Future,” and included comments on data carriers, the influence of the Web, and the use of standard identifiers.  I wanted to throw this in to evaluate the influence of On the Record on OCLC as well as the idea of the Semantic Web.  RDA is not just the proposed replacement for AACR2, but is supposed to help position the cataloging community to enter the online universe, potentially through the Semantic Web.  OCLC’s response to the report was both encouraging and a bit disheartening, indicating some areas mentioned in the report, such as Web access will not be significantly modified in their current plans.  Interestingly, in their response, the only section addressed point-by-point was that of Technology and RDA.  There were some blanket statements, but RDA was not mentioned once.  But it did provide evidence that they knew what was coming down the pipeline and that the LCWG was warning them to get ready for it.  For a comical but serious rebuttal to OCLC’s response, see Rob Styles’ post here.  As Styles’ puts it, “The working group’s draft presents the library world with a rallying point around which it can choose to really move forwards into the internet age…”  It made those who read the report understand that the Library of Congress really saw the Web and public access to information were the next steps in bibliographic control – something that could reach the masses who are connected to the internet.


On the Record provided a good foundation for moving forward with bibliographic control.  It not only assessed where we are now, but where we as Library and Information Professionals want to be in the future.  The Library of Congress is a leader in this nation when it comes to future directions and new initiatives.  This report highlighted the challenges and opportunities coming quickly to the library community.  Even though it was quite vague in its recommendations and provided no implementation steps, it helped to create awareness of the issues within the various library associations.  Even if these concerns had been raised before, it was a significant document which propelled thoughtful response from the community.


ALCTS Report

American Association of Law Libraries

ALCTS on behalf of the ALA

Diane Hillmann. Getting There

Diane Hillmann’s response

OCLC Response

Technical Services Special Interest Section

Thomas Mann for the Library of Congress Professional Guild.

On the Record: Constructive Controversy

April 30, 2010

This week, as part of our Introduction to RDA, we’ve been thinking about the Library of Congress Working Group’s (LCWG) report on the present and future of bibliographic control, On the Record, issued in January 2008. Diane asked us each to write a blog post on one important outcome of this document, now two years old.

The outcome I’ve identified is constructive controversy. Controversy on its own is not really an achievement unless it leads to useful changes. On the Record not only caused a great storm of discussion, it got lots of different people doing something as a result: the debate led to useful research, just as the report itself recommended (37-38). What I’d like to do here is to discuss the U.S. cataloging environment before and after On the Record was released and then point out some of the interesting projects that have resulted.

Controversy already existed before the LC convened its working group to consider the future of bibliographic control. In April of 2006, the LC shocked the U.S. cataloging community by abruptly announcing that it would stop creating or maintaining series authority records (Chambers and Myall, 91). This decision left a lot of libraries in the lurch, and amid the uproar, LC postponed the plan and organized the working group to consider 21st-century bibliographic control. This working group included people from both inside and outside the library profession, Google and Microsoft as well as academic and public librarians from across the country. The LC has been criticized before for including testimony from people who didn’t really “get” how the LC works (Mann 2006, 17). But everyone seems to agree that libraries are no longer the center of activities in the information universe. If libraries are to reverse this increasing marginalization, who better to help than big players like Microsoft and Google? We don’t want to be Google, but we can surely learn from them.

After a year of public testimony and research, the LCWG compiled their report, and of their 100+ recommendations, some should not have been surprising. Standardization, internationalization, and cooperation to reduce redundant work have a long history as goals of cataloging (Denton, 36). The trouble is that the World Wide Web has changed everything about how we discover and process information, and making the Web the library platform (LCWG, 7) entails a lot of significant changes.  The argument for decentralized, dynamic, and flexible cataloging (LCWG, 1) was harder to swallow for “traditional” catalogers and librarians, not to mention decoupling the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), getting rid of MARC, and suspending work on RDA (LCWG 35; 25; 29).

The report’s depiction of libraries as businesses also raised objections (Mann 2008, 7-8). It would be nice to think that some institutions are immune to business considerations, but in this day and age, there isn’t a library or a school or a church or any nonprofit that doesn’t have to think about the bottom line and whether people might go elsewhere for its services. To paraphrase what the instructor in my Reference course told us the other day, if we think libraries aren’t in competition with Amazon and Google, we’re dangerously naïve.

I’ve criticized On the Record this week for waffling about the LC’s role. The report says that the LC has historically been the de facto national library, but lacking an actual mandate and accompanying funding, it can’t afford to keep acting like a national library…but on the other hand, the LC takes its recognized leadership role seriously, and it should keep working to make things happen for different constituencies (6-7). Thinking about the outcomes of On the Record, though, has led me to see this report as an important act of leadership on the part of the LC. By convening experts from the information world (not just the library world) and producing this provocative report, the LC helped to focus attention in a vital way that got many people interested in doing something. And although the LCWG and the LC are not one and the same, the LC’s formal response is largely supportive of On the Record’s recommendations (Marcum).

Even one the most vociferous critics of the report echoed its recommendation to do more research. Thomas Mann, after arguing convincingly (I’m always swayed by his arguments) that traditional bibliographic control like the LCSH is essential, especially to scholars, concludes in “’On the Record’ But Off the Track,” with recommendations to pursue more prototypes—research!—for sharing data, such as the LC’s Flickr and Digital Table of Contents projects (36-37).

In their extensive literature review of cataloging scholarship during 2007 and 2008, Chambers and Myall note that “the future of cataloging and bibliographic control was the explicit focus of many contributions” during the time the LCWG was compiling information and just after On the Record was released (93). Their article provides fascinating background to On the Record, showing how many researchers were struggling to find a compromise that allowed cataloging to embrace the brave new world of the Web while also preserving valuable principles of cataloging tradition (93). Many of these projects started before On the Record, so they can’t be seen as direct results. On the other hand, the fact that the de facto national library had initiated such an ambitious research project focused the attention of the U.S. library community in a way that no other scholarship could. Chambers and Myall see On the Record as “a snapshot of where leaders in the library community (as represented by the members of the LCWG) thought we were and where we thought we were going…[and]seemed likely to remain a key document in cataloging and U.S. library history of the early twenty-first century” (92).

The current excitement about FRBR implementation is a case in point. Along with their recommendation to suspend work on RDA, the LCWG also urged more comprehensive testing of the FRBR model (33). This sort of testing was already going on as part of the context of On the Record, and it has continued to flourish, something that’s easy to see from a quick skim of the FRBR blog. Recent work includes the Variations project at Indiana University and work by the Online Audiovisual Catalogers (OLAC) to use FRBR with moving images. I just found an article describing the benefits of “frbrisation” of the Slovenian national bibliography and others (Pisanski, Zumer, and Aalberg). Diane told us a couple of weeks ago about a flurry of FRBR papers and projects submitted to DC-2010, the Dublin Core annual conference. This last development is interesting, since some (incorrectly, I believe) don’t see the relevance of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative to library notions of bibliographic control (cite). But this is just what On the Record predicted and urged, that research and development of bibliographic control take place all over the information universe. I hope that this flurry of research is productive, and FRBR doesn’t just become the “Ginzu knife of metadata models” as Diane wondered in our class discussion the other day.

In March, when I got an email from Allyson Carlyle announcing that 2010 is the Year of Cataloging Research, I mostly felt wistful that I probably wouldn’t have much time to participate. What I didn’t note then was that this exhortation and challenge was issued by an ALCTS committee (ALA’s Association for Library Collections & Technical Services Implementation Task Group on the Library of Congress Working Group Report) in direct response to the LCWG’s call to “Build an Evidence Base” (37).

Two years after On the Record, the ALCTS folks are encouraging catalogers especially to join the fray and substantially influence the future of their profession. Randy Roeder echoes the LCWG’s judgment that bibliographic “research has lagged behind events and … the knowledge base provides woefully inadequate support for making decisions certain to have a profound effect on the future of libraries and the profession” (2). In the spirit of the LCWG’s recommendations, the ALCTS Implementation Task Group is working to reach beyond the traditional cataloging community to other communities like Dublin Core and the International Society for Knowledge Organization (Carlyle).

Randy Roeder warns that despite their acknowledged expertise in bibliographic control, catalogers who do research will miss the chance to shape the future if they stay focused on traditional topics and fail to step out of the library comfort zone. He argues for library integration in the Semantic Web, and points to a dangerous divide between “visionaries” who are trying to make that integration reality and “most practitioners and managers—groups that produce much of our research” (3). Not just any kind of research will do, according to Roeder: “A Year of Cataloging Research—let’s hope we have the courage to ask the right questions” (3).

As we’ve been discussing so far in this course, U.S. libraries face an uncertain future. Leadership is lacking. But the environment is ripe for positive change. By galvanizing the situation, focusing the discussion, and getting people working to gather evidence, On the Record has earned a place as a seminal document for 21st century librarianship. Let’s hope that this provocation will result in a happy ending for libraries. And if I can just get through this quarter, I’d love to get involved in some cataloging research!


Carlyle, Allyson. 2010 Year of Cataloging Research. 6 Jan. 2010. 26 Apr. 2010

—. “Announcing 2010, Year of Cataloging Research.” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 47.8 (2009). 27 Apr. 2010

Chambers, Sydney and Carolynne Myall. “Cataloging and Classification: Review of the Literature 2007-8.” Library Resources and Technical Services 54.2 (2010): 90-114.

Denton, William. The FRBR Blog. Weblog. 23 Apr. 2010.

Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. On the Record: Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2008. 20 Apr. 2010

Mann, Thomas. “’The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Final Report. March 17, 2006. Prepared for the Library of Congress by Karen Calhoun.’ A Critical Review by Thomas Mann.” Review prepared for AFSCME 2910, The Library of Congress Professional Guild (2006).

—. “’On the Record’ but Off the Track.” Report prepared for AFSCME 2910, The Library of Congress Professional Guild (2008).

Marcum, Deanna B. Response to On the Record: Report of the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2008.  29 Apr. 2010

Moving Image Work-Level Records Task Force. Online Audiovisual Catalogers. 26 Apr. 2010

Pisanski, Jan, Maja Zumer, and Trond Aalberg. “Frbrisation: Towards a Bright New Future for National Bibliographies.” International Cataloguing and Bibliographic Control 39.1 (2010): 3-6.

Roeder, Randy. “A Year of Cataloging Research.” Library Resources and Technical Services 54.1 (2010): 2-3.

Variations/FRBR: Variations as a Testbed for the FRBR Conceptual Model. 5 Nov. 2008. Indiana University Digital Library Program. 11 Apr. 2010

RDA’s ‘Legacy’ Approach

April 19, 2010

Hillmann and Coyle’s article on the problems of RDA (available at raises a number of important points. However, unlike at least one classmate, I disagree with their conclusion that a fundamental restructuring is necessary. By using ‘legacy’ forms, RDA becomes a development of cataloging standards, rather than a completely new form of cataloging; the more different RDA is from existing forms, the more difficult the transition will be. The article was written in 2007, and since then, the standard has changed; however, the idea that RDA is ‘not different enough’ seems to be alive and well.

The other idea that is alive and well is that RDA will be too difficult to implement; that the cost of a subscription alone will prevent small libraries from using RDA, and that the complexity will scare off potential users (see for example I don’t think that complexity is necessarily a problem in itself. As a number of commentors have pointed out (for example, Roy Tennant at cataloguing as it exists is already very complex; MARC has fields that very few people understand or use, and more are being added to deal with RDA-specific information. The problem comes when cataloguers familiar with AACR2 are asked to learn a new system from scratch, when the benefits of it are not readily apparent. Problems will also arise when attempting to convert existing records, if the differences between the two systems are too great; as Tennant’s post points out, some of the extra complexity is to assure ‘a smoother transition’.

It’s great to expand the cataloging universe, but we shouldn’t forget that most of a library catalog’s contents are already present and accounted for. I wince when I see articles discussing how the catalog must change if it’s to compete with Google. It isn’t. Google serves its functions well, but for anything beyond known-item searches – that is to say, for a website you’ve already visited, or that you know must exist even if you’re unsure of the URL – it’s far less than ideal, a fact all but the most casual users are already aware of. Google even has its own version of the ‘multiple-versions problem’, in the form of webpages that borrow content from Wikipedia; unlike library catalogs, it has made no attempt to solve it, and seems doomed to index the web at the ‘item’ level and only the ‘item’ level. Catalogs have a much smaller world to index, and do it better. The structured format of catalogs allows more precise searching; subject headings are even better than keyword searching at precise retrieval.

There are problems with the content of catalogs as they exist, but they do exist, and do their job well; transitioning to a new format is a Herculean enough task without tossing out what we already have. Burton stated in that, “Trying to fit RDA (or any new standard) into the old infrastructure seems like a waste of time, money, and brainpower in the long run because MARC will limit what we can do.” Similarly, raises problems with the very idea of MARC because its foundations in the card catalog left so much of a mark. (Pun not intended.)

The trouble is that new solutions will have to be built on the old infrastructure. MARC can, and should be, expanded to deal with additional types of information, without reducing its present usefulness. Backwards-compatibility is an important goal for software design, because users of a new version will inevitably have old files they need to keep using. We already have library catalogs, and the contents of existing catalogs will continue to be the resources most catalog users are searching for. By sticking closely to current standards, RDA is ensuring that instead of a ‘clean break’, we can have a smooth, effortless transition.

ALA and DNB Responses to the Full Draft of RDA

April 17, 2010

I took a closer look at the formal responses and recommendations given to the November 2008 full draft of RDA. In particular I was interested in the responses from the ALA and the German National Library (DNB). The responses leave the impression that real interest in seeing the stated goals of RDA come to reality is endangered by intense frustration with the failure of the draft RDA to move toward its own goals. The tone of the responses differs (the ALA overtly critical of the quality of the draft and problems with the draft review process, the DNB diplomatic in its substantive, but politely phrased, comments), but the responses are notable for their apparent agreement on key aspects of what is valuable in RDA. In particular there is clear support for collaboration involving Dublin Core and ONIX and the steps needed to take advantage of the RDA element set and vocabularies.

The DNB response states:

“We welcome the close cooperation of the JSC with the main metadata standard communities like MARC 21, Dublin Core, and ONIX groups. We also welcome the activities regarding a registry for the RDA vocabulary.” (p.3)

ALA argues somewhat more directly that:

Finally, the collaborations with the ONIX and DCMI communities have already yielded what may turn out to be some of the most significant products of the RDA project.”(p.2)

The indication is that these are not just the salvageable remnants of an otherwise lost cause, but that the elements and vocabularies are the core around which the rest of RDA needs to revolve. It seems that while the text of RDA remains in flux, the registration of elements and vocabularies (opening them up to practical use) is an area where real progress has been made.

Both ALA and DNB push in their responses for RDA to move more dramatically in the direction of the semantic web, though the DNB seems more emphatic in their concern for this issue, making the case that:

“At the conceptual level, RDA is a step in the right direction but without a connection to the Semantic Web it will be irrelevant outside the library world.”(p.2)

As one of the expectations of RDA is that it will make library data relevant to other data communities, this is one of the central areas where both ALA and RDA indicate that the draft did not live up to expectations.

Making the code amenable to use internationally by non-English communities, and consistent application of concepts and terms from FRBR and FRAD, are two of the other central areas where both responses clearly think that the draft did not live up to its own aspirations. While it remains to be seen how well these concerns have been taken into account in subsequent revisions of RDA, they are two of the points that seem likely to require ongoing movement and pressure well into the future.

It may well be that the only way to make sure that RDA comes to something is for a few visionaries to strike out and build working examples for the rest of the library world to look at. I am particularly interested in the effort of the DNB to go the extra mile to make a contribution to RDA, pushing for it to really be meaningful in the long-term and in a global context. It is hard to tell if their efforts will result in major textual changes, but their willingness to take the initiative in running with the most useful parts of RDA appears to be exactly what we need. Just today there was an announcement on NGC4LIB listserv about the opening of a DNB linked data prototype making use of RDA. This is the type of project that will tease out the practical possibilities of RDA, and hopefully put pressure on US institutions to take their own courageous steps out into the void.


ALA/CC:DA. (2009, February 9). RDA: Resource Description and Access – Constituency Review of Full Draft. Available at:

Office for Library Standards, German National Library. (2009, February 2). Comments on “RDA – Resource Description and Access” – Constituency Review of November 2008 Full Draft. Available at:

Denton’s historical contextualization of FRBR

April 17, 2010

Denton’s article “FRBR and the history of Cataloging” does a great job of assessing the history of cataloging and contextualizing the development of FRBR as a product of this history, rather than a new and unaffected standard.

The thing that struck me about this article was that Denton manages to take a very long tradition of cataloging and classification theory and boil it down in a way that makes it not only accessible but relevant in terms of what we as librarians try and accomplish today.  By sticking to the basic principles of access and service that unite all the different theories and principals he summarizes that FRBR is just a continuation this tradition. I find that his keeping the discussion at this level it was extremely helpful for me, a budding cataloger who has a long way to go before understanding it all.

I think the point he brings up about FRBR being developed out of a long and rich history of cataloging are especially pertinent in light of what Maggie Dull has said in her “Dear Marc” post about catalogers glorification of MARC and AACR2.  By holding these standards as the epitome of cataloging it becomes very hard for change to be implemented. I see this as the problem of people taking cataloging  standards out of their long term historical context, and I think more people need to think about FRBR in the way that Denton does.

I think that any profession that has settled into a routine of doing things certain way will have problems when change arrives.  Many people want to either ignore the change it or take issue with it. I currently work for a financial compliance office which is having trouble getting the financial advisers to turn in paperwork that is compliant in terms of federal regulations. Because the government is cracking down on the financial industry right now, it’s becoming a real issue. Older and seasoned financial advisers don’t see the issue in context of the changes that are happening in the profession and in society, and many of them are just going about business as usual because they don’t see the problem in doing so. In her post on Catalyst for module 2, Maggie Dull made a good point about how if people don’t find in fault in their current tools they will not be as receptive to new ones.

I think that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that more and more cataloging departments are primarily relying on paraprofessionals, rather than librarians, to do the majority of the cataloging. I think many cataloging department heads dread the idea of having to re-train all of their staff on a new set of rules. While Denton’s contextualization does a great job for helping people to understand FRBR, I don’t think it puts a dent in that dread of re-training people who’ve been living by AACR2 and MARC day in and out for years.

Denton, William. “FRBR and the History of Cataloging.” In Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools, Arlene Taylor (ed.). Accessed at:

Let’s be brave!

April 17, 2010

From what I’ve read and heard in the course so far, I’m finding many reasons to think RDA is not the new standard we need. I don’t think it’s enough of the change we need. Karen Coyle and Diane Hillmann’s 2007 paper makes a complete and concise argument against RDA for a number of reasons. [1]

Trying to fit RDA to MARC feels like we’re holding ourselves back. Don’t get me wrong; MARC served a purpose in moving records from the card catalog to being machine-readable. I’m sure that was heady stuff in its day. But technology has developed so much since then – if we’re building new systems, why not use new models and new tools? I thought libraries were supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology, incorporating it into our collections and introducing it to our patrons. Some of the resistance to a new standard – one that’s not so closely tied to the current way of doing things – feels like fear of the unknown. Let’s be brave!

Count me among those who wish to see libraries enter the digital age like we mean it. As Coyle and Hillmann point out, a library’s signature service is the catalog. [1] If libraries are to compete with services like Google and Amazon, our catalogs must offer the same ease of use and ability to connect users with the materials they seek. Ultimately the patron just wants to find what he or she is looking for. I’m all for the value-added services a librarian can provide in helping a patron locate materials, but we also need a cataloging standard that will support the functions of identifying and finding materials without an expert guide. And, from the cataloger’s perspective, we need a standard that is efficient and easy to use. Thanks to keyword searching, we’re no longer limited in our choice of access points. At PLA last month, I heard the same thing over and over in the sessions I attended: meet your patrons where they are. New cataloging standards should reflect the way users search for data.

Patron search behavior isn’t the only thing that has changed with the digital era, of course; today libraries regularly collect more than print materials (true, many special libraries always collected more than print, such as art and music, but here I refer to other types of library as well). DVDs, CDs, electronic periodicals, websites, and web-based databases have joined the books and print journals. The current standards are no longer adequate for non-book materials, especially those without title pages or colophons, and resources published in several formats. [1] Schneider, as cited by Coyle and Hillmann, touched on this as well: “The ‘multiple versions problem,’ [is] one of the more glaring ways that current cataloging rules no longer serve the library’s users, and even hinder the ability of systems designers to provide an efficient service for library catalog users.” [2]

Trying to fit RDA (or any new standard) into the old infrastructure seems like a waste of time, money, and brainpower in the long run because MARC will limit what we can do. A markup language like XML, on the other hand, is more flexible and customizable. It can be adapted by other industries or entities outside library land, in keeping with the JSC’s goals: “The new standard is being developed for use primarily in libraries, but consultations are being undertaken with other communities (archives, museums, publishers, etc.) in an effort to attain an effective level of alignment between RDA and the metadata standards used in those communities.” [3] I agree with Coyle and Hillmann’s assertion that it is “[f]ar better not to ‘stay the course’ on RDA, but to set a new goal to achieve consensus on the top layer: model, basic principles and general rules, and leave the details to the specialized communities.” [1]

With the amount of resources invested in the development of new standards, why aren’t we aiming higher? I’m not a cataloger; I don’t have years of experience to inform my opinion. But I think we’re setting ourselves up for a system that will need another revision sooner than later.

1. Coyle, Karen and Diane Hillmann. Resource Description and Access (RDA): Cataloging rules for the 20th century. D-Lib Magazine, Jan./Feb. 2007, v. 13, no. 1/2. Available at:

2. Schneider, Karen. How OPACS Suck. ALA Techsource, 2006. Available at: (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)

3. Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. RDA: Resource Description and Access: Prospectus. Available at:

FRBR and the History of Cataloging

April 17, 2010

William Denton’s, “FRBR and the History of Cataloging,” reviews the history of cataloging and how it influenced the development of FRBR, one conceptual model used for the development of RDA.  As a newbie to the world of cataloging, and certainly to the world of RDA, I found this historical review of cataloging extremely helpful to understanding where cataloging began, how it has progressed, and how it developed into FRBR in the 1990s.  Denton outlines four ideas which led up to the development of FRBR: “the use of axioms to explain the purpose of the catalog, the importance of user needs, the idea of the “work,” and standardization and internationalization.”  I will comment on two of these ideas as well as an overarching viewpoint that, I think, helps to provide long-term perspective in the development of RDA.

1. The reason for cataloging is to help users find what they need.

If the assertion that user needs are of primary importance to information professionals is true, then how we catalog should be focused on providing easy, thorough, and reliable access to information.  Cutter, in Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, provided a first set of axioms in cataloging: enable a person to find a book, show what a library has, and assist in the choice of a book (Denton, p. 41).  FRBR follows in his footsteps with its user tasks of, “find, identify, select, and obtain.” (Tillet, B., 2004).  However, Denton asserts that FRBR’s task list is broader and more inclusive than Cutter’s because it includes the broader elements included in Group 1, 2, or 3 entities.  I think this is an important point to make, and one that is helpful to realize when reflecting on RDA.  By correctly identifying the resources and developing a standard for implementation it will enable users to find what they need, not only the specific item they are searching for, but perhaps related items such as audio recordings, videos, or adaptations.  FRBR’s “user-centered” tasks are essential to our motivation for bettering cataloging standards, and should form the basis for further development of RDA. 

2. Are Standardization and internationalization realistic? 

Denton states that attention to standardization and internationalization in cataloging came about in the early 20th Century (p. 43).  In the past Panizzi, Cutter, Ranganathan, dealt primarily (if not solely) with physical artifacts and those held within the actual physical collection.  But with the development of the Paris Principles in 1961, cataloging reached out to an international audience and addressed the desire to share information across language and physical borders.  AACR2 for English-speakers was one attempt to bridge the geographical divide, although it still resulted in two editions, one for the British and one for the Americans (Denton, p. 49).  Since AACR2 did not succeed in developing one standard for English-speaking countries, I am wondering how RDA can function as a flexible structure, providing for local interpretation of the rules while still being compatible with other communities, including non-English-speaking for metadata sharing ( and the IFLA Paris Principles (  Or will it either 1) be too flexible as to be incompatible, or 2) so rigid that it will not address local needs. 

How works, expressions, manifestations, or items are cataloged brings significant challenge to the cataloging profession.  As Denton stated, “Today things are vastly more complicated [than the 1880s].” He then outlined the challenges he saw with cataloging electronic resources, multiple formats, sheer quantity of artifacts, and technology.  However, my eyes focused on his first point:

      “Cataloging costs money and takes time.  Sharing cataloging records will save both, if everyone can agree on how to catalog things the same way.” (this author’s emphasis, p. 50). 

Granted, I am not well versed in application profiles, but I am curious about how this will be implemented with RDA in an international environment where money is scarce and the task large. 

3.  FRBR is, “an end point, not the end point.” 

Cataloging has been metamorphosing over 175 years (couldn’t help the pun…) and it will continue to transform as technology and user needs develop.  This long-term perspective, provided by Denton in the first sentence, should be helpful to alleviate some of the stress related to RDA development and even FRBR itself.     While I think it is important to make RDA the best it can be, it cannot be everything to everyone and is an end point, not the end point in cataloging standards. 

Denton, William. “FRBR and the History of Cataloging.” In Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools, Arlene Taylor (ed.). Available at:

A “Dear MARC” Letter…

April 16, 2010

Yee’s 2004 article on the issues related to the utilization of MARC 21 provides a much needed analysis on an oft-maligned, and perhaps somewhat misunderstood, standard.  Admittedly, I am someone who has taken MARC cataloging as a given in libraries and who has mistakenly, like many in the library community, conflated the data structure standard (MARC) and the data content standard (AACR2R) (pp. 4). As Yee amply demonstrates, this conflation has lead people to throw at MARC’s complicated and confusing feet all of the ills and woes of cataloging today.   Yet, the fact that the conflation of MARC and AACR2 is so prevalent in the library community is quite worrisome, especially when considering the future of cataloging where at least one of those standards is already slated to be replaced.  It’s no small wonder that there is some resistance to a MARC-less cataloging environment if MARC is, to many, cataloging in all of its complex and arcane glory. But, if we as a community are to cooperate and innovate with those outside of libraries, an act that many see as necessary to the very survival of libraries, our standards must become simpler or at least the lines between them less obscured.  What this means for MARC, however, isn’t quite clear.

Yee also raises an important challenge to the current notion of shared cataloging and demonstrates how its implementation is hampering future innovation within the library community (pp. 10).  Throughout her carefully researched and clearly composed article, Yee cites numerous ways that MARC could be adjusted or better implemented to assist this transition and to improve life for our users.  While Yee questions the way the library community currently utilizes MARC and how vendors impact this utilization, she never questions that this is the right standard for libraries or for information organization in general.  For all her suggestions and concerns, she still advocates for MARC.  I find this troubling as MARC is a standard that, despite its “machine readability”, is deeply steeped in the history of the card catalog.  MARC was designed to carry information based on the card– information that is necessarily heavy on textual strings (a huge issue in the digital age though Yee proposes excellent ways to mitigate this issue).  If we are moving forward with a new cataloging data standard (RDA), does this necessitate a new data carrier?  If MARC is already so woefully underutilized for our current practice and if our vendors cannot seem to make it work for us in this new environment (though that is perhaps an entirely separate post), why bring it forward with us?  Unless the shared cataloging community and vendors can change in the ways that Yee suggests, I am worried that MARC might continue to hamper the library community for years to come.

Additionally, the notion of what constitutes a shared cataloging community is again where I differ with Yee.  I did not leave Yee’s article with the sense that the shared cataloging should be expanded to include systems or people from outside of the library, and thus MARC based community.  In her final paragraph (pp. 29), Yee notes that libraries, through MARC, have been developing a semantic web for years and thus we should “be careful not to destroy what we have in a rush to emulate the rest of the world, which may be on the threshold of recognizing its own need to develop solutions similar to the ones we in the library world already employ.”  While I agree with many of the points raised on her “shopping list” of improvements to both MARC utilization and shared bibliographic systems, I can’t help but wondering if MARC is still the way to go, which is easy to say since I’ve only known MARC for a few short years, not a life time.  Moving forward and taking into account the innovation of “the rest of the world” is perhaps where we need to be as a community, for “the rest” aren’t hampered by MARC or the card.  They’re already playing nicely with each other.  If we can’t get MARC to play along as well, maybe it’s time to retire a standard that is still so seemingly imperfect and inflexible.


Yee, M (2004). New Perspectives on the shared cataloging environment and a MARC 21 shopping list. Library Resources & Technical Services, 48(3), 165-178.  Accessed at:

Can Bibliographic Data Be Put Directly Onto the Semantic Web? by Martha Yee

April 16, 2010

In the lecture for week two, Diane referred to Martha Yee’s  “thought piece,” Can Bibliographic Data Be Put Directly Onto the Semantic Web? ( ), and as I read the paper, it did prove to be food for thought. Unfortunately, I am not certain my level of background knowledge is high enough to engage meaningfully in this conversation.  

The query Yee posed rhetorically in the paper that Diane culled for lecture purposes was:

                “Can all bibliographic data be reduced to either a class or a property with a finite list of values?   Another way to put this is to ask if all that catalogers do could be reduced to a set of pull-down menus.”

During the lecture I sensed that the Good Cataloger response would be “Hell, no!” to the question about all entries being reduced to selections on a drop down menu. However, having no aspirations to ever be a Good Cataloger, I mulled the question and in my opinion, the answer is “Yes, as much as possible.”  After reading the entire article and wrestling with the concepts, I still hold that opinion. Summoning the persona of Joe the Plumber, and giving him attributes of literacy and a library habit, I think it is safe to say that most elements about a desired holding are within the reach of a good drop down menu.   I tried to fabricate instances when “discursive prose” would be in order, and came up with nothing, although I do see that the more detail a user needs, the more complicated the description becomes.  Yee’s point, gleaned though her own metadata project, was that the intersection of high granularity, structure, and display is problematic in RDF, particularly with complicated relationships–  that the discursive, or unconnected, nature of the prose required for granular cataloging does not lend itself to RDF’s limited triple patterns of subject, predicate, object.

Yee includes the statement, “It will always be necessary to provide a plain text escape hatch,” and while that might be true, I don’t see that as reason to preclude the continuance of metadata creation that is as specific and structured as possible. Maybe that “plain text escape hatch” of nonspecific free text strings needs to be clearly limited to descriptive levels of high granularity so that harvestable information at more general levels is still available (ala drop-down menu), even if the harvestable information is less specific than, and slightly redundant with, the specific and precisely worded data in the free text string. If the choice is made to abandon or skip the description in harvestable RDF in lieu of nonspecific free text strings, then the information can’t be harvested, and the manifestation becomes inaccessible for so many potential users, unless they are searching in a nonstandard manner. I think we could get a lot done with drop down menus, even if some of the details are lost for some of the users, some of the time. Even Yee’s choice of diction supports this idea of last resort use. It’s nice to know there is an escape hatch handy, even if most people never use it in their lifetime.

There are several ideas in Yee’s article on which I need more information. She discussed her process of “degressive” relationships, where “data pertaining to the work does not need to be repeated for every expression, data pertaining to the expression does not need to be repeated for every manifestation, and so forth.” I do not know the way this idea of repetition is handled in RDA, but this concept of “a descriptor that applies to the larger must also apply to the smaller” is interesting. She also posits that RDA does not differentiate between manifestation and expression (nor does the current AARC2, right?), and that “it would be more intellectually honest for FRBR and RDA to take the less granular path of mapping… [and] use our current data model unchanged and state this openly.”  I don’t know how this expression/manifestation distinction is being handled in practice in RDA. If there is no manifestation, then is the expression ever going to need description, and does that make the demarcation of expression as discrete from manifestation a wasted cataloging step, but an important conceptual idea? Maybe…

I enjoyed reading this piece, although I am daunted by my lack of understanding about so many of the ideas touched on in this article. Please let me know where I’m off!

Another interesting Web conversation …

April 10, 2010


I don’t know if any of you have seen this, but I’ve been listening to a very recent conversation just posted to the TechSource blog:

Up until recently the world of bibliographic record supply has been fairly stable. The suppliers, practices and workflows currently used by libraries in their cataloguing and acquisition processes evolved twenty or so years ago and have changed very little since. Over the last couple of years we have seen the beginnings of possible change in this area.


This series of conversations, hosted by Richard Wallis of Talis, has been going on for years (I was interviewed by him a few years ago, after the famous London meeting in 2007). This particular part of the series usually has a number of regulars (the “Library 2.0″ Gang”) and guests. Richard is always well prepared, and gets good people talking.