A “Dear MARC” Letter…


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: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6z76m6p9


2 Responses to “A “Dear MARC” Letter…”

  1. ElizabethM Says:

    I agree with you, Maggie. Yee’s article, perhaps *because* of such a careful, detailed defense of MARC, made me think it’s probably time for MARC to go. So many of the items on the “shopping list” are not problems with MARC per se, but related to the shared cataloging environment. Does that need to change, too? Probably! But as Diane pointed out this week, MARC was designed in the 1960s for totally different purposes and functionality than we want to see today. Continuing to wrangle with changing MARC, trying to wedge it into today’s systems, while at the same time changing how we do shared cataloging in order to accommodate an outdated, inflexible standard seems like it will be way more expensive in the long run than starting fresh.

  2. dianehillmann Says:

    Maggie–The question you ask is an important one. What’s to become of MARC? To me the answer is–we maintain it “as is” as a useful, but lossy, exchange format. We know that the transition to a more modern structure will be extended–can we really envision something like a cut-off date? Who would we be cutting off?

    MARC was incredibly forward thinking in its day, and bootstrapped the library community into the computer age in a matter of less than a decade, at a time when computers were very new and very clunky. Without MARC we would never have built the incredible structure of data sharing that has benefited all of us. But after a reign of 45 years or so, it’s time for MARC to retire and make way for a younger, more modern solution. I agree with you that we should not close our doors and our minds to what’s going on outside libraries, but should also be proud of where we’ve come from. We need to move on, because frankly, we have a lot to offer, and can’t meet our potential constantly looking back.

    And Elizabeth is absolutely right. Keeping MARC and trying to make it work better is absolutely the more expensive proposition in the long run (and maybe even in the short run).

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