Archive for the ‘RDA Criticism’ Category

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:

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: