Let’s be brave!

April 17, 2010 by

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: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january07/coyle/01coyle.html

2. Schneider, Karen. How OPACS Suck. ALA Techsource, 2006. Available at: http://www.techsource.ala.org/blog/2006/03/how-opacs-suck-part-1-relevance-rank-or-the-lack-of-it.html (Part 1); http://www.techsource.ala.org/blog/2006/04/how-opacs-suck-part-2-the-checklist-of-shame.html (Part 2); http://www.techsource.ala.org/blog/2006/05/how-opacs-suck-part-3-the-big-picture.html (Part 3)

3. Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. RDA: Resource Description and Access: Prospectus. Available at: http://www.collectionscanada.ca/jsc/rdaprospectus.html.

FRBR and the History of Cataloging

April 17, 2010 by

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 (http://www.rda-jsc.org/docs/rdabrochure-eng.pdf) and the IFLA Paris Principles (http://rda-jsc.org/docs/5rda-objectivesrev3.pdf).  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: http://pi.library.yorku.ca/dspace/handle/10315/1250

A “Dear MARC” Letter…

April 16, 2010 by

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

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

April 16, 2010 by

In the lecture for week two, Diane referred to Martha Yee’s  “thought piece,” Can Bibliographic Data Be Put Directly Onto the Semantic Web? (http://escholarship.org/uc/item/91b1830k ), 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 by


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.

A real flavor …

April 7, 2010 by

For those of you who would like a flavor of the history of cataloging and thinking around cataloging that you can’t really get from the written word, do I have a treat for you!  I recently ran across the following:


which is a recording (and transcript, if you’re so inclined) of Michael Gorman, Janet Swan Hill, and Arlene Taylor at a recent ALISE presentation. These are the people who were there and making things happen for the last big changes in cataloging (Janet Swan Hill was also on the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control).

This is good stuff, not to be missed …

Karen Coyle on New Directions in Metadata

April 5, 2010 by

One blog I generally watch is Celeripedean–unlike some bloggers Jenn doesn’t just post pointers to “stuff,” but she talks about things she posts about in ways that I find interesting.  Her latest post is about Karen Coyle’s recent Webinar for ALA TechSource–she gives a good synopsis about what Karen has to say, as well as a link to the webinar itself.  Much of the content refers back to Karen’s two issues of TechSource (on the class reading list) and probably provides a good introduction to those readings.

Karen’s a great “explainer” of new topics and knows a great deal about RDA and how it fits into the future orientation of libraries.  She’s also been working with the Open Library, and incorporates some of the insights she’s gained there into her talk.  Highly recommended!

Welcome to the class!

March 28, 2010 by

Although I’m still working hard to get things together for the class, I’ve very excited about getting started this week.  A big caveat for all of you to keep in mind: I’ve never taught an online course, and I’ll definitely need your help to ensure that what I’m doing works for you.  Think of this class as a big adventure that we’re all signed up to begin next week.  For you, it will be exposure to the “hidden” side of RDA–the data.  For me, it will be another foray into teaching–this time with a very volatile topic.  I have another blog “Metadata Matters,” and the most recent post contains some of my thoughts about teaching this class.  Feel free to comment there as well as here …

I’ve also created an introductory screencast for the course, which will address some of my expectations, a bit more about what we’ll cover and my approach to the material, and nitty gritty topics like grading. I mention in that screencast that I have a definite point of view (maybe that should be plural?) about RDA, and I want to explain a bit about what that is and where it comes from, before we get started.  I want you to be very aware of the players in this ongoing drama, and the context of their opinions as related to the topics at hand, and it makes sense for me to begin with myself.

I have been an outspoken critic of the initial phases of RDA development, as outlined in the DLib article that Karen Coyle and I wrote in January 2007, which is on your reading list.  When we talk about the major threads of criticism that have followed RDA since it’s inception, you’ll see that the article falls into the “not enough change” camp.  I can honestly say that I still feel that way about the guidance instruction (or textual rules, whichever you prefer).  But, shortly after that article hit the streets, I became the co-chair of the DCMI/RDA Task Group (which I’ll talk about more as we continue), and I’ve been working through the issues of RDA-as-data ever since then. What this means in practice is that I don’t worry much about the textual rules–I let other people worry about that–so I’ll have very little to say about the text except as it relates to the data.  That relationship is a complicated one, and is likely to change over time as RDA is rolled out and used (or not). But I do worry (literally) about the data–the element sets and value vocabularies specifically, and how they’re expressed.  So we’ll be talking about this pretty extensively over the next ten weeks, and I hope you’ll find the journey worthwhile.

Please, please contact me if you have questions, concerns, suggestions, etc.  I’m learning through this course, too, and I hope the steepness of my personal learning curve doesn’t get in your way.

Stay tuned!