Posts Tagged ‘On the Record’

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