[I’m using BUEW (above) to mean “Bibliographically Unique Emanation of a Work” because I can’t figure out any other unambiguous way to say “things that catalogs deem different from each other.”  Shall we pronounce it “b’you” and say it with an explosive expulsion of air?]

The order of the elements of bibliographic description is dictated in ISBD-ergo-AACR2.   Punctuation is prescribed.  Much attention is paid to standardizing capitalization and abbreviations in AACR2.

From the standpoint of utility of bibliographic descriptions does this matter?  I’m serious.  Does the order of elements, punctuation and capitalization matter?  And what do we mean by matter? Questions like this give the dyed-in-the-wool cataloger in me a tummy ache.

The order of elements is not sacrosanct.  Witness the variation in order of displays among library catalogs.  Different libraries and different OPACs choose different ways to display bibliographic descriptions.   Somehow, I missed the RESEARCH that showed these other ways were better — or worse.  Order of elements is a display issue.  We have been convinced that the order helps us  distinguish one BUEW from another — and that we catalogers decide something is sufficiently unique to be described differently in a way that is useful to catalog users.  But we don’t care enough about it to make sure our catalogs are consistent — we just deal with one record at a time to make it consistent with our “dream catalog.”

Our bibliographic descriptions have been standardized for a century now (under a strict set of ever-changing rules).  They are a little bit different from any other citation style in terms of capitalization and punctuation — although they are a bit Chicago-ish.  Ideally, when a catalog user retrieves a list of bibliographic descriptions those descriptions are neatly lined up with similar punctuation and capitalization.  In reality, of course, our users retrieve a mish-mash of catalog records made using old and new rules, full or minimal, beautifully in tune with the rules and sloppy.

So, putting aside our beliefs for a moment of what should matter and what we would do if money and time were no object, does it really matter to retrieval and relevance assessment if we try to be consistent in our capitalization and punctuation?  Which elements are really necessary for distinguishing one BUEW from another or judging its relevance?

If we catalogers believe things like this make a difference we need evidence to prove it.  If a standard e-communication convention suggests that ALL-CAPS is hollering, will titles with more capital letters in them be judged more relevant?  Does that space-before-the-colon-before-the-subtitle make things clearer or just look like a typo?

I want to think that consistency of data enables better relevance assessment.  I know that I prefer e-commerce sites where the order of elements in descriptions of kitchen cabinet knobs is consistent.  Consistency seems to improve browsability … for me … BUT I AM A CATALOGER, a bibliographic prescriptivist.

RDA doesn’t dictate ISBD punctuation but then, to make us less panicky, all the examples in RDA have ISBD punctuation.  Is that a good idea?  Does your tummy hurt yet?