In an October 11, 2007 AUTOCAT discussion, James Weinheimer said, “Part of fitting into the larger world of metadata will mean that we will have less control over many things, and our terminology will probably be one of the first casualties. Ultimately, I think it will turn out to be one of the easier things we will have to give up.”

Hal Cain responded, “I find it utterly perplexing that RDA is being prepared for cataloguers, its primary audience, yet with no attempt to produce any consensus about the terms in which it is to be expressed; indeed, with no reasonable attempt to explain how the new vocabulary agrees with or differs from the old. It seems to me that what we’re being led into is a different discipline from what we practice now.”

It has taken me the last year and a half to start to understand the new vocabularies and make “mental-crosswalks” to what I know about cataloging, metadata, and other aspects of information retrieval. My understanding today is far ahead of where it was last Fall when I tried to explain what I thought was happening to the joint OLAC/MOUG conference and I have the advantage of the kind of job that allows me lots of time for study and cogitation. Had I been in a library technical services operation now I would just be shaking my head and hoping someone would tell me about it later.

Why is this? Well, I must go back to the blind men and the elephant metaphor. The vocabulary-disjunct described above is like putting boxing gloves on the sightless examiners. “Here, figure this out, why don’t you — oh, and you will have to interpret it according to what you have knowledge of through this barrier of foam padding.

Sometimes the simplest ideas seem like gibberish because the terminology is so foreign. Okay, I’ll admit it, I wasn’t getting the idea of FRAD (Functional Requirements for Authority Data) because I’d come upon statements like, “Like FRBR, FRAD describes an entity-relational model, with the focus of FRAD on the entities related to ‘authority data’ rather than to the ‘bibliographic record’ itself,” and realize I couldn’t translate this into something I could understand sufficiently to explain it to students. I admitted it to Glenn Patton at the OCLC/MOUG do that I was FRAD-clueless and said told me to think of the ability to fill in blanks with data from elsewhere. Bingo, I started to get it.

Sometimes we spend too much time trying to explain things in detail, losing people along the way as their eyes glaze over. We need clear explanations that use terminology we can understand. A very clear explanation of flat files and
relational databases can be found at “What are relational databases?” 23 March 2001. Marc records are flat file records. Our OPACs break up the content into tables to operate. So far, so good.

MARC records, created by catalogers, using standardized content standards (e.g. AACR2, LCSH, etc.) have been the primary source of information to populate the tables of our OPACs. Information from 245 $a has been moved to the table of titles. Information from a 650 has been placed in subject tables.

The new way of looking at things says, why shouldn’t we be able to populate the tables with data from a variety of sources? If the title has already been entered in a title field in some other data labelling scheme, why could our OPACs not use that data in the absence of data from a MARC record?

Consider, for example, the representation of books on order in our OPACs. Right now, we create a MARC record to represent the ordered item — we basically do preliminary cataloging. What if our OPACs could use the ONIX data a publisher creates in lieu of a MARC record?

The cataloger in me rises up and says, “Yeah, but the publisher data might not use the same capitalization and punctuation information!” But now I have to ask, “So, what?” Does this matter? Will it affect retrieval or relevance assessment?

We are undergoing a revolution, my friends, but the revolution is not RDA or FRBR. The revolution is one that must reconsider the roles catalogs and cataloging have served. And we need to do this without fear of change but rather excitement for what this might make possible.