Trying to understand what is needed for bibliographic access and what some folks are talking about is not a simple endeavor. And much of the time we seem to be talking at cross purposes.  Often we aren’t but we are speaking different languages. We are at once surrounded by MEGOs.

In his political dictionary, William Safire described the MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over — me go) as something incredibly important but soporifically dull. Others describe it as a barrage of technical terminology that confuses someone who is too embarrassed to admit they don’t understand it. Our current situation is strewn with MEGOs.

For many non-catalogers, AACR2, authority control, the ins and outs of the MARC format, etc., are all MEGOs. But in recent years catalogers have been inundated by MEGOs: FRBR and all its terms, RDA and all its terms, the terminology of web-based metadata, the list goes on.

I do wish I had heard the NETSL presentation that went along with Rick Block’s slides for “RDA: Boondoggle or Boon? And What About MARC?”. His slides do an excellent job of articulating what many of us are feeling, which is a deep and profound “Huh?”

pullindifferentdirectionsDo you feel somewhat like this guy in the middle?  I know I do and I’m not even running a cataloging operation.  All I really have to do is figure out what the heck I should concentrate on in the upcoming cataloging class.  I mean, is it fair to ask them to purchase AACR2?  Will ALA Publishing have any in the warehouse?  I don’t imagine they plan to print more.  No, I don’t expect specific answers to those questions here.

Anyway, just a small wail before I try to understand the MEGOs one at a time.


This started as a comment in reply to Jeffrey Beall’s comment on my last post — but, like Topsy, it jus’ grew. So, here it is as a new post.

I think there are folks out there who think cataloging is wholly unnecessary. One might also think article indexing is unnecessary as we have more access through full text searchable databases. I don’t honestly know if they are right and neither does anyone else on either side of the argument.

We dyed-in-the-wool catalogers can rant until the end of time (or the end of cataloging) that “they” are out to destroy us but though a cataloger in my heart I am first a librarian. The purpose of librarianship is not cataloging but providing people with the information they need to be successful in their lives. Cutter’s objects were all about helping folks FIND information. Our first question should be, “How can we best do that?” I can say cataloging and someone else can say Google-books-style access and neither of us can say who is right or wrong because we don’t have EVIDENCE! I mean evidence that user needs are better served by one or the other.

What we are talking about is bibliographic access not cataloging per se. What does bibliographic data need to look like to best serve its purposes. We have always decided this by guess and by golly with a soupçon of but-we’ve-always-done-it-this-way thrown in. RDA both fights against this and caves in to it resulting in a mess.

I have to come back down to earth to get ready to teach the Dewey Decimal System tonight. We continue to educate future librarians in what we do now. How can it be otherwise? But I wish I could tell them we are approaching major changes in a rational way based on openness and evidence. I can’t.

We can limit our discussions to the technological aspects of wholesale changes to cataloging and even acknowledge the costs and difficulties of making changes, but I think we unwisely limit our conversations if we don’t start to address openly the issues of control and ownership when it comes to our bibliographic universe.

In a previous squib, I talked about ALA Publishing’s ownership (no quotes) of RDA and its impact but the issue is bigger than that. Look at Diane Hillmann’s April 9th squib talking about, among other things, the process behind RDA. She says, “Can we finally look at what worked and didn’t with the RDA development process, at what the tools available to us provide to meet our needs for broad participation and quality control, and design something that makes more sense? We cannot just keep maintaining the powdered wigs and the formal dancing in the face of the revolution happening outside our gates.”

Think, too about the request (order?) from LC for Ed Summers to take down and LC’s claim that they will do it so the rest of us don’t really have to try to improve the US government info that is LCSH — LC’s reliance on the regulation that allowed them to charge 10% above cost for cards as permission to exercise intellectual property ownership over their cataloging output. Karen Coyle helps to make this clear here.

Then there’s OCLC’s continuing attempts to express ownership of the bibliographic data created and shared by many public (and private) institutions.

We have a problem, folks. Technology is not the only thing holding us back. A failure to commit to treating our standards as commonly owned and developed tools has a role, too.

I do apologize to those of you who may be startled by the changes in appearance of this blog.  I’m learning about cascading style sheets and customizing appearance as I go along.  I am disproportionately proud that I just figured out how to make the font bigger here.  Some of the page designs are clearly made for folks with younger eyes than mine!

[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?

Thanx go to James Agenbroad for flagging the new LRTS Martha Yee article about the history and development of LC’s role in providing cataloging.  I’ve been chewing for awhile on how decisions made at the turn of the 20th century are being reconsidered at the turn of the 21st.

As we may hear LC hint, “Hey, being cataloger for the nation is not itemized in our budget!”  In a way, it all goes back to then LC chief Herbert Putnam’s decision (around 1905) to distribute cards at cost plus 10%.  In the intervening century, the rest of us have developed an addiction to cheap cataloging.  In the main, bibliographic records used by almost all the nation’s libraries are given away by LC and a relative few largish academic libraries.

And, in fact, many of those littler libraries don’t even know that’s where cataloging comes from!  They think their library materials vendor does it because that’s who they buy it from!

Okay, yes, everybody catalogs a little but for most libraries, well over 95% of what they add to their catalogs was originally crafted by someone else.  Ah, that unique definition of sharing we have in cataloging land: I share your cataloging.  And they pay the provider who redistributes that cataloging to them but no one goes back and pays for the actual cataloging.

So, let’s consider LC’s dilemma in light of all this.  If LC decides that for purposes of its own bibliographic retrieval that they don’t need everything the rest of us have come to expect in our bibliographic records, where is the mandate that makes them behave and give us what we want?  It isn’t a line item in their budget.

If you haven’t read Martha Yee’s article in the April LRTS, do so as soon as you can get your hands on it.  As of yesterday, a silly 14 day embargo was keeping it hidden in Wilson and Gale sources but I found it via Ebsco.  So hunt around to see who your institution gets it through if you are not a current ALCTS member.

Thanx, Martha!!  You’ve articulated beautifully how this all ties together.

Citation: Martha Yee.  “‘Wholly Visionary:’ The American Library Association, The Library of Congress, and the Card Distribution Program.”  Library Resources & Technical Services 53, iss. 2 (April 2009): 68-78.

Marc was designed in 1967.  I have more storage on the flash stick on my keychain than most main frames could handle in 1967.    A gig is now cheaper than a meal out.  Marc is a standard for a serial record to be stored on a tape.  It’s readability rests upon a discrete record with a leader specifying the lengths of sequential fields of data in a particular order.   To do anything with a Marc record, it must be disassembled and reconstituted in pieces.  Even the displays we see as Marc workforms require this disassembly and reassembly to make it comprehensible to catalogers.

Web-based metadata is not designed for rigid seriality.  Bits of data a labelled individually so that they may be gathered together as needed for a purpose. Whereas Marc field labels are limited to three digits, two indicators, and subfield codes, metadata labelling is flexible in its definitions and design.   Everything Marc does can be done using web-based metadata labelling.  And more.

BUT I’VE BEEN DOING MARC TAGGING SINCE 1974!!!!!  I CAN’T LET GO!!!!  WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO GET RID OF IT?????? And my husband drives a 1991 Honda he bought new that still runs fine — but I really prefer he had airbags.

2009-1967=42 years of using the same machine-readable tagging system.  We can keep limping along with our now unique data tagging system or move to web-style systems that take advantage of the flexibility the web makes possible.  Yes, we can webbify Marc to preserve an interface that is comfy for catalogers but if that’s the only reason to keep Marc is that enough?  Just because we give up Marc doesn’t mean we have to give up any of the bibliographic retrieval or display capabilities we think it makes possible.