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RTSS 2008 – The Future of Bibliographic Control

At NCLA’s Resources & Technical Services Section’s Spring workshop, held this year on May 22 in Raleigh, the keynote speaker was Jose-Marie Griffiths, Dean of the Library School at Chapel Hill, and also a member of a working group charged by the Library of Congress to:

(1) Explore how bibliographic control (formerly known as cataloging, also including related activities) can support access to library materials in the web environment;

(2) Advise the Library of Congress on its future roles and priorities.

The group published its report, titled “The Future of Bibliographic Control”, in January of this year. It’s available on LC’s website: http://www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/

Concerning the web environment, Giffiths began by noting that many users nowadays turn first to Google or some other web browser for their information needs; that despite the number of web-based library catalogs, there are still many separate library databases that are not accessible by a web search; that, due to the web’s worldwide reach, our users are increasingly diverse, using multiple venues (vendors, databases, social networking, etc); also, that bibliographic data now comes from increasingly diverse sources via the web; and that, as a result, bibliographic control must be thought of as “dynamic, not static”, and that the “bibliographic universe,” traditionally controlled by libraries, will in future involve “a vast field of players” (including vendors, publishers, users, even authors/creators themselves).

As for LC’s role, the report reminds us that LC’s official mandate is to support the work of Congress. It has never been given any official mandate — and most importantly, the funding — to be a national library, providing the kinds of services (cataloging, authority control, standards) for the nation’s other libraries that national libraries typically do. Of course, over the years LC has become a de facto national library, providing all the above services, upon which not only American libraries but libraries worldwide rely heavily. As this unfunded mandate is rapidly becoming unsustainable, pressures are building to “identify areas where LC is no longer the sole provider” and create partnerships to distribute the responsibility for creating and maintaining bibliographic data more widely (among other libraries, vendors, publishers, etc.); also, to review current LC services to other libraries with an eye to economic viability, or “return on investment.”

To achieve these aims (exploiting the web environment, and sharing responsibility), the working group offers 5 recommendations:

(1) Increase efficiency in producing and maintaining bibliographic data. Griffiths noted that duplicated effort persists not so much in creating bib records nowadays (thanks to OCLC and other shared databases), but in the subsequent editing and maintaining of these records: many libraries do these tasks individually offline. Proposed solutions: recruit more libraries into the CCP (Cooperative Cataloging Program, those other large research libraries that contribute LC-quality records to OCLC). Convince OCLC to authorize more libraries to upgrade master records (the ones we see when we search) in the OCLC database. Also, exploit data from further upstream: Publishers and vendors create bib data before libraries do. Find more ways to import vendor data directly into library systems, without library catalogers having to re-transcribe it all. (This may cause some of us who’ve seen certain vendor records in OCLC to blanch; however, the Working Group’s report adds: “Demonstrate to publishers the business advantages of supplying complete and accurate metadata”[!]). Similarly, recruit authors, publishers, abstracting-and-indexing services, and other communities that have an interest in more precisely identifying the people, places, and things in their files, to collaborate in authority control. Team up with other national libraries to internationalize authority records.

(2/3) Position our technology, and the library community, for the (web-based) future. We need to “integrate library standards into the web environment.” Proposed solutions: Ditch the 40-year-old MARC format (only libraries use it), and develop a “more flexible, extensible metadata carrier [format]”, featuring “standard” “non-language-specific” “data identifiers” (tags, etc.) which would allow libraries’ bib data to happily roam the World Wide Web, and in turn enable libraries to import data from other web-based sources. Relax standards like ISBD (the punctuation traditionally used in library bib records) to further sharing of data from diverse sources. “Consistency of description within any single environment, such as the library catalog, is becoming less significant than the ability to make connections between environments, from Amazon to WorldCat to Google to PubMed to Wikipedia, with library holdings serving as but one node in this web of connectivity.” Incorporate user-contributed data (like we see in Amazon, LibraryThing, etc.) that helps users evaluate library resources. Take all those lists buried in library-standards documentation – language codes, geographical codes, format designators (GMDs), etc. – and put those out on the web for the rest of the world to use. Break up those long strings of carefully-coordinated subdivisions in LC subject headings (“Work — Social aspects — United States — History — 19th century”) so they’ll work in faceted systems (like NC State’s Endeca) that allow users to mix-and-match subdivisions on their own. (This is already generating howls of protests from the cataloging community, with counter-arguments that the pre-coordinated strings provide a logical overview of the topic — including those aspects the user didn’t think of on their own.) The Working Group supports development of FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, a proposed digital-friendly standard), but like many in the library community, remains skeptical of RDA (Resource Description and Access, another proposed standard meant to bring the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules into the digital age) until a better business case can be made for it: “The financial implications … of RDA adoption … may prove considerable. Meanwhile, the promised benefits of RDA — such as better accommodation of electronic materials, easier navigation, and more straightforward application — have not been discernible in the drafts seen to date…. Indeed, many of the arguments received by the Working Group for continuing RDA development unabated took the form of ‘We’ve gone too far to stop’ or ‘That horse has already left the barn,’ while very few asserted either improvements that RDA may bring or our need for it.”

(4) Strengthen the profession. Griffiths noted that in many areas we lack the comprehensive data we need for decision-making and for cost-benefit analysis. We need to build an evidence base, and “work to develop a stonger and more rigorous culture of formal evaluation, critique, and validation.”

(5) Finally, with the efficiencies gained from the above steps, LC and other libraries will be able to devote more resources to cataloging and digitizing their rare and unique materials. The Working Group feels that enhancing access to more of these “hidden materials” should be a priority.

Griffiths shared with us LC’s immediate reactions to the Working Group’s report. The concepts of shared responsibility, and of accepting data from multiple sources, were “expected.” More controversial were the shifting of priorities to rare materials; the relinquishing of the MARC format; and the focus on return-for-investment in assessing standards, such as RDA.

LC’s final decisions regarding the Working Group’s recommendations are expected to be announced this summer.