Friday, June 4, 2010

RE: Are MARC subfields really useful ?

Posting to NGC4LIB

Dan Matei wrote:

The question in the subject is brutal, in order to attract attention. I know it is a blasphemy :-)

Of course the subfields are useful (as the TEI tags in scholarly texts)... But:

"Does its usefulness justify the effort ?" That was my real question.

And, of course, we can refine it:

All subfields are useful enough to justify the effort to delimit them ?

I thought we are looking for reducing the cost of cataloguing. Or not ?

Dan is asking exactly the right question, and one that has long needed answering. Although I wasn't working way back then, when they created MARC format, they obviously could have done it much more simply, without all of the subfields. It seems logical to me that they didn't yet know whether this deeper layers of (what we now call) semantics were necessary, but they didn't want to take a chance, so they decided to code everything within an inch of its life.

I think it's time to reconsider the usefulness of a lot of it. If some of these fields haven't been used in almost 50 years now, I think we have enough research data to come to some decisions.

We have already seen some of the real bloopers thrown overboard: some of the tags, the old "main entry in the body of the entry" and others. But nobody has asked the bigger questions yet. For example, I have brought up a few times the need to code separately the 245 $a from $b. I understand it had a purpose before (as I wrote to Alex once), primarily to prevent different texts from inter-filing, e.g. my example "War and peace : the definitive edition" and "War and peace in the nuclear age". In the card catalog, it files correctly, but I haven't seen any OPAC do it "right" and it has always been interfiled and therefore, "wrong".

Still, almost nobody browses titles like this anymore, and I have personally never even heard of a complaint, except from a librarian (like me, who it drives absolutely crazy!). But I ask: if there are no complaints and nobody even notices, is it still "wrong" to interfile different titles proper? I think a case can be made that the 245$b is really outmoded.

If this is accepted, then it is open season on all of the other subfields and fixed fields. Do we really need a separately coded 100$b? or 100$q? Why? Just because it's considered "correct" is not a reason to continue it.

3 comments:

  1. I'd like more subfields. A seperate subfield for the family name would solve many sorting problems. Seperate subfields for birth and death dates would make the data more flexible and have prevented the upgrading of name records now going on. Maybe there are some that are no longer needed but the more atomic the data the more it can be resused outside the library profession.

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  2. Keeping separate subfields for subject headings holds out the possibility of more faceted subject browsing and searching, recognising the difference between different types of LCSH subdivision. It hasn't been done yet, to my knowledge, but it could be.

    Tom

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  3. There are some great purposes for the subfields, but as you say, they often are not used. My example is to search the subject "Chess" http://tinyurl.com/2vzcnxe and everything is mixed up: names and so on are all mixed together when all the subdivisions of "650$a Chess" should file below it before going on to, e.g. "650$a Chess in art" and so on.

    But if subjects could work in such a way, e.g. where the presence of a $z Could display as a "+" with "By Geographic Locality" that you could open, or a $y as a "+" with "By Date" it could be much easier for everyone.

    I also agree with David to a point. Some areas of MARC and even AACR2 (RDA) are sadly lacking, so for example, dates. The 260$c plus the 008 positions 6-14 are just not enough. There are many more types of dates, e.g. copyright, date of issue, printing, and so on and so on.

    Still, does this mean that all the fields in our records are useful? I think it's still an open quesstion.

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