Cataloging Matters No. 6
The Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records,
a personal journey
Hello everyone. My name is Jim Weinheimer and welcome to Cataloging Matters, a series of podcasts about the future of libraries and cataloging, coming to you from the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world, Rome, Italy.
This installment continues my personal journey with the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (or FRBR). Will I finish it at last? Stay tuned!
This series has gone on for three previous podcasts. I believe that this installment will make no sense at all without the others, so I strongly suggest that you listen to them first, in order. Links to the earlier podcasts, along with everything else discussed here, are available from the transcript.
I have been very busy lately with the school year and other matters, and that is why it has taken some time for me to continue this series. But as I warned in my first podcast, this is a true “irregular” in every sense of the word so don’t expect too much!
I have decided to spare everyone from having to listen to me recite my twelve-step process yet again. If anyone is listening, I can imagine the sighs of relief!--and I will take up from the time that I worked at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, where I had entered my Serious Doubts Phase.
I was away from the library cataloging I had become accustomed to and was working with AGRIS cataloging rules, actually indexing separate chapters, papers, and articles when necessary, working with a thesaurus called AGROVOC; all of this along with a certain amount of systems development. While there, I also dealt with bibliographic formats and practices from other organizations, practices I had never seen before. These had to do with statistics, images, geographic information, internal documents, and all kinds of other types of resources. Therefore, I came into contact with separate “metadata worlds,” each world coherent and meaningful on its own, e.g. the metadata world of AACR2, our own metadata world of AGRIS, metadata worlds of different indexes, the metadata world of statistics, and so on. None was necessarily “better” than any other, and each on its own made sense more-or-less, and I would have loved to import any or all of those records into our catalog, but when I tried to get them to work together, all I got was hash and it would have been easier to just do everything from scratch. I saw how the power of the newer formats such as XML could manipulate “correctly-encoded data” in all sorts of amazing ways--and I could even do some of it myself!--yet the automatic methods could only go so far.
One sticking point lay in the details of “correctly-encoded data” and exactly what that meant. This went both for the formats as well as the data itself. It turned out that just getting other organizations to send author information coded as
But these considerations were soon brushed aside, since I accepted a position as Library Director at the American University of Rome, a small, undergraduate institution located in a beautiful area among graceful palazzi on the top of the Janiculum Hill, which provides visitors with some of the most spectacular views of the city that anyone could hope for. I took the position for various reasons: I wanted to be a real librarian again, but also, I had always felt that it was the smallest collections where the materials on the World Wide Web offered both the greatest opportunities, and posed the toughest challenges. A Harvard or a Yale will have a great collection no matter what, and in many cases for the people there, the materials on the web result only in an “extra format” of something already available to them. For a small collection however, such an opportunity should provide the difference between night and day!
But how do you do this in a small library with very little help? Perhaps in another podcast, I’ll talk about my own attempts and what I think are my successes and failures, but for now I want to focus on FRBR.
Returning to the Anglo-American cataloging world got me back into AACR2 and gradually, FRBR. More importantly, I began to have my very first substantial and regular contacts with the public as a reference librarian. I learned a lot and am still learning all the time. What have I learned so far? First, it’s not easy at all to think on your feet when a student has put everything off until the last second and is half frantic. It’s also not easy to wheedle out of someone what they really want to know and not allow yourself to get sidetracked into showing them all kinds of things they do not want, wasting your time and having them think you don’t know what you are doing; or to try and match your understanding of what they want to what is actually available. Plus, for loads of reasons, doing reference is far more difficult when you actively add materials on the World Wide Web into the mix, as I wanted to do: it is a practical impossibility to keep up with them; there are concerns of “quality of information”; World Wide Web sites change their names and locations; and, as I discovered, Google and other search engines are always tweaking their results, so a search that, in a manner of speaking, “worked” yesterday or last week may not work the same today. That can be maddening!
There are dozens or hundreds of very thorny obstacles when you actively try to incorporate the information available on the World Wide Web into part of the local collection, but I felt I had to do it, and I still do. The old methods just don’t work well enough however, and I have succeeded only partially.
Through my experiences with the public as a reference librarian and watching how they tried to work with the library’s catalog, I very soon fell into my Disillusionment phase. I saw firsthand how difficult a library catalog is for the public to use. At the same time, I saw how much easier it is for the public to use tools such as Google and Google Scholar, along with databases such as those from Ebsco or Sage. The Google-type tools and databases obviously were made with the user’s comfort and so-called “customer satisfaction” in mind, while the library catalogs had different ideas. It was at that time, while I reflected on my observations of my users’ troubles, that I remembered the purposes of the catalog as laid out in the FRBR user tasks: to find/identify/select/obtain works/expressions/manifestations/items by their authors/titles/subjects. Therefore, I began thinking about FRBR consciously once again.
And yet the main thing that I discovered very quickly was: when people ask for help, they very, very rarely are asking for works, expressions, manifestations or items. Of course, on a certain level, people continually ask for a book that they cannot find on the shelf, so they are asking for items, but beyond this purely mechanical/clerking need, they ask for answers to their questions, no matter where those answers may come from. Most questions are similar to: “I am writing a paper on the House of the Vestal Virgins, and I can’t find anything useful” or “I need statistics on drug crime over the last 10 years” “I’m updating a book I wrote several years ago and need the newest information” or similar questions. Rarely, and I emphasize very rarely but it does actually happen, I have gotten a question such as, “I need Hobbes’ translation of the Iliad” or, what I hear more often, “I need the latest edition of such and such a book”. To be honest, I am almost the only person I know of who wants highly specific editions. As one example of my own needs, I have been looking for a specific edition of Thomas Middleton’s play “A game of chess”, where I would like a first edition (yeah, sure!), but so far I can find no scan of the first edition. Still, I can download my own copy of the play from an edition of Middleton’s collected works from the Internet Archive, which includes excellent commentary http://www.archive.org/details/worksthomasmidd04bullgoog
and there is another copy of this set at HathiTrust. Plus, I do have access to a couple of scans of different frontispieces, one is from the first edition, while the other is probably what the editor in the collected works mentions in his preface to the play:
I have found no copies of the first edition here in Rome, and I hope that no library would make such a rare book available for inter-library loan, but in spite of all that, I still have access to quite a bit of information just by sitting at my desk and knowing where to look. While I am not the only person who wants resources of this type, there are nevertheless very few in comparison with everyone else, and such people are certainly not in the majority. Of course, I would also like all of this to be much easier to find. Nevertheless, I freely admit that this is not the primary type of information that I need either, since I search much more often for answers to my own questions no matter where those answers happen to be. So, in the vast majority of situations, I am not much different from my patrons. Naturally, the very idea of relating the concepts of works/expressions/manifestations/items to web resources seemed to be nonsensical to me: while I agreed that with enough mental effort, you could probably force sites such as youtube, microsoft.com, blogs, or facebook into an FRBR structure, I could not see how the final product be useful to anyone or worth the effort.
These observations may seem obvious and rather unimportant, but to me, realizing and accepting all of this was simply devastating: if it is true that very few people want works/expressions/manifestations/items, then it follows that people want something else. Then, the conclusion is unavoidable: the catalog does not supply what people want! That is when I found myself on new ground, in a place I did not want to be, and I did not like it one bit.
I squirmed, but I could not avoid the unpleasant conclusion: the very premises of FRBR toward users were clearly and utterly wrong. FRBR had confused “user tasks” with what the traditional catalog actually did. It dawned on me that FRBR describes how the traditional catalog has always functioned and although it may be correct so far as it goes, it does not then logically follow that this is also what people want or need. That is where the fallacy lies. And I could see that fallacy in operation every single day when I worked with my patrons, or even when I did my own searching.
Still, if the premises of FRBR were wrong, what did that entail for everybody out there? What did this mean for RDA, which was just really getting off the ground? And I stood face to face with my Despair phase.
In retrospect, my Disillusionment phase was not so difficult because it passed rather quickly, but my Despair phase (which I confess I still fall into occasionally) lasted significantly longer and was therefore, much more difficult for me. I could still do my job of course: select materials, create records in the catalog, work with patrons and so on, but it all had much less meaning since I saw how the newer tools were being used more often, with more relish, and many times, with results that were really not all that bad. People still had major problems with the new tools of course, especially when it came to writing a paper, but the problems with full-text seemed trivial compared to those they encountered when they worked with a library catalog.
I also became responsible for the university’s bibliographic instruction, or, what is now styled as the library parts of information literacy. Many things I learned about my students surprised me, but primarily, I was surprised that when people type the terms they want into a search box, I have not yet met anyone who understands what they are searching or what is happening. People even find such a question surprising. To the people I have met, a search box is a search box is a search box, no matter what it is and what it is connected to. There is one box and it does everything for them. Therefore, it becomes highly difficult for people to understand that when they are searching a library catalog, they are searching, as I now call them in my Information Literacy sessions, “Summary records” and they are not searching full-text. Several students have been honest enough to tell me that they didn’t understand what it meant to search by author, title, or subject! This was some of the reality I encountered.
I do not think any of these people are stupid, and in fact, the way they approach matters makes a lot of sense: all search boxes look the same, therefore they are the same, so all should be searched the same way. It seems to me that using search boxes demands an intellectual leap that doesn’t apply when searching physical catalogs and indexes. When working with physical catalogs and indexes, it is very clear what you are searching and what you are not, since it is obvious that there is no way you could be searching the full-text of the books on the shelves when you are using a card catalog, or when leafing through the volumes of an index. But when the catalogs and resources are all virtual, the relationships among catalogs, indexes and everything else become far more nebulous and the searcher can sense no clear boundaries. The entire environment becomes far more abstract, and you don’t know what you are doing, and what you are not doing. That is, you can’t know without doing a lot of work.
This is why I believe people search library catalogs in the same way they search Google, and why they almost always get such poor results when compared to full-text searching. Searching a catalog competently is a skill that must be learned; and not only learned once, it must be exercised or it atrophies, just as any other skill that goes unused. So, even if I had made some strides forward in some of my classes and people actually learned something, it would turn out that after a few months or a year later, they forgot. That should not be surprising, but it was for me.
While I was doing some research on user education, I came across a provocative article, which quoted a Mr. Line from a paper in 1983 entitled “Thoughts of a non-user, non-educator” http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/deliberations/courses-and-resources/wilson.cfm, where he was quoted as saying that the term user education is, “meaningless, inaccurate, pretentious and patronising and that if only librarians would spend the time and effort to ensure that their libraries are more user friendly then they wouldn't have to spend so much time doing user education.”
While this made a lot of sense to me, I am also interested in library history, and one of my favorite authors is William Warner Bishop from the Library of Congress (who also happened to be the first head of cataloging at Princeton University). He gave a talk to the NY State Library School in 1915 (http://www.archive.org/details/catalogingasasse00bishrich). In this talk, he said something about catalogs that always rang true for me and I would like to quote him at some length:
“Now no instrument can always be worked easily, safely and successfully by the chance comer. Herein lies much of the difficulty found in the use of card catalogs.
For who uses a card catalog? For whom is it made? This is the real crux of much of the current discussion of the merits--and failings--of that machine. Obviously it is not for the way-faring man; equally obviously not for the child just entering school. Clearly persons who wish to read or study some definite book or some subject are the normal users of card catalogs. For the idle or the curious browser, there are the open shelves; for the fiction seeker, the finding list and more open shelves; for the child, the children's room; for the man in haste, the reference collection and its attendants.”
“Is it not a perfectly fair statement that in the users of a card catalog there may be presumed some modicum of intelligence and a more than passing interest in some topic? I do not believe that the card catalog can ever be made so easy of operation, especially in this day of huge libraries, that every chance comer can handle it successfully without some instruction.”
As a result, I concluded that since there is absolutely no possibility of training all users of our catalogs, it is the catalog that must change and no longer be seen as an impediment. This means that it must change in ways that will be more “user friendly”. But added to this imperative were all of the other problems I have mentioned in my earlier podcasts: a mushrooming number of worthwhile materials available online--Google Books is only one site which alone has been adding millions and millions of books but there are an enormous and ever-growing number of other great sites out there with new ones popping up all the time, each containing innovative and wonderful resources; I had also noticed that there is a huge amount of metadata, but it did not interoperate because formats, data, and bibliographic concepts are not coordinated and consequently, the metadata others create is not “good enough” and must be redone over and over again by each group; there was the genuine challenge of full-text retrieval methods plus the new “social web” which were difficult to assess, but showed great promise and it only made sense to work with these things somehow; almost all of us were also looking at flat budget lines and on and on the problems went. These were some of the real and serious challenges that I saw we were facing, and what was the library community’s response?
FRBR and then, RDA.
To be honest, I had always been looking forward to RDA since it was clear that changes were needed, particularly in raising productivity, and dealing with the new, weird things I saw on the web, where it seemed that the only thing that was constant was that they changed.
I need to pause for a moment here to avoid a potential misunderstanding: when I say that productivity needs to increase, I am absolutely not saying that catalogers are slackers or anything of the sort. Increases in production come primarily through the introduction of technological innovations and adherence to shared standards, not through individuals working harder. There have been relatively few technical improvements in the creation and sharing of catalog records since the introduction of Z39.50. Some tools provide help in making authority records and so on, but a lot more could be done. Much more important in my view is for catalogers to produce records that are of a sufficiently high standard that other bibliographic organizations can just accept them without local editing. I think we all know that while libraries claim that they create records that follow AACR2, they often fail in many ways and local editing is necessary with the result that the same items are re-cataloged repeatedly, or it turns out that the volume of copy records that require editing becomes so overwhelming that libraries just give up and accept whatever comes their way. Such a situation cannot be considered adherence to standards and is unsustainable in the long run. Imposition of genuine and realistic standards that must be followed, as they are in other industries such as foods and drugs, or the automobile industry, if such standards were possible to implement, would doubtless increase productivity tremendously.
So this is what I mean when I say that productivity must rise; we work smarter so that we can genuinely cooperate, not that each cataloger must produce 500 original records a day!
To return: while it was clear to me that FRBR did not provide what users wanted, I was very interested in seeing what RDA would come up with. Perhaps the actual practice would improve on theory by avoiding the problems I saw and provide some real solutions. But when RDA came out for general review and I could see it, I plunged into the darkest depths of my Despair phase. I couldn’t even discuss matters of detail of RDA because I saw that it was silent about the tremendous challenges we were really facing: of productivity, how to work with the other “worlds” of metadata, or interoperate with full-text tools. RDA did nothing new except change a couple of procedures, and it stuck faithfully to FRBR. As a result, our patrons’ experience would not change at all.
About this same time the economic bubble burst, and lots of things changed. Before the bubble, I could at least consider retraining and retooling, but afterwards, it was simply unthinkable. Perhaps even then, if I had honestly thought that RDA represented a step forward, I might have considered fighting for funding (still unsuccessfully, I have no doubt), but I could not ignore that in my professional opinion, RDA is not a solution for anything and I could not justify spending precious dollars (or euros) on that.
In the depths of my Despair phase, I contacted others and it turned out that they also shared many of my concerns; they also had no money for retraining staff and switching over to RDA. This was when I found a ray of Hope because I learned I was not alone, and I decided to initiate the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki (http://sites.google.com/site/opencatalogingrules/). It’s still new and I don’t know what will happen with it, it may be doomed to oblivion, but at least for me it represents a bit of hope and an option for libraries who either cannot or will not switch to RDA. I thought long and hard before announcing anything, but decided to simply forge ahead.
That pretty much describes my own, personal journey with FRBR up to the present, and the difficulty I experienced of accepting that FRBR changes nothing of substance and avoids the real problems facing modern librarians. Perhaps you will find this ending anticlimactic or unsatisfying, but it is not for me.
A very important concern of mine can be inferred from those who have listened to my earlier podcasts: that the FRBR user tasks are based on the work of Panizzi and Cutter, two giants in the field whom I have admired immensely. For me, renouncing FRBR was equivalent to renouncing Panizzi and Cutter and this made me exceedingly uncomfortable. Nothing improved until an exchange on the RDA-L list with Bernhard Eversberg, who helped me understand things better. http://email@example.com/msg02048.html
I was discussing details of how difficult it had been for me to find some small bit of information I wanted (it turned out to be only a single page published over 100 years ago), but nevertheless I could do it and I considered the fact that I actually could find what I wanted nothing less than amazing. I mentioned that these are the sorts of things people want to do today and they have nothing whatsoever to do with the FRBR user tasks. Bernhard pointed out that in earlier days, people wanted to do the same things, but “they had to first align their intention with a bookish mindset and then walk into a library,” which seemed true, and I replied that in a case like mine, it was probably only after prolonged consultation with an experienced reference librarian.
So, perhaps Panizzi and Cutter were right after all, but for them, the existence of a reference librarian was simply too obvious to mention, since it went without saying that untrained people could never use a catalog competently.
The information environment has changed far too much and the presence of an ever-watchful, skilled reference librarian can no longer be taken for granted. This narrows the choices at our disposal: either to expect patrons to struggle with our catalogs as we can see them doing now and if patrons don’t find something it’s their problem and not ours, or we can try to make the catalog more useful and user friendly so that people can operate it more easily. Of course, in one way, shape, or form, our patrons pay our salaries, and since patrons can now actually get worthwhile information without the library, it is logical to assume that if we do nothing and expect everyone to continue fighting with our catalogs, those patrons will see us either as useless or obstructionist, and suddenly, their problems really do become our problems. For me, FRBR and RDA head in the wrong directions and are the equivalent of doing nothing.
So, we are left with improving the catalog. There are a lot of things we can and should be doing using the power of the computer systems, plus focusing on increasing quality and standards. Fixing this situation will demand time and imagination, a lot of trial and error; and I hope it will be done with fantasy, taste, and even a bit of fun here and there.
For those of you who have had the patience to share my journey, I hope you have enjoyed it, whether you happen to agree with me or not.
The music I would like to close with is from the first movement of Vivaldi’s stirring, and rather dark Double Cello Concerto in G Minor, performed by the King’s Consort. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYdTLnlc4q4&
That’s it for now. Thank you for listening to “Cataloging Matters” with Jim Weinheimer, coming to you from Rome, Italy, the most beautiful, and the most romantic, city in the world.