Posting to RDA-L
Diane I. Hillmann wrote:
I think what this discussion points out is a gap in how we think about who contributes to data and how it is created. In libraries we have this fantasy that catalogers are ‘objective’ and that’s what we’re trying to do when catalogers create data–provide one-size-fits-all, all-purpose objective data. The problem is that isn’t necessarily what our users want, we just think that’s it and go on serving it out (no matter that it’s not objectivity we were aiming for, but consistency). And the issue of costs keeps coming up to justify why we can’t do anything different from what we’ve always done.
I believe the matter is actually a matter of adhering to *standards* and considering whether adhering to genuine standards is important for libraries or not. The idea of standards is one that the business world understands far better than the library world. Every single day in the business world, they work within real, genuine standards that everybody *absolutely must* follow, whether they happen to agree with them or not, because if you decide not to follow those standards, you may wind up in jail, sued, and the company closed down. Just imagine the number of standards followed when you do something supposedly so simple as buying a can of peas: there are standards for fertilizers, for storage, for grading, for canning, for labeling, and many other standards I do not know about. Everybody assumes much of this when you pick up that can of peas, e.g. do you care about how these peas that you are about to eat have been stored? (Yes) Do you want to know the details? (No) Do you want to be able to go about your business after you eat these peas and not wind up in an emergency room? (Yes) All this is assumed, but we do not consciously think about them since we figure that the experts behind the scenes can be trusted.
None of this has much to do with “objectivity”. Even if the standards are not effected though legal means that still doesn’t let you off the hook in the business world since there are other methods of enforcement, and your products could still easily wind up effectively boycotted by every other legitimate business on the planet, and bankruptcy is inevitable.
Of course, in the library cataloging world, not following bibliographic standards can be done more or less with impunity. I personally do not think this laissez-faire aspect of our traditional library practice can be transferred into the larger world of “metadata”, which includes the business world. Business is starting to understand the importance of metadata (of the many recent articles, these are interesting, http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/07/metadata-not-e-books-can-save.html, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2010/metadata-more-important-than-ever/, http://tinyurl.com/32ders5)
Somehow, sooner or later, real standards will be introduced that people will be forced to follow, or suffer negative consequences, just as in the regular business world.
I believe this concern is what underlies Diane’s mention of *consistency*, which is correct but has tremendous consequences the moment we take the matter of “consistency” seriously. What does “consistency” mean, and what does it entail?
So, it is not so much a matter of “objectivity” since there may be hundreds or thousands of ways of doing a single task in a competent manner. The task of standards is to find a limited number of those “competent manners” and create a system that allows for *reliability*, i.e. guarantees that the item you receive fulfills these specified standards. For example, there is no single, objective, “best” way of counting the pages of a book. There are more or less accurate ways, but no “objectively best” way. What is far more important is to follow a standard, whether I happen to agree with that standard, or think it is completely wrong.
An associated concern of standards is that people must take a serious attitude toward the standards. So, do we want someone really *playing* with the quality of the water that comes out of our pipes, and laughing and laughing? Do we want an airplane mechanic examining a vital part of the airplane we are about to board, and he sighs, “Who cares?” In these cases, they had better take the standards seriously because people could die from bad water or a plane crashing. In those cases, standards are not a joke.
Maintaining standards in the wider world is more complicated today than before. For example, here in Italy, there are not only the Italian standards for food, but the more recent European standards must be merged somehow. This has been controversial, to put it mildly, but I think libraries could learn a lot from this since I believe we will experience something similar as our library standards must somehow be merged into the larger universe of metadata standards.
In my opinion, adhering to *real* standards that are enforceable, no joking, no excuses, is the only way forward. This also means standards must be realistic and not simply a policy statement. For example, governments could make a standard saying that automobiles must get 250+ miles to the gallon, but that is unrealistic. A standard must be something that is achievable by the vast majority of anyone who is interested to ensure reliability. Are RDA, or AACR2, or ISBD achievable in this respect? That remains to be seen. If not, what is achievable and useful for the public?
Still, I realize that setting up and enforcing genuine standards is really a tremendous undertaking, but it will have to be done sooner or later. The rewards are tremendous however: after all, “metadata” should be the librarian’s “backyard”, the place we’ve played all of our lives. While we have a lot to learn, we should know it better than anyone else.