Is RDA the Only Way? An Alternative Option Through International Cooperation

Is RDA the Only Way? 
An Alternative Option Through International Cooperation 
James Weinheimer 
Information Consultant 
VII Encuentro Internacional y III Nacional de Catalogedores 
Buenos Aires, Argentina 
November 23, 2011 

Also available at: in English and Spanish. 
I have edited this version slightly for grammar, as keeping in the spirit of First Thus.

Hello everyone. I want to extend my sincere thanks to Elsa Barber and the National Library of Argentina for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share some of my ideas with you and to discover just a few of the beauties of your wonderful city of Buenos Aires.

In this talk, I would like to discuss a few of the reasons why I decided to undertake the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki and to do this, I must discuss the RDA project and the current state of the catalog and cataloging.

What is the situation of libraries today? In spite of a few of the more optimistic notes we hear once in awhile, it appears that the situation of libraries is indeed very serious. Today, it seems that every library is dealing with budgetary shortfalls that in some cases, border on the catastrophic. In the United States, I recently read a report in the Washington Post that the economic situation is getting so serious that school districts have already eliminated most extra-curricular activities such as music and cheerleading, and are now moving to four-day school weeks, where five-day weeks have been the norm for a long, long time.

Naturally, this has had a substantial effect on families who must find day care for their children for the extra day at home, and since children are in school for more hours each day, there is less time for important tasks such as homework. With severe economic and social problems such as these, along with rising unemployment, lower wages and so on and so on, it becomes difficult to argue in favor of providing more funding for libraries.

It is important to keep in mind that this trend was occurring even before the financial crisis. Libraries had already been facing a fundamental existential crisis for quite some time. The internet and the world wide web continue to expand and includes more and more creative and intellectual works.

These materials are very often free to access, are up-to-date, and can be interactive. More important, these new resources can be highly engaging and exciting to use. To younger eyes, a physical book may seem to be inert, and therefore much less interesting than an online resource. From my own personal point of view, although I am decidedly a bookman, the incredible number of scanned books that I can download from the different scanned book projects is quite simply unbelievable to me. I wrote about this at some length in a blog posting “Observations of a Bookman on his Initial Encounters with an Ebook Reader” I am a bookman, and I absolutely love the web!

As a consequence, it is only natural that—unfortunately!–the value of printed collections are increasingly being called into question more and more.

But why? To understand, let us take only one example of a single magnificent project created by NPTEL, or the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning in India, which provides online a large number of technical courses from the various Indian Insitutes of Technology. For free. I think that this is the sort of site that could change the world.

I grew up in a small town in the center of New Mexico in the United States and I was interested in technical matters: how things worked; what makes cars run and how clocks keep time. This small town had an equally small public library, and although everyone tried their best, there were few choices available for an inquisitive young boy. I can say that if I had had these courses available for free at the click of a button, back in those times, and if I had been disciplined enough to actually go through some of them, my entire career and my life may have been different.

I don’t know how many courses are available, but there are a lot. This is just one: a course on Broadband Networks given by Prof. Karandikar from Bombay. I am sure that many people would be very interested in learning the information from Prof. Karandikar, and it is also very much in the interest of society itself and the world in general that individuals should be allowed and even encouraged to learn this kind of information, not only to enhance their own possibilities, but to help their communities at the same time.

But, how is someone supposed to know about the existence of this course? They can’t find it through library catalogs or even in Worldcat, where there is a record for the site as a whole, but I think we can all agree, the record is of very dubious worth for someone interested in the individual couses, such as the one for broadband networks.

Therefore, if someone wanted this course, they would be forced not to use our catalogs, but to use other tools, so we immediately think of Google. A search there for “broadband networks” gets over 33 million hits with Wikipedia as the no. 1 result, but still no link is seen for this excellent resource of undoubted use.

Two of Ranganathan’s laws are “Every book its reader” and “Every reader his book”. Of course Ranganathan’s ideas apply not only to books but can be expanded into the virtual world, including this online course in particular. How can this course be connected with the reader who needs it? This is only a single course in a single website, when there are a tremendous variety of courses available, many not available from the web itself, but through other networks such as ITunes.

Of course, it is not easy for catalogers to connect the right websites with the right readers. Why? For one thing, catalogers are already working hard dealing with connecting normal printed materials with the right readers. Since the number of printed materials has not gone down substantially, it would seem to make sense to hire more catalogers to deal with the additional materials, but because of the economic crisis, it is clear that the number of catalogers will probably not increase anytime soon, if anytime at all. It can also be argued that it is at least possible to find the online course on broadband electronics through Google (although not easy), while if there is a physical book in the library and it is not cataloged, there is absolutely no chance that anyone can find it.

One additional point is that the online course is free while the printed book cost the library money, even though far more people may find the online course to be of much more value than the book the library paid for.

So, we are faced with the problem of more materials than ever before, at a time when we have fewer resources to deal with them. What has the cataloging world offered as a solution? After many years in development, RDA has been offered as a step toward a solution for catalogs. But is it? What exactly does it offer to our patrons that is not what they have today?

In summary:

  • abbreviations spelled out
  • some changes in punctuation
  • GMD replaced by the 33x fields
  • different transcription rules
  • abolishing the rule of three into the rule of one according to cataloger’s discretion
  • a few changes in uniform titles

How will our patrons experience these changes? Most of them I am sure they will not even notice, except as they may become aware of some inconsistencies, for example, they will see some words spelled out in full in some records as opposed to the abbreviations found in other records. Patrons certainly cannot notice the differences in transcription practices. The changes in uniform titles will also be noticed only as a difference when compared to older practices, e.g. where people used to see “Bible. N.T. Mark” before, they will see “Bible. Mark” after.

People may notice the difference in the rule of three eventually, but it will take some time. I have read that the reason for implementing this change is so that catalogers will be “free” to trace more headings. In my experience, such an assumption is simply laughable.

 Thank heaven for the rule of three! 

Whenever I have cataloged something, I have actually been happy whenever I found that fourth author or corporate body and I didn’t have to do so much work! I shall venture to make a prediction that because of the stresses in the budgetary realm, catalogers will be under higher pressures to raise productivity, so I believe the number of headings assigned to materials will actually go down instead of up, as so many seem to believe for some reason.

I confess that only time can tell however.

So, when we look at the actual changes that people will experience when they use the catalog, we see it is primarily in the realm of abbreviations and transcription. This is why I maintain that, in contradiction of those who claim that RDA is not about display, in actuality RDA is primarily about display since the main points searchers will see will be in the area of abbreviations and transcription. That is, for those people who notice any changes at all.

The major point mentioned in favor of RDA is that it is a step forward toward FRBR, which will let people find, identify, select and obtain, works, expressions, manifestations and items by their authors, titles and subjects. Of course, this aim invites several questions. First, is the new structure needed to allow people to do the FRBR user tasks, or have modern systems already achieved them? Let’s see an example.

Here is a search for Jorge Borges’ El Aleph as found in Worldcat. With the current power of online catalogs, so long as catalogers add the correct uniform title, all of the variants of the different expressions and manifestations can currently be found and navigated when someone searches correctly.

Here, the searcher can limit by format, by other authors, and if you see the entire record, by different languages, dates, years and so on. Therefore, people can do the FRBR user tasks right now.

Also, this can all be improved!

But I want to broaden this question and ask: can we honestly state that people really and truly want the FRBR user tasks, i.e. is it so important for them to be able distinguish all of the expressions, manifestations and items of particular works? Is this what people want, or do they want something completely different? For instance, it occurs to me to ask that when people walk through the door of a library, what do they mainly want to do? Search the catalog?

Or do they want to work with the materials by actually using them?

And by browsing them?

I submit that what people really want is to work with the materials of the collection by reading them and browsing the shelves (when it is possible). The vast majority of people have no interest whatsoever in the details of the books—the tiny differences in expressions, what is a new expression vs. a new work, the publication dates of specific manifestations, the exact number of pages, who are the publishers, and so on. When someone wants a specific bit of information, they don’t care if the publisher happens to be Elsevier or Random House. For those who have seen my little cartoon, “A Conversation Between a Patron and the Library Catalog” I was trying to show how the information in a catalog record is normally not so important for a patron. 

Therefore, the information in a catalog record is very much like a wine menu at a restaurant.

Very few people really understand the information there to make a decent decision. For most, the only really meaningful information is the price. But they all understand what they like and don’t like when they drink the wine.

At the same time, while the bibliographic information is of very little importance to our patrons, it is of absolutely vital importance for those who maintain the collection, i.e. the librarians, who must maintain a complete inventory of each item. In the past, there could not really be one catalog for the librarians and another for the patrons—everyone had to use the same tool. Computers have advanced to the point where this assumption no longer holds today, and the tool for the patron can be organized and work quite differently from that used by the collection managers.

For all of these reasons, I believe that RDA and FRBR, although very well-intentioned and initiated by excellent and sincere cataloging experts, are going in a direction very different from what is needed by our patrons. In fact, when looking at those initiatives from such a viewpoint, it turns out that they actually only continue the same methods, and have the same aims that have been found from the very beginning of catalogs. As a result, I see no reason to adopt RDA since it will not be providing anything substantially new for our patrons. It only introduces new methods for catalogers to make what is substantially the same product. What we need are products that are useful to our patrons, who now inhabit a completely new information environment.

If RDA were proven to be easier to use, simpler to train people, or it promised additional productivity, it may be worthwhile, but no one has ever suggested that it would do any of these things. In fact, creating RDA records provides additional levels of complexity (mainly in determining precisely which information belongs to which parts of the WEMI) although access remains unchanged.

So what do we do? Is there an alternative?

There is no alternative.

Each of these politicians claimed that there were no alternatives to their policies. Of course in reality, there were always several alternatives and each choice would have had its own consequences. In the last few years, it has become clear that the seeds of our own economic problems lay within some of their policies. This is not saying that these other alternatives would have had better or worse consequences, but when those politicians claimed there were no alternatives, it was untrue.

For quite a long time, it was also considered that there were no alternatives to the political regimes in the Arab countries, but all this has changed too. And surprisingly quickly.

Based on these examples, I ask: can there be an alternative to the traditional method of creating standards for cataloging; where the standards come down from on high and everyone is more or less forced to follow them, such as in this picture.

This is a picture of the Egyptian God Aten, in the process of bestowing all the bounties upon mankind, who in turn gratefully accepts it all. In other words, if RDA is adopted by the major libraries, do the other libraries have a choice or do they just have to accept it all gratefully? Many believe there is no choice.

I mentioned the economic difficulties earlier. These difficulties are putting even more pressure on smaller libraries who are struggling with matters of simple survival and have no budget either for training or to pay for access to the online version of RDA. Therefore, there is very little economic sense for them to enact RDA. If there were genuine prospects for increased productivity or usefulness of the records we make, that would be one important point, but that has not been shown.

Even in the recent report “Report and Recommendations of the U.S. RDA Test Coordinating Committee” which comprised LC, NLA and NLM, the authors of the report wrote in the business case:  
“The test revealed that there is little discernible immediate benefit in implementing RDA alone.”

and more interesting:
“The Coordinating Committee wrestled with articulating a business case for implementing RDA.”

This sentence says a lot. There should certainly be no struggle to articulate a business case at such a late date. The business case should have been settled long ago. If those libraries cannot make a business case, other than hoping that things will eventually turn out for the best, how can anyone else even hope to formulate a credible business case?

For those libraries that conclude that RDA is the incorrect choice, they would still be under pressure to accept RDA anyway, because they could fear that AACR2 would no longer be updated and their rules would become increasingly obsolete.

These are some of the concerns why I decided to initiate the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki. Since any advantages of implementing RDA are so unclear, I felt it was important to provide other libraries that either could not implement RDA, or did not want to, to have a real choice. Therefore, what was needed was something that could ensure the current rules could continue to be updated.

I want to emphasize the Cooperative Cataloging Rules wiki is absolutely not an ultimate solution to the problems facing catalogs and cataloging. Since it is also clear to me that RDA is also no solution, it seemed logical to create something that would allow the cataloging community to continue to update their current rules until real solutions are found. All the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki does is create a way of maintaining the rules already in force, so keep your AACR2!

There are other initiatives as well. Two sites I will mention that are very interesting are the Yee Cataloging Rules of Martha Yee and the MRI Rules of J. MacRee Elrod and Michael Gorman

If the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki constitutes a revolution, it is probably one of the more conservative revolutions that has been attempted. It respects the work that has been done on RDA. RDA has been undertaken by skilled and experienced catalogers who are highly motivated. Unfortunately, I feel their efforts have been misdirected.

The ultimate goal of the Cooperative Cataloging Rules Wiki is a bit on the radical side. It does not declare that no changes are needed, but rather that the changes needed are much deeper and far more profound than the superficial changes suggested by RDA. In addition, these changes can come from the cataloging community as a whole, instead of being decided by a few libraries in the most important libraries and trickling down to everyone else. The entire Web2.0 movement allows these sorts of grass-level initiatives now and all kinds of new tools can be built.

Such an initiative will not just exist. It will need work, a sense of responsibility, genuine caring, and professional cooperation. It will not be easy.

Think about joining and becoming a part of one of these initiatives.

Thank you.




  1. There was some encouraging news at ALA Midwinter. Day One for RDA won't be like Day One for AACR2, that is, you're not likely to be a pariah if you continue to do AACR2 records. There will be a stricter Day One for RDA authorities for those in the NACO and BIBCO programs. The basic tenets of ISBD and AACR2 will play well with RDA records in MARC so that copy cataloging can pretty much

    February 14, 2012
  2. Thanks for letting me know about this. <br /><br />AACR2 brought in major changes. With RDA however, we are in this strange position where, even though all the rule numbers change and you have to exchange new terminology for old, plus new theoretical structures, the practices do not change very much, and you finally wind up with what is–in essence–the same record!<br /><br />Very strange!

    February 14, 2012
  3. Anonymous said:

    Both RDA and FRBR have missed the mark and are a demonstration that nothing has been done right by committee. Overly complicated, poorly modeled, and in the case of FRBR, ironically untested. You find things touted as FRBR driven resources, but upon inspection merely derives inspiration from FRBR or uses FRBR in a fuzzy sense. RDA and FRBR are inelegant. <br /><br />I will tell you one thing,

    February 14, 2012

Comments are closed.