RDA’s impact?

Posting to Autocat

On 11/10/2015 7:29 PM, John Gordon Marr wrote:
One thing is certain: they are now relatively incomprehensible and unaffordable (not only to a lowest common denominator of libraries), and they both will eventually become either irrelevant or obsolete (as will our discussions about them and everything else humans create), in which case the “powers that be” can start all over scratching their ultimate “finding tools” in eternally lasting stone (listen– can you hear the salivation for hero-status and profiteering, or is it simply the sound of the inexorable erosion of idolatry?)

I cannot restrain myself from discussing a bit of history. I have studied in some depth a few “catalogs of the future” and one of the most unique that I have seen was one at Princeton University created by Ernest Richardson, who is now considered to be one of the most important librarians of the 20th century.

His catalog of the future was based, naturally, on contemporary technology, and the technology that impressed him in the early 20th century was the linotype machine. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linotype_machine) I won’t discuss the technology, except that it created a “line of type” which was something like 100 or so characters. This single “line of type” could then be moved around and re-ordered in various ways. The linotype machine was used extensively, especially in newspapers.

Richardson bought one for the library and decided that a library catalog could be created using this tool. Each catalog “record” would fit into a single “line of type” and, if that line of type began with the author’s last name (main entry) and ended with the call number (subject), you could print out books in author main entry order, or by rearranging the linotype slugs, they could be printed in call number order.

He did it. One part came out as a “classed list” i.e. in classification number order, in his own, Richardson Classification (see an example volume at https://archive.org/details/classedlistcook00librgoog) and then the hundreds of thousands of “linotype slugs” were re-ordered into author order. (See an example of the alphabetical finding list (by author) https://archive.org/details/alphabeticalfin03librgoog)

Richardson could also publish all kinds of other finding aids and even books with his linotype machine, which he also did.

This had profound effects on Princeton’s cataloging rules. For instance, his unbreakable rule was that the entire record absolutely had to fit into a single line of type, because if it went into two lines, the whole edifice collapsed. Of course, he found professors who “proved” that anything could be described adequately within those limitations(!!). He also mandated no notes, no added entries (reminiscent of RDA’s rule of one!) and other rules as well. (Incidentally, as I studied the catalogs I saw that what he was creating was what we know as “Excel worksheets” except he used physical means. I am sure he would have loved Excel sheets! But that is going astray)

To make a very long story short, his catalog was hated by the faculty and for this (and other reasons) he was forced into retirement. No more work was done on this type of catalog. Nevertheless, Richardson went to Washington DC and began the National Union Catalog, which was one of the greatest bibliographic creations up to its time. For those who may be interested, I wrote an article on this (and other things) at http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/pulc/pulc_v_58_n_1.pdf (Don’t blame me for the typos!)

There were a couple of relevant points that I discovered only after I wrote the article, the most amazing is that Richardson’s catalog still fulfills a very important function in the library. In the library’s Conservation Department the plates of Richardson’s catalog that are filled with linotype slugs (all made of lead and very heavy) were serving as weights and presses for the books the conservators worked on! They did a very good job.

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