RE: RDA and the Library Discovery Experience (Was: What to stop doing)

Posting to Autocat

On Tue, 20 Jul 2010 13:31:20 -0600, Truitt, Marc wrote:

>I wonder whether it’s possible that we’re all expecting too much from FRBR?
>I personally found Kevin Randall’s real-world example of the FRBR relationships and user tasks both sensible and persuasive.
>FRBR is a model, nothing more. It attempts to describe a set of bibliographic relationships and user tasks.

FRBR has taken a tool (the library catalog) that has been created over the centuries through trial and error, then in the 19th century this tool was codified and took its present form, and has remained essentially unchanged even when computerization of the records took place. The fallacy was to use this tool to create a type of idealized model for the 20th-21st century that proclaims: this is what people do when they are searching for information; this is what they look for; and this is how they do it. These assumptions are wrong (although realizing it may have been almost impossible at the time, before the exponential growth and popularity of full-text keyword searches and then with the Web2.0 tools. I confess that when I read FRBR originally, I thought it was correct).

When FRBR claims that people “find/identify/select/obtain” it should not be forgotten that these are all transitive verbs: each one is incomplete and needs an object. Then, the “how” is addressed, for example: find (what?) expression (how?) author, or identify (what?) manifestation (how?) publication date. So, all the user tasks flow from one another logically and cannot be separated. When you do separate them, the whole matter becomes almost senseless, as Mike very humorously pointed out.

The problem is: all of this was taken from Cutter’s Rules that came out a long time ago, and of course, he pretty much cribbed his rules from others who went even farther back like Panizzi and Hyde. Yet (and this is my answer to Kevin) millions of times every day, we know that people do not follow the FRBR user tasks to find information that is useful, and that many people (if not the vast majority) prefer using these new tools to our tools. (In fact, we can’t even call these tools “new” any longer!) I will venture to suggest that the vast majority of information found today is not found through the FRBR user tasks.

How do we know that people are not following the FRBR user tasks in these other tools such as Google? Because they can’t–it is simply not possible. There are no “works” or “expressions” in Google to be found. There is no possibility to search by author or title or subject. (The option to search in the “title” in the Advanced Search, only deals with information in the <head><title> section and is not the traditional idea of a title)

So, it is clear that Google has managed to build a tool that allows people to find information that is useful to them (at least I find it very useful!) and it has nothing at all to do with the FRBR user tasks. The popularity of Google and its like is more than obvious. We ignore this to our own peril. The only conclusion I can draw is that it is fallacious to generalize the FRBR user tasks into the larger world, and what FRBR actually does is to rephrase Cutter (that is, the traditional library catalog) in other terminology.

But doing this has led to some very knotty problems, such as the concept of a separate “work” which then has lots of “attributes”. For Cutter and up until FRBR, the work was nothing more than a single collocating place in the catalog where the cards filed (and later, records in the OPAC) and was not all that difficult. Now, in the FRBR model, it turns into a “work record” and takes on a whole load of other theoretical functions, becoming something highly complex. The same happens with expression and so on. To get an idea of the complexity, take a look at the very well-done “Functional Analysis of the MARC 21 Bibliographic and Holdings Formats”, in particular see the horrifying Table 3: Just glancing through this table will provide an idea of how complex the work/expression/etc. is.

Adding these levels of complexity would be fine if it added substantially to access, but it does not. There will be exactly the same access as there has always been. Adding these levels of complexity would also be fine if it were demonstrated that this will answer the needs of our users, but it is clear that our users’ needs have changed.

What are the users’ needs today? I will not pretend to be competent to answer, but there is a lot of research being done by all kinds of experts and all kinds of organizations. Still, it has always been the case that people have found information by talking to one another, and recommending materials, by shelf browsing, by following citations. Anyone who has ever done any reference work with the public knows that the find/identify/select/obtain scenario is far too clean and neat. A type of “exploration” takes place, both in the information resources that the searcher peruses, as well as in the searcher’s mind where they are constantly asking themselves: “What do I want? I’m not sure. Maybe this.. no…”

At base, I think the major problem with FRBR was to use later editions of Cutter’s “Rules for a Dictionary Catalog” and not the very first edition that came out. (How’s this for following FRBR?!) In Cutter’s first version (and perhaps some other earlier editions, I don’t know), there was a very important section (What Kind of Catalog) where he discussed the reasons for the catalog (Available at: He lists a number of common questions asked in a library, and then proceeds to show how they can best be answered. These are the reasons for the catalog that he created and gives a purpose to the later rules and structure.

As a result, the catalog and its structure were very closely allied to the needs of the patrons. This is what I think needs to be done again, and lots of major organizations are doing precisely this, such as Google and LibraryThing and Microsoft and Mendeley and on and on and on. They really care about discovering what people want and need. Yet, libraries remain mired in the 19th century and earlier by insisting that people find/identify/select/obtain works/expressions/manifestations/items by their authors/titles/subjects, when every day all around us we see other methods and we even use them ourselves!

As real-world examples of how people find information today, I would suggest Andrew Abbott’s “Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century”, and people may be interested in my own experience in a post I made to RDA-L about how I (finally!) found that early edition of Cutter’s Rules at: (The link to the Rules doesn’t work there)

This is why we desperately need the input of reference librarians, to more clearly enunciate what our users need, but as I said, there is a lot of research out there already. FRBR and its associated RDA are just a far more complicated way to do what we are doing now, and we need other changes that more closely correspond to what our users need.

Apologies for the length of the post.