Cataloging Matters Podcast no. 4: The Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records a personal journey Part 2

The Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records
a personal journey
Part 2

Go to Part 1


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.

In the previous podcast I began a description of my own personal journey with FRBR, and as it wound up being quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, I decided to stop and continue it with a second part. For those of you who have not yet heard the first part, I believe that this installment will not make nearly as much sense without the first one, so if you are interested, I would strongly encourage you to listen to that one first. The link is available from the transcript.

Before I continue describing my journey however, I believe I need to explain something about the approach I have chosen, since I fear that otherwise, I may be misunderstood.

While I fully realize that such a personal approach may seem strange, out of place, and perhaps even uncomfortable when discussing something as esoteric as library catalogs, I believe that being honest is very important in these matters. Besides, it is vital to keep in mind that the argument over the future of information storage, retrieval, and use is not only a technical discussion, it is necessarily a political issue.

What do I mean? In this regard, I believe that many of the events of the last few years bear out the wisdom of what James Madison wrote as far back as 1822 in his letter to William Barry: (and I quote)

“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

(end of quote)

I would like to continue the line of reasoning from this famous quote of Madison: If information equals power, then in many ways for the vast majority of human history, this has meant having access to, and the use of, libraries: whether those libraries were ancient, medieval, or modern, subscription, public, government, or private, or whatever form they happened to take. If we also consider that by definition, people who live under dictators or absolute monarchs have no power, and consequently, these unfortunate people have little need for information since their wishes and opinions make no difference in the scheme of things anyway, but when those people decide to take the power, as they have in our modern republics, then everything changes and every single person is faced with certain responsibilities: the individual citizens have the responsibility to inform themselves on the issues of importance, and also, the organized mass of people, primarily through their governments, have the responsibility to ensure that the citizens have the means to inform themselves.

How can anyone possibly be expected to vote even half-way intelligently if they don’t have access to some kind of reliable information that is superior to whatever gossip and superstition that is available locally, or to simply vote as some local political boss or populist journalist says? If that happens and the people do not have enough information to make a reasoned decision, that is when it all becomes a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.

In the United States, as in other countries, the public library movement became absolutely critical to the development of a modern democratic society, so that the citizens could understand enough to be able to make informed choices.

And yet, while thinking about Madison’s quote in this way may make us feel good about our forms of government and our forms of society, it doesn’t exhaust the possibilities in today’s world: we are rediscovering that the issue of access to information is intensely controversial not only in national politics, where we hear different political groups today claim that the media is slanted toward the views of “the other side”, but concerns toward information are penetrating ever more subtly into people’s lives, and can even have major international consequences–true, sometimes with a strange, postmodernist quality to them. To bring up only one well-known example, I am sure many of you remember those cartoons satirizing Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper a few years ago. For those who would like some more information, in the transcript, I have posted a link to the incident in Wikipedia. []

I would like to set aside the moral, legal and cultural issues of the cartoons for the moment, and only mention that if those same cartoons had come out in 1955, probably no one outside of the metropolitan area where the newspaper was published would have known about them since everything would have been locked away in newsprint; a few copies would have wound up in libraries, and afterwards they would have been so exceedingly difficult to access, or even know about, they would have been forgotten quickly; but when the cartoons were published on the Internet 50 years later in 2005, the results were immediate: riots in various countries on the other side of the world; Danish embassies were stormed; people were killed; and a huge international scandal ensued, with aftershocks felt even today. In the transcript, I put a link into the latest news stories dealing with the cartoons in Google News.

I mention this incident not to blame or find fault with anyone, but to simply provide an example to show how truly complicated such matters are today, and that the lesson we learn is the simple fact that for better or worse, the Internet has changed the age-old information structures forever. Because concerns over information and access to it are changing in such fundamental ways, it turns out that when we debate issues of information storage, access, and retrieval, we find ourselves discussing changes in societal power, and there could very well be far greater consequences than what we can imagine now.

Even though it may be true that the vast majority of Internet users currently spend their time watching the latest youtube video of some boy wiping out on his skateboard, there are also new types of information sharing going on that are of greater significance and that will have far more profound consequences. For most of human history, libraries were the hubs of information sharing, but as technology forces changes to this traditional structure, we are witnessing changes that are out of our control in many ways.

So, I believe that any discussion of libraries and access to information is not merely a dry, theoretical exercise without consequences, but the discussion is actually very practical, and when solutions will be adopted by libraries, which have traditionally been the focal point for information, they will have widespread consequences for human society, whether what we make succeeds and libraries flourish, or if our tools fail, and society discovers that it has less and less need for libraries and our skills, and thereafter rely on the Googles and Yahoos and whatever else appears on the web. Whatever the results, I believe that such a discussion is very, very important to everyone.

With that out of the way, let’s return to my journey, and recap the twelve-step process I experienced:
Determination (to understand it)
–Incomprehension (not understanding anything)
—-Humiliation (not telling anyone about my incomprehension)
——Renewed Determination (to understand it)
——–Joy (at the first glimmers of understanding)
———-Comprehension (full success)
————Consternation (the first questions)
————–Serious questioning
—————-Serious doubts

After experiencing initial failure in understanding FRBR, I had overcome my problems and entered the stage of Comprehension, and felt pretty good about it. But what effects did entering the Comprehension stage have on me? Actually, not much at all, since nothing practical existed and everything was just completely theoretical. I may have given a presentation or two to my cataloging colleagues about FRBR, but everything went on as normal.

As I remember it now, my feelings toward FRBR at that time were associated primarily with relief that I actually understood it. In more specific terms, I didn’t have problems with the group 2 or 3 entities–they were just about the same as the names and subjects we already had, but those doubts of the group 1 entities that had been nagging at me from the beginning remained at a barely conscious level. It was only quite a bit later I realized that down deep, I was thinking: “Everything has a work? Everything has an expression? Really? What does this mean?” But consciously, I was happy that nothing much was different.

It turns out that my initial serious questions were not directed toward FRBR itself, but rather on general cataloging practice dealing with copy vs. edition, or what FRBR calls, item or manifestation. Essentially, it comes down to a very practical question: “I have this ‘thing’ that I need to add to the collection. Is this thing something new, and if so, I need to make a new record, or is this ‘thing’ a copy of some other thing that already has a record in the catalog, and so I do not make a new record?” It almost goes without saying that this is the most basic question, i.e. Do I make a new record or not?, that must be answered before a cataloger can begin to do anything at all.

To explain once again, the manifestation or edition is supposed to describe “the thing you are holding in your hands”, and this is also the point of ISBD, i.e. the international standards detailing how to describe an item. This standard also implicitly defines variant manifestations by telling us exactly what aspects of the item we must choose to describe and how to do it. I understood this and was fine with it, but I had seen myself how updates to some of the rules resulted in some major changes. For instance, I remember the consequences of the update to LCRI 2.5B9, about counting plates, which now says “If the leaves or pages of plates are unnumbered, give the number only when the plates clearly represent an important feature of the book. Otherwise, generally do not count unnumbered leaves or pages of plates.” Before this update, we had always counted the unnumbered plates.

Clearly, this was to save cataloger time for greater productivity and is simple enough, but it turned out that at just about that same moment, I had a book with unnumbered plates, (I believe it was “The New Russians” by Hedrick Smith, issued both with plates and without) and with the updated LCRI, I was not supposed to add the plates to the record since they were not “clearly important”. Consequently, what on one day would have been a new edition or manifestation, on the next day this same book suddenly became a copy or item. I also considered highly dubious the update to LCRI 2.5B8 to use 1 v. (various pagings) for complex paging much more often than before, which would have to lead to the same consequences as not counting the plates and thus merge what had previously been different manifestations.

This bothered me, but of course, I did it.

At about the same time, I became interested in rare book cataloging, and discovered that those people consider an edition or manifestation in a much more detailed way than regular catalogers ever did, figuring out states and issues of the text, looking for points, the condition of the book, plus a dust jacket(!) all of which general catalogers ignored, while they threw out the dust jackets. (When I learned about this, I looked at dust jackets a little differently, but still threw them away) It turns out that these seemingly tiny variations can lead to an exponential difference in price that can literally blow your mind. If you have a first edition, first issue, first state, first everything and in mint condition of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby–and remember: don’t throw out the book jacket!–why, you might even be able to buy that house you’ve been wanting. See, e.g. the website Modern First Editions (the link is available from the transcript)

In any case, in rare book cataloging, it was indisputable that they really were much more concerned about the variants in the actual text than we were. We never compared text, but focused our attention on the areas outside the text itself, e.g. the prominent areas and preliminaries (in cataloging terms). It was clear why the situation was the way it was: regular catalogers had to deal with far greater numbers of materials than our colleagues in rare books, and we just didn’t have the time. But after talking with several scholars, it became obvious that they were not aware of these subtleties in the catalog: where in the same catalog, a rare book record describing the different states for copies of Huckleberry Finn, could be seen side by side the records made by us.

Yet another factor that added to my discomfort was the circumstance that Princeton University Library was in the midst of a huge retrospective conversion effort.

Now, let me assure those those of you who do not know what the remarkable term “retrospective conversion” means in the library catalog sense, that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Mormon religion and how they can baptize people who are long dead. (Just a joke) What “retrospective conversion” means in libraries is the process of taking the information in the card catalogs and transferring it to the computerized environment. It is invariably a huge undertaking, and my own involvement in the project spurred me into doing research into the history of Princeton’s catalog. It was surprising that it went back to 1755, then its first printed catalog appeared in 1760, and from that time, all kinds of changes took place. It turned out that studying the history of the Princeton catalog was very similar to studying the history of library catalogs in general, both the good practices, and the bad.

One thing I noticed however, was that there had been several previous “retrospective conversions” at Princeton over its 250 or so years, and it was fascinating to see how everything fit together logically, or did not fit together very well at all. In any case, through my historical studies of Princeton’s catalogs and other catalogs as well, I saw even more ways of cataloging materials, some that differed radically from what I was doing, while some aspects of it, not everything, but some aspects, I thought were superior to what I was doing.

Some other factors: for several years I was the moderator of a huge email list for ASIS&T, the special interest group for Information Architecture. While there were some librarians on that list, there were extremely few catalogers, if any at all, and in any case, their tiny voices would have been crushed under the weight of so many web developers and new-fangled “information architects”, each trying to come up with new ideas. Also, I was moderately involved in the Dublin Core initiative, which also had different ways of looking at information.

While these considerations did not bother me all that much, I stored them away and I looked at the records in the catalog we were making much more critically. It was clear that the idea of the edition/manifestation is not something that is inherent to the “thing you are holding in your hands”; rather, it is a matter of definitions and who you happen to be. I realized that there were obviously many ways of looking at “the same thing”, and this would become even clearer to me later.

I was fully ensconced in my Consternation Stage.

I can’t deny it: I was rather happy in my Consternation stage. It didn’t trouble me very much at all since, although I saw some of these problems, it was even easier to look away and I didn’t really think about them. At a subconscious level, I suspect that I assumed that the problems I saw were not really problems, but just “matters waiting further refinements,” or in other words, while there were certainly a few anomalies, nothing is perfect and such problems should be expected. Nevertheless, the overall purpose and structure remained sound. As I said in part 1: everything followed Cutter’s principles, and that is what we had been aiming at for over one hundred years. How could there possibly be a problem? Even though I had discovered that there were lots of other ways of viewing the information universe: Dublin Core, rare books, the information architects, angry faculty members from the 1820s forced to double as librarians, and so on, modern catalogers had the answers. We knew what was right because we had the weight of the history of cataloging and we could point to undeniable successes for a long, long time.

When my wife and I moved from the United States to Italy in 2001, I had to confront many changes with respect to the course of my former life. Several assumptions I had were shattered. As only a single curious example, one of the first of my assumptions to fall away came from how the U.S. press portrays Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In the United States, I had the idea that he is a clown and a fool. Once here however, I discovered that he is far from a fool, but in fact, a deeply clever person in many ways, whether or not you happen to agree with his policies. As another example, the ways in which people relate to food and alcohol are totally different from the United States, and I found that I like the Italian ways a lot. It was in this state of mind that I began work at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, not long after I left the U.S.

At FAO, I did not work in the library, but in the documentation unit, which was responsible for the collection, cataloging, and indexing of all the documentation produced by FAO, anywhere in the world. What genuinely surprised me was that the cataloging standards that both my unit and the library followed were something I had never heard of before: the AGRIS standards supplemented by our internal FAO standards. The AGRIS standards had been around since the early 1970s and did not follow AACR2 or even ISBD, but nevertheless are used by libraries the world over.

Those rules are different. When cataloging and indexing at FAO, I discovered that I had to approach materials differently than I did as an AACR2/ISBD cataloger; I looked at them differently; I had to consider different aspects I had not dealt with before, and ignore other aspects that previously had been vital.

Finally, I need to mention something else that was quite new and that would become important only after FRBR came out; a tool I think everyone would agree changes everything, or almost: the website with that very silly name, “Google”. In spite of all my misgivings, I was forced to admit that this strange contraption could actually work!

I was quickly entering my Serious Questions stage.

At this point however, I would like to stop and save the rest for yet another part, part 3. I regret the inconvenience to anyone listening of going on so long, but that’s just the way I am. Probably, this second installment will prove to be a bit more controversial than the first one, since in the first I tried my best not to say anything new and concentrated on describing FRBR, while in this one, I am actually raising some questions that proved to be uncomfortable to me. From this point on however, the number of questions will grow and grow, while they also become progressively more uncomfortable–as I said, at least they are to me.

Still, I am going to jump ahead for a moment and emphasize that I think there are many excellent grounds for hope, so in my opinion, all is not lost but the key is to discover and define what are the problems facing catalogs today, avoiding theory as much as possible, and then to focus our efforts there. Otherwise, I fear that we are simply avoiding the questions and instead of facing the very serious issues before us, we are trying to force this new universe of information into forms where we feel more comfortable, whether this new universe fits or not, and whether anyone wants what we make or not, and if we don’t deal with the serious problems facing us, there is a danger that we will end up spending a huge amount of time and energy creating tools that will be irrelevant to our users and to society at large.

The music I have chosen for the end of this segment is the allegro of Corelli’s Sonata for violin and basso continuo in E major Op. 5 No. 11. For a change, I do have some information on this recording: it was performed by the Locatelli Trio, with Elizabeth Walfisch, violin, Richard Tunnicliffe, cello, and Paul Nicholson, harpsichord. If you would like to listen to the entire recording, the link is available from the transcript.

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.