Re: Displaying Work/Expression/Manifestation records

Posting to Autocat
Hal Cain wrote:

I am astonished to find FRBR described as a “19th century view” — though I guess I may be grateful to have been spared that absurd “card catalogue” slur that appears from time to time! “Work” is a concept implied by the organization of some 19th-century catalogues; against that, the FRBR distinction between manifestation and item (which maybe defies justification in the context of electronic documents automatically assembled to be downloaded from a source for consultation) is not to be found in the 19th century, nor throughout most of the 20th — all too frequently in my garnering of retrospective records I find copy-specific or institution-specific information within the shared record; that of course I can agree is, or is a legacy, of card-catalogue practice (or book-catalogue practice maybe), when sharing of records was not a criterion for record content.

Sorry Hal, I can’t agree with this. Considering manifestation/item, our predecessors had plenty of those in their catalogs. Take a look here at “The catalogue of books in the Boston Public Library in Franklin Place” (1844), and see how many places they note “another copy” You can also see “another set”. In this regard, I remember reading complaints from people from that time, who said they were sick of looking at the words “another copy” over and over again.

By the way, I noticed in several instances where catalogers back then would consider as copies what we consider different editions, e.g. at the bottom of p. 252 Smollett’s “History of England,” both 5vols but different publication information. But the one just above that appears to really be another copy.

They certainly knew about editions and copies theoretically as well. Jewett gives a nice discussion of work/edition/copy in his “On the construction of catalogues of libraries” plus on p. 11+ at

The work, as you say, was handled through organization of records, and we can see this in printed catalogs, too. For example, if we take “Index to the catalogue of books in the Bates hall of the Public Library of the city of Boston” (1866) and look under Cicero (p. 115+), we can see how the records are arranged to bring the works together. Again, in a printed catalog, there is no reason for printed headings as we have with cards and in our records today because they are different tools. Only a single heading is necessary, e.g. under Cicero, M.T., we see “Philosophical works, etc.”

This all looks very nice and handy, but transferring these methods to the card catalog had troubles. If we look at Princeton’s scanned card catalog, look up Cicero, click on his name, and we can see that the arrangement of the cards began with Works, then Selections, then Correspondence, etc. before going to the individual works, just like in a printed catalog. So, if you click on Speeches, you will see collections in Latin, then English, and then other languages.

In order to use this very handy arrangement however, people had to look at lots of individual cards (i.e. unit records) often in languages they didn’t know or care about at all. Additionally, subjects are sprinkled throughout this arrangement (criticism of his speeches as a whole, criticism of individual speeches, etc.), while subjects for Cicero himself are placed at the very end of all of his works. Such an arrangement is highly complex and this is why many libraries opted for separate name and subject catalogs, but both had problems. The catalogers understood all I have mentioned, but realized that they couldn’t have it all, at least not using the tools that they had.

Still, once you got the hang of it, the card catalog was not such a bad arrangement because it made a lot of sense, although still clearly inferior to the printed catalog display. But when the OPAC arrived, the whole thing broke down completely because of the mindless alphabetical arrangement in the OPACs. So, instead of Cicero’s Works coming at the beginning of the browse followed by Selections, Correspondence etc., today they display in alphabetical order: Works come only under “W” where no untrained person would ever think to look; selections under “S” and so on. Just as bad are the arrangement of subjects, e.g. “United States–History” where Queen Anne’s War comes after the Civil War, History, Military and so on and on, which is just ridiculous. Certainly, things need to be fixed.

I understand this and how it came about. I also have *great* respect for those people who did all of this, but I have to ask: those nice printed displays we saw above for the works of Cicero: is this mainly what people want today? Of course, we should not forget that today, the number of materials by and about Cicero will be far more massive than the relative pittance we see in the catalog from 1866, when that catalog above was printed. That is why I like to point to Fiction Finder, which unfortunately no longer operates, but we saw FRBR in action, and OCLC did a great job. People could see the work of e.g. “Kidnapped” and navigate through all of the huge number of expressions, going through the manifestations and finally land at an item. It was interactive too.

But I found it terrifying. And if that’s the way I feel, I am certain that a non-cataloger would feel the same way, if not worse. Also, I can’t believe that something like this would really be practical, in the sense that people would find it useful or that it would answer any of the real questions they have. People might play with it for awhile, but then abandon it as useless for their purposes.

FRBR essentially envisions a more or less complete bibliographic history of each work, just as in those catalogs of the 19th century, and while very few people may find complete bibliographic histories useful (I am one, but I am weird!), I think that for the average patron, such a tool would provide nothing more than what they get today, just in a different display that may horrify them once in awhile. And we know people are abandoning our catalogs now for newer tools.

I think we can do more. For one thing, we can spend our time doing *something* to make the displays that have been based on browsing more comprehensible to our patrons instead of just ignoring the situation, like the inane “United States History” example. We don’t get many complaints, if any at all. Why? Because people don’t browse like that today! Anyway, those displays are shot and have been for a long time. Do we fix them to make them work as they did in the card catalog? That would seem to me similar to figuring out how to incorporate horse shoes into an automobile tire–matters have changed too fundamentally. Can we come up with something genuinely new, innovative, and maybe even a little bit cool?

These are the things that I believe can really make a difference to our patrons and our field.