On Monday 13th August I attended the ‘Resource description in the 21st century’ seminar at the NLA, organised by the Australian Committee on Cataloguing (ACOC). It came at an interesting time for me, looking to regain some of my lost passion for this work, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how energised I felt at the end of the day. As always, the below observations and symptoms of foot-in-mouth syndrome are entirely my own. (MPOW were very keen that I emphasise this. :P)
Tweeting is good. This was the first seminar / conference / extended PD activity I went to where I primarily tweeted my notes, rather than scribbling them down. (The scribbles I did make were exactly that—largely unintelligible!) I found tweeting-as-notetaking to be an excellent way to record and synthesise my experiences of the day—not only was I recording and distilling what the speakers were saying, but I was also interpreting and annotating them for the benefit of those not attending. I was also doing so in 280 characters a pop, so my observations were necessarily brief. I’m sure someone once told me the best way to learn something is to teach it, and it definitely felt like I was doing that, to a degree—not so much teaching as relaying information in bite-size chunks. The #ACOC18 hashtag is mostly me, with contributions from Edith, Monika, Melissa and Cherie.
I did get, by the end of the day, some fairly severe shoulder and thumb cramps. Maybe it’s a hitherto unknown condition, ‘tweeter’s shoulder’.
Free Snoopy! So this happened:
I asked Gordon about Snoopy. He is concerned that including fictitious entities as people will muck up the data + misrepresent the true authorship of a book. I disagree with the answer but I respect his time and expertise in responding to me. #ACOC18
— Alissa M. (@lissertations) 13 August 2018
(My hands are shaking so badly atm. I think Gordon is tired of having this conversation. But I remain firm that we mislead users and do them a disservice by not including fictitious entities as authors. Some of our users are children. They just want books by Snoopy.) #ACOC18
— Alissa M. (@lissertations) 13 August 2018
I had a bit of an argument with Gordon Dunsire, the chair of the RDA Steering Committee, about IFLA-LRM’s prohibition on recording fictitious entities as Agents (that is, as authors of books), which has been replicated in RDA.1 Gordon had used books by Snoopy the cartoon dog as an example, so I went with that. I asked about the RSC’s thought process behind accepting the LRM decision, while offering the view that such a policy was not in the best interests of library users. It was a… robust conversation. Attendees described it to me as ‘controversial’ and ‘the highlight of their day’! I have somehow become someone who courts cataloguing controversy wherever they go. I don’t know how this happened. I’m supposed to be a professional introvert.
Gordon pointed out that we could still use Snoopy as an access point in a record, but it wouldn’t be as a formal Agent. Or ‘Snoopy’ would end up being a Nomen (that is, a pseudonym, or a non-preferred name) for whichever real person actually wrote the book—‘Charles Schultz’ or an anonymous ghostwriter or team thereof. Gordon’s concern is with maintaining a clean dataset, and also something about all this being a variety of fake news (the idea being that we would be wilfully misrepresenting a book’s true authorship to our users).
In my view, it would be even worse to have to create all these unknown Agent entities for fictitious characters who are presented by works as supposedly being their author. The only purpose I can see this serving is to create a totally logically consistent data set anchored in the real world, purely for the benefit of a small subset of cataloguers and perhaps a smaller subset of researchers. The bibliographic universe doesn’t work like that. Our users don’t work like that. If we are to catalogue the item in hand—a maxim my workplace strictly enforces—then that entails taking what a book says about itself at face value. It might be real. It might not be. It doesn’t always matter. Rare books might need this kind of provenance attention. Mass-market children’s paperbacks don’t.
Accept entropy. Embrace chaos. Free Snoopy.
The future is bright, and also a long way off. Several speakers were at pains to emphasise that the future is not in metadata at the record level. Our future is in bulk uploads, editing, mass cataloguing and metadata management. A lot of cataloguers will be uneasy with this change, and it will probably not suit all sectors (especially rare books and more unique items). This is the kind of metadata future I want to be involved in. I just want to be involved in it now, and not in however many years when our systems are finally capable of more than just MARC. I have previously expressed my impatience with how long linked data is taking to actually happen. I am sick of waiting.
Ebe exhorted us to read Hugh Rundle’s 2015 post ‘Burn it all down’, so I did. Little has changed. The fire smoulders. Unlike Hugh, I don’t believe the age of cataloguers is over. But the age of handcrafted, bespoke, record-level metadata is almost over, which is the work cataloguers are used to doing (which is what I think Hugh was trying to say). I lean more towards reinventing or reclaiming the name ‘cataloguer’, rather than admitting defeat and styling myself a ‘metadata librarian’ (or, for that matter, ‘bibliographic data wizard’). Cataloguers will continue to do this work, using some of the skills we already have. As Melissa said, paying people with brains the size of planets to sit there and transcribe text is insanity. Make better use of us, and we will do amazing things.
RDA, meet Bibframe. I learned that the LRM / RDA community and the Bibframe community aren’t really talking to each other. It points to a growing issue of different standards developers working in isolation from each other and only really collaborating at the end, in sort of a ‘So, you’re gonna accept all this work I did, right?’ kind of way. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, because I suppose the alternative would be a highly centralised development approach (which is what produced MARC, and look where that got us). I was surprised by it, though. It would be like the authors of MARC and AACR2 not talking to each other, which would be inconceivable considering how tightly intertwined the two are.
Honestly, I feel like we need to get reps from all these groups together in a room—the RDA Steering Committee, Bibframe development group from LC, IFLA ISBD review group, IFLA BCM review group (who oversee IFLA-LRM), some diverse international representatives—and give them plenty of wine and pizza, and tell them they can’t leave until they’ve cobbled together a workable, interoperable compromise. I will volunteer to make the pizza. And drink the wine.
They don’t need our standards. I get that Gordon has his heart set on a unified LAM metadata element set but I just can’t get behind it. For one thing, where’s the use case? Who else would use a library-developed schema for their non-library collections? Archives don’t need our leftovers—they’ve already got several competing standards, including ISAD(G), ISO 15489 DACS, RAD and others, and they’re all working fine. Rare books will keep using the awesome DCRM and museums already have CIDOC-CRM (apparently interoperable with IFLA-LRM) so they don’t need our thing either.
I don’t understand this blind pursuit of a cross-GLAM metadata model, when the whole reason we are still constituent GLAM sectors and not one big information management / cultural heritage conglomerate is because we have different use cases, different collections, different user needs regarding the description of those collections. (I was reminded of the numerous conversations at FutureGLAM on this topic.) What purpose does one model serve? Besides, isn’t one of the features of linked data that we can pick and choose elements and schemas that suit our collections?2 Why must we all be the same? Why are we bending over backwards to develop a schema that meets others’ needs, but not our own?
Still on the 'it's not just for libraries' bandwagon. I am firmly opposed to any standard for library resource description that does not prioritise libraries–and library users. LRM and RDA ain't it. Sorry, Gordon. #ACOC18
— Alissa M. (@lissertations) 13 August 2018
Are you there, cataloguing? It’s me, Alissa. Attending the ACOC seminar helped reawaken a little of the passion for cataloguing that I thought I’d lost. But it’s definitely changed, and I have changed with it. I’m still here, still standing, but a bit more weathered, and a bit less shiny. A lot less blindly optimistic. Cataloguing is still something I’m quite good at, knowledgeable about, adept in… but it feels less like my whole self, like there is still a hole in my soul. Maybe this is a new phase, a levelling-up, where I become a little more hardened and a little less magical. I don’t like it much.
Keeping this up will be the hard part. I’m straight back into a cataloguing environment with systems and standards that aren’t what they could be. I can’t do anything about that, but I can do something about how I react to and process these things. To an extent I’m just gonna have to lump it, and that is hard, but I also need to make sure I’m keeping up with new developments, poking my head above the parapet, looking out for what might be on the horizon.
ACOC helped me see the future of cataloguing. I hope that in some small way I can help make that future happen. 🙂
- This comes up so often at seminars like this it’s made IFLA’s list of frequently raised gripes. (Also, LRM instructions can have citation numbering but RDA can’t, apparently. I decided to save my thoughts on that for another time.) ↩
- Jessica Colbert suggests a similar thing with subject vocabularies in her excellent 2015 Lead Pipe article, ‘Patron-Driven Subject Access: How Librarians Can Mitigate That “Power to Name” ‘ (brought to me by Hugh’s Marginalia #2) ↩