Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate

Regular followers of my twitter account will know that I regularly complain about uniform titles. I know that’s not an RDA-approved term, but I don’t currently have the luxury of a wholly RDA-approved catalogue, and time passes particularly slowly in the tech services department. It’s also the term currently used for the 130 and 240 MARC fields, a format to which we remain shackled, and in which someone will probably write my eulogy.

In my view, uniform titles are some of the most misunderstood and misused fields in cataloguing. I say this not to look down on those who remain baffled (for I was myself baffled right up until last week) but because they don’t really serve the purpose for which they were intended. I’ve seen so many records with uniform titles they didn’t need, inserted by cataloguers who were no doubt simply following someone’s rules.

According to the 2005 revision of AACR2, a uniform title had the following functions:

Uniform title. 1. The particular title by which a work is to be identified for cataloguing purposes. 2. The particular title used to distinguish the heading for a work from the heading for a different work. 3. A conventional collective title used to collocate publications of an author, composer, or corporate body containing several works or extracts, etc., from several works (e.g., complete works, several works in a particular literary or musical form).1

In other words: a cataloguer might choose, create, or otherwise determine a particular title to associate with a given work; to disambiguate from other works of the same name; and to collocate works with different names within a title index. It’s a form of authority control; titles and author/title combinations are often given authority records of their own. (Hence the tie-in to this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme, ‘control’.)

Association, disambiguation, collocation: that’s a lot to ask of one field, and I can grudgingly accept that most of it made sense within a book or card catalogue. Remember, this refers not to collocation of books on a shelf (that’s what classification schemes are for) but for collocation of entries within a catalogue. Until quite recently, a catalogue was simply a collection of indexes: title, author, subject. Librarians wanted these entries arranged in a particular order, and created filing rules to ensure this order was adhered to.

During the development of MARC in the 1960s (led by the incredible Henriette Avram), a format originally designed to automate the production of catalogue cards, the layout of a MARC record mirrored the layout of an AACR-compliant catalogue card.2 The first paragraph, mapped to the 1XX set of tags, included the main entry—an author, corporate body or meeting, but also uniform titles where the work in question had no author, but another, different, title proper. The second paragraph featured the title proper and edition statements, and were recorded in the 2XX set of tags. Because a uniform title could conceivably end up in multiple places on a catalogue card, depending on whether there was an author attached, the developers opted to create two fields.

(In the first example, it’s considered advantageous to have all the Bibles entered directly under title, collocated in the title index, then disambiguated by language, version, year [in that order]. In the second example, we already have an author, but the item in hand has a different title to that by which it is more commonly known.)

130 1# $a Bible. $l English. $s New Revised Standard. $f 2003 
245 14 The new interpreter's study Bible : $b New Revised Standard version 
       with the Apocrypha. 


100 1# $a Xenophon $e author.
240 10 $a Hellenica. $l English.
245 12 $a A history of my times / $c Xenophon ; translated by Rex Warner.

Apropos of nothing, this also explains how the title statement, arguably the best-known MARC tag, was assigned the odd number 245:

To represent the second paragraph of the catalog card (title and edition), the MARC developers logically chose the 200 range of tag numbers. Because they had reached 130 in the first paragraph, and were trying to proceed by tens, the first choice for the title tag was 240. Continuing by tens, the 250 for edition and 260 for publication information were also defined. Law librarians, however, asked where the uniform filing title, which they used for filing, should be placed. Since uniform title preceded title proper on catalog cards, it seemed logical to maintain this arrangement in the MARC record, so the 240 was reassigned for uniform title, and the 245 tag (halfway between the filing title and the edition) was created for the title proper.3

Law librarians: warping MARC logic since 1965.

Anyway, back to titles. When I was learning to catalogue, I struggled with the reasoning behind uniform titles, as I had no concept of a title index to base them on. Never having used a card catalogue in my life, I saw no reason why anyone would use a browse function instead of a keyword search. (I stand by this view.) Even the idea of collocation doesn’t work in a keyword-based OPAC setting, because I can dive straight to the record I want, with no reason (or, indeed, ability) to view records on either side in any index. Viewing a list of records in browse mode is so… old-fashioned. (Besides, if there is no reason to do this, there is also no reason to create uniquely identifying main entry headings… (taps noggin))

The main cause of my frequent twitter complaints about uniform titles are the preponderance of unnecessary titles in our catalogue, specifically those relating to online resources. Because MARC-based catalogues entail a flat record structure, we can’t (yet) nest different expressions of a work, to use RDA parlance, within a work-level authority record. Instead we’re stuck with one record per manifestation, whose titles we have to disambiguate. Because so many resources exist in both print and online versions, and often a library has access to both, the obvious differentiating factor is whether it’s online or not. Therefore a resource might be titled: 130 1# $a Economist (Online) to distinguish it from the print version.

The problem is when cataloguers take this to mean that every online resource must be so titled, even when it has no print equivalent. This has the effect of 1) cluttering the catalogue with unnecessary uniform titles and 2) furthering the antiquated narrative that print resources are the norm, and online is the exception. There’s no point in creating 130 1# $a Digital humanities quarterly (Online) if it has only ever existed in an online format.

Associate, collocate, disambiguate, infuriate! (sigh)

Tell you what, I can’t wait for my wholly RDA-compliant, IFLA-LRM-based, fully FRBR-ised catalogue of the future (now with 25% more acronyms!). I look forward to being able to bring expressions together under a work-level authority, and have this tree display intuitively in an OPAC. I look forward to not having to use titles as disambiguators for indexing purposes. I look forward to relinquishing some of my control over the form and display of titles within a catalogue.4

I look forward to dispensing with uniform titles, for they have well and truly reached their use-by date.

  1. As reproduced in the RDA Toolkit, accessed 29 April 2018. 
  2. For more on this fascinating topic, see Jo Calk & Bob Persing (2000). From Catalog Card to MARC, The Serials Librarian, 38:3-4, 349-355. DOI: 10.1300/J123v38n03_20 
  3. Ibid, p. 351. 
  4. For more on the history of uniform titles, see Jean Weihs & Lynne C. Howarth (2008). Uniform Titles From AACR to RDA, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 46:4, 362-384, DOI: 10.1080/01639370802322853