FRBR imperfect? So then?

We hear all the time “FRBR is untested, FRBR is incomplete, FRBR needs work.” One version of this is in Karen Coyle’s summary of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control report. [ I’m waiting for the official written report before really responding to these reccommendations, but I’ll respond now just to the informal comments here as one point of view, regardless of whether it accurately represents the working groups’.]

“The framework known as FRBR has great potential but so far is untested.”

Now, as it happens, I in fact agree with this completely so far as it goes. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we desperately need what FRBR is trying to do—a formal and explicit schematic of how we
model the ‘bibliographic’ (or ‘information resource’) universe. Some agree that we desperately need this, some don’t and think it’s all a bunch of hot air. I’ve made my case for why we need it before, and probably ought to do so again in more polished form.

But those of us who agree that we desperately need this, AND that FRBR is an untested and imperfect attempt to do this—then what? Either we:

  1. continue to work to improve, analyze, empirically test and validate, and fix FRBR;
  2. we start over from scratch with something else (which will also need to then be tested by fire etc);
  3. or we abandon FRBR and do nothing.

I think the last would be disastrous. The second also seems undesirable to me—FRBR is the thing we’ve got, and despite being imperfect and unfinished, a lot of work has gone into it. How do we get closer to our goal by abandoning what we’ve got and starting over from scratch?

To me it seems obvious, that if FRBR is untested, incomplete, and imperfect, the answer is to test it (in many ways), analyze it, start putting it into practice so we can learn what the issues are, and work to resolve them. We need to get away from the idea that any kind of standard can somehow be produced in isolation from practice in one monolithic barrage and then never be returned to.

So to me, what we need is to convince people that indeed FRBR is an unfinished product, and we need to put community resources behind continued work on it–including implementation and testing of it. (And the decimation of the ranks of professional catalogers does not help with this lack of actual trial-by-fire of FRBR; but the cataloging gorillas of LC and OCLC can do a lot here (I’d make the important sub-point here that FRBR, and it’s testing and development–is a LOT MORE than just creating worksets)).

But what I worry is that all this talk of “FRBR is unfinished” will instead lead to the second case (start over with something else), or worst of all the last (abandon it with no replacement). I believe that is in fact the _motivation_ of some of the “FRBR is imperfect” chatter—and that others participating in it who do NOT have that motivation may unintentionally contribute to those ends. I think that would be disastrous.
Karen in her summary reccomemdation goes on to say:

“The working group recommends that no further work be done on RDA until= there has been more investigation of FRBR and the basis it provides for bibliographic metadata.”

I think this is probably a big mistake if followed. Rather, the work done on RDA is part of that investigation of FRBR! I think it’s also a mistake as a reccommendation, in that I think it plays into those who want to dismiss FRBR thinking that nothing like it is needed. I think implying that we need to start over from scratch is also dangerous—what we need is continued work on FRBR (which may or may not result in radical changes to FRBR, but it will be as part of the FRBR process, not as something new!).

And the work on RDA–with it’s recent recommittal to true FRBR-alignment in action not just words, along with the DCAM work that is important to me not so much for DCAM specifically as because it forces a formal and explicit accounting–is the best thing we’ve got for that continued work on FRBR, and for bringing cataloging into the contemporary era. I am in fact fairly convinced that those working on RDA largely share the perspective of the Working Group’s reccommendations as summarized by Karen (as do I), and I don’t want to hold them up to wait for some monolithic “completness” of FRBR. (Again, see Karen Schneider’s post on Standards 2.0 and my subsequent comment there).

And I’ll add that I say all this as someone who thinks the FRAD component of FRBR specifically is both one of the most important parts of our universe to model as well as fatally flawed in its present form. For months I’ve been trying to write something on that but keep running into writers block. I’ll have to resign myself to posting something less than perfect instead of insisting on perfection in my own essay (irony intended). But anyway, the point is that the solution to that is to analyze and improve FRAD, to critique it with specificificity. That’s how we learn, that’s how we come up with something better. Merely insisting it be dismissed in generalities would get us nowhere!

6 thoughts on “FRBR imperfect? So then?

  1. I wonder if perhaps all this anxiety about FRBR isn’t a product of a presumption that one must have a one-size-fits-all model? This is the presumption I was trying to fight against earlier (though there’s no doubt a bit of hand-waving there; the devil in the details and such). In any case, it seems to me something like FRBR is pretty critical to layer on top of the mass of existing data.

  2. I think we probably DO need _some kind of_ overall abstract schema/model that can fit over _most_ everything (if not everything). That doesn’t mean it needs to be _perfect_ for everything, individual domains can have more specific refinements that fit into the overall thing.

    But that’s just what I think, I’m not _sure_. To be sure–we need to try different things. But of course we need to decide what directions to go in order to try them.

    I don’t mean to imply this stuff is simple. It can be tricky. But it’s important. Better to have an imperfect attempt than to have nothing.

  3. Jonathan,

    Yes, I think you should post on FRAD sooner rather than later – if there are imperfections in your analysis, folks can help you.

    On Karen’s blog you closed by saying:

    “And then we expect the standards people to give us a gigantic document covering all possible cases that will never need to be revised—which is NOT based on what worked in the field, because nobody was working in the field, but is instead invented whole cloth by the standards people!

    No wonder it doesn’t work.”

    Is this really what standards do? I thought our standards were composed of both hard and fast rules as well as guidelines – and that the people who have helped to form them are in the large part practitioners as well. Am I wrong here? Or is this “whole cloth” talk perhaps a bit overblown?

    Thanks again for your work Jonathan

  4. Jonathan, just to bring in my own point of view, rather than that of the WoGroFuBiCo, I agree fully that investigation of FRBR is (or should be) part of our testing of the concepts of RDA. One of the problems, however, is that people have this binary view of RDA — either it becomes our next cataloging standard, or we drop it altogether. Instead, as is hinted at above, we need to see RDA as a process, not a soon-to-be-finished product. So when I hear the WoGroFuBiCo say to suspend work on RDA, I think they mean RDA as a finished, monolithic standard. We need another word for our work on the future bibliographic model.

    We also need to go beyond FRBR, that is, farther back, to the abstract model for FRBR. It is unfortunate that FRBR was based on the indecs metadata model. That model, which was never developed into a product of any kind, has since disappeared not only from use but the document itself can only be located through the Wayback Machine. To add to that, I think that the FRBR interpretation of the indecs model is fraught with, if not errors then at least very odd interpretations of that model. So before we look at FRBR as a model, we need to also look at the model that it was based on. Some of the problems that I see in RDA come from that indecs model which has been carried through via FRBR.

    I would also like to see more explication of many of the assumptions behind library cataloging — we have the FRBR user tasks, but nothing that really explains, for example, why those user tasks lead us to things like transcription of title page data. I’d like to see some real connection between cataloging decisions and what functions we think they perform.

    This is a huge topic altogether, but it is absolutely essential that we have a clearer understanding of it before we go making actual changes to our data practices.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Karen.

    One problem then, is, how do we get catalogers to start using RDA–or what does ‘using’ even mean, under this new understanding that (if that’s what you’re suggesting?) RDA will never be ‘finished’. When and how is the cataloging community at large going to engage with RDA–when and how is their practice going to be changed? Because if it’s not–then what’s the point of RDA? So it is.

    But it was already a difficult task even if RDA was going to be “finished”. I think you’re right that people need to realize that our standards (even including RDA) are going to continually evolve. But I think also at some point the JSC has to say “Okay, it’s ready. Start putting it into practice. It’s going to continue to evolve, but we dont’ plan on it’s fundamental basis changing.” So there’s no reason to “stop” RDA–they should continue working to get to that point.

    Of course, you are perhaps suggesting that it’s fundamental basis IS going to need to change—-that’s the only reason to “stop” RDA, right? I think I disagree. But I honestly don’t see that the whole “indecs” issue is a barrier—I think the FRBR model _does_ provide a fine fundamental basis for RDA, surely it needs to be continually fine tuned (and that that work is NOT being done is a problem I’ve mentioned before), but that doesn’t require RDA work to ‘stop’.

    I still think ‘stopping’ RDA work would be a mistake for the reasons outlined in my post, as well as others.

  6. The first option (“continue to work to improve, analyze, empirically test and validate, and fix FRBR”) work was done by FRBR / CIDOC CRM Harmonization.

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