Why FRBR entity model matters: FRBR considered as set relationships

In response to some recent debate on the lists over whether the FRBR entity model really matters or is useful or is acceptable, to clarify some issues (maybe! Or stir the pot yet more!), and make it clear why I think the FRBR model is a reasonably good approximation to serve as a ‘skeleton’ for our metadata, and why the Group 1 relationships are especially important to the information landscape, I’m going to throw out another way of looking at the FRBR Group 1 entities. (I believe this is just an explanation of what’s in FRBR, not a change; just another way of explaining what’s already there).

=> An item is a concrete physical thing in your hand, naturally. That’s straightforward, yes?

=> Two items belong to the same manifestation if they are physically identical. Or in the case of digital items that have no physicality, if they are bitwise identical, I guess is the good analog.

  • To be sure, some physical features are more important to us than others. A dogeared page makes something no longer physically identical, but we still consider it the same manifestation. So we really sort of mean ‘physically identical at the point of production’
  • Also, as Jim Weinheimer usefully reminds us, we do not go the lengths to really ensure with 100% confidence that two items are physically identical, we just approximate, and decide that they can be treated as physically identical for our users needs, trying to optimize meeting user benefit per staff time put in.

=> Two items belong to the same expression if they are textually identical. Or more generally for non-textual materials, if their information content is identical (not revised or amended–and certainly not entirely different!).

  • This is even fuzzier than physically identical, but still of importance to users! The FRBR report itself makes clear that realistically, this is more like “can be considered textually/information identical, for the purposes of a user community, balanced with the resources available to make this determination.” Many users might consider two items textually identical despite some minor trivial differences; whereas a rare books scholar might consider the tiniest difference vital.
  • And yes, it’s more clear how this applies to textual materials than non-textual, but I think it still matters for non-textual materials. Is this print the very same pictures as this other print, or did the artist ‘revise’ the pictures before making the other print? With music even trickier, but it still matters to the user if the information content has changed or not (but with music there is less clear understanding of when the information content has changed; the same ensemble playing the same arrangement on a different day may be information difference that matters to the music community).

=> Two items belong to the same work if… well, they belong to the same work. This one is entirely culturally determined, and there’s no good way to say it in any more basic language (although FRBR tries), but while the concept of ‘work’ is entirely cultural, in Western culture at least it is a very important concept, which matters quite a bit to users. Basically, we know it when we see it. Is this thing an edition of Shakespear’s Hamlet, or is it not? This is something that matters quite a bit to the user, who may be looking for an edition of Hamlet, any one will do. Or may be looking for all editions of Hamlet.

  • To be sure, it’s a judgment that is subjective, contextual, and which reasonable people can sometimes disagree on–especially in edge cases. But it’s still an important one to users! Especially in strange edge cases, one person may disagree with another about whether an item is an edition of Hamlet or not, but the notion of “Hamlet”, and that various expressions and manifestations (as defined above as sets of items sharing physical and textual identity) may embody “Hamlet”—is a key thing to (at least Western) readers/users conception of the bibliographic/information landscape. Whether the naive user uses the word ‘work’ or not, it’s still a key concept.

So, physical identity, textual/information identity, and embodying the same work—I think these are fundamental divisions of the bibliographic/information universe, which are very important to our efforts to give the user a somewhat organized approach to that universe instead of just chaos (which all too often our OPACs give them now!). I think this means they do serve as a good basic model for the general purpose bibliographic/information universe, a skeleton on which more specific things can be built, but which still gives us a way to compare and explain anatomies, as it were. I think these characteristics of relationships between items are also especially important and basic ones to ‘bibliographic control’, and therefore justified in having a central place in the FRBR model–but that doesn’t mean that other relationships aren’t also present and important, and in certain ‘edge cases’ other relationships may even be more important.


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