Comments on the report of the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control (WoGroFuBiCo in William Denton’s amusing coinage) are due. I still haven’t had time to read the document thoroughly, but I guess I better prepare what thoughts I have to send them in. (Two weeks for review seem rather skimpy to me, especially at this time of year, which is a a busy end of a semester for those of us in academic environments).

On my first reading of the report, I was frankly filled with a kind of elation. I think it does a very good job of analyzing the present environment and pointing the direction we need to go–if not the final destination. The basic perspective on the library metadata control environment evidenced here is not neccesarily the consensus among the library field. But I think they’ve gotten it exactly right, and I hope the report coming from such an influential cataloging player (LC) can help to build that consensus around how we understand what’s going on where to go. The headings of the report, “Increase the efficiency of bibliographic production”; “Position our technology/community for the future (in particular with regard to recognizing that software is sometimes the ‘audience’ of our efforts)”–these are exactly the right way to frame our challenges.

Then I read Diane Hillmann’s comments and found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with them too. While Hillmann is, I think, largely sympathetic to the aims of the working group, the devil is in the details. I realized that the report is pretty short on specific actionable reccommendations. More detail would be welcome–or at least the recognition that more detail is needed and a reccomendation that certain task forces need to develop that detail. One example would be Martha Yee’s comments, I think on the RDA-L list, about reducing duplication of authority work requiring a better technical infrastructure for automated sharing of metadata, not just a vague “promoting wider participation” or what have you. I agree wholeheartedly, and would extend that to cover ‘bib’ data too, not just ‘authority’ data. I’d quote her on that if the RDA-L list archives didn’t stop in August.

There is only one place in the report that raises serious red flags for me, and that’s the reccommendations on RDA and FRBR, especially around 3.2.1. To explain my concerns, let’s start with a great framing of the metadata situation from Stu Weibel (quoted a bit out of order to approach this the way I want):

I am asserting that embedding the library in the open Web demands:

  1. A coherent [content] model of what we are describing and the relationships among those entities, and in which each entity is identified with a URI…
  2. A carrier syntax that lives comfortably on the Web (the DC Abstract Model is my candidate)
  3. Rules for populating agreed structures (that at which RDA seems to be failing so earnestly).

I suspect that the perspective of the Working Group would agree with this too (although it would be nice if it were more explicitly highlighted in the report)–but it is not neccesarily one shared across the library community–that applying this sort of metadata control is both neccesary and vital. Whether an audience agrees with this or not will color how that audience reads the working group reccomendation, in potentially dangerous ways the Working Group should take care to avoid.

Stu goes on to say (or actually says first):

There is exactly one candidate for a content model that captures the relations among salient bibliographic entities that are needed to anchor library assets in the larger information sphere: FRBR. It feels roughly right to most, though it would be unwise to underestimate the time we can (ill-afford) to spend on thrashing around in the details.

I again agree entirely, and would add that there is exactly one serious candidate for that third pillar, the rules or guidelines for how we take the real world of concrete objects and capture it in recorded descriptions according to our content model: And that is RDA.

To be sure, neither FRBR nor RDA are perfect. But they are what we have: they are the only serious candidates we have for filling these vital roles. And they have both come out of significant community work. The drafters of RDA especially have had to deal with very difficult competing goals and priorities from various constituencies and funders. If we do not think they have been as successful as we would like–what makes us think we can do better from starting over? Because I think this is the implied sub-text of this recommendation–that both RDA and FRBR may not be worth continuing with. I don’t think we have any other choice though: Again, these are the only serious candidates we have. And if this is not the sub-text the Working Group meant to imply, they should be clear about what they mean, because if I read this sub-text into it when I find it to in fact be a disastrous course of action, I can guarantee that others who find it a welcome suggestion (because they do not believe a formal content vocabulary or rules for applying it other than AACR2 with tweaks are necessary) will also read that as unspoken subtext.

We do not have the luxury of time to start over. Nor, in “internet time”, do we have the luxury of waiting until one of these three “pillars” of contemporary metadata control is perfected before continuing with the others. Work on all of them must go on in parallel. These are the serious candidates we have–we may need to change the processes through which they are developed (eg., back-room closed session dealings are no longer the way standards are best done in the internet world; the reluctance to create implementations before standards are “finished” needs to be replaced by creating prototype implementations to inform the finishing of the standards)–but what we need to do is continue to develop FRBR and RDA, in parallel, with all deliberate speed.

So when the Working Group recommends that we “suspend” RDA work, I wonder what they are proposing as an alternative, and worry that this recommendation will be heard by an audience that does not agree with our premises–that we need a content model; and rules/guidance for applying it–as evidence that we do not need these things at all. Or that we have the luxury of time to make them perfect before seriously engage in them. If the Working Group does not want to send this message, I urge them to reword this recommendation carefully.

In fact, I think that the RDA/DCAM task force is the just about the best hope we have to “specify…, model and represent a Bibliographic Description Vocbulary, drawing on the work of FRBR and RDA, the DCAM and appropriate semantic Web technologies.” This is the already existing group of people prepared and qualified to do this work–it is, I would say, the best candidate we have for starting this work as soon as we need to. I would rather see the Working Group recommend that this group be funded so they can get cracking, rather than recommend that RDA work be “suspended”—which again, some audiences which do not agree on the importance of rationalizing our work to a contemporary metadata control regime (something I think the Working Group does see), are going to hear as evidence that this is not important or urgent after all, that it’s being “suspended”.

The evidence that I see is that the RDA JSC is trying mightily to accomplish exactly what the Working Group calls for, so calling to suspend the one influential endeavor doing that seems just disastrous to me. If the Working Group believes the way they are going about it is wrong, then the recommendation should be as to how that way of going about it should be changed, not recommend that the work be “suspended”. We have no time for suspension.

In particular, I share a concern that certain parts of the operational/business model for RDA are problematic for achieving a good solution–in particular, that the committee of principals which is funding this work sees it as a publishing project which must produce a return on investment (and quickly), rather than as a metadata control standards-making project with different business-case requirements. The consequences of this on the RDA process may indeed be a fatal flaw on what is produced; but on the other hand, the existing actual cataloging community constituencies do need to have buy-in to the process and product, and this is theoretically what the committee of principals represents. So a clear solution to this dilemma is not clear to me. But again, if this is the Working Group’s concern, they again need to make it explicit and suggest alternative approaches, not simply suggest a suspension while we wait for vague research work to be done by parties that have not yet stepped up to do it.

We do not have time for that.

When the Working Group lists their “consequences of maintaining the status quo” for this overall section including these parts, I think they are not nearly dire enough. The consequences of not proceeding with this effort to, in the working group’s words, “model and represent a Bibliographic Description Vocabulary” (which I think means accomplishing Stu’s three pillars) are dire, they are that our metadata efforts will become increasingly irrelevant to our actual information environment.

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One Response to WoGroFuBiCo

  1. Jennifer Bowen says:

    Bravo, Jonathan, for expressing this so clearly. I hope you will submit your comments to the LC WG – especially your concerns about the vagueness of the RDA suspension recommendation.

    I’m sure that a lot of people who want to avoid the trouble and expense of learning and implementing a new standard such as RDA are breathing a sigh of relief from reading the Working Group’s recommendation (and actually I think the fear of that EXPENSE is a lot of the motivation behind the Working Group’s recommendation, with not a lot of understanding of the possible consequences of NOT moving forward!) The implications of ceasing work on a new standard are truly frightening for the future of library metadata principles.

    As you’ve said above (and I’ve said many times too!) RDA is far from perfect, but at the moment, it’s the best hope we’ve got – especially the work of the RDA/DCAM Task Force!

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