There’s nothing quite so humbling as reading something one wrote some time ago, particularly if the ideas expressed are, if not quite so old as oneself, at least betray an expired shelf life. This is particularly a problem when the item in question “looks” new, e.g., is recently “published.” These uncomfortable thoughts arose this week because the long-planned festschrift for my late colleague, Tom Turner, was released last week.
Metadata and Digital Collections: a Festschrift in honor of Tom Turner. Edited by Elaine Westbrooks, Associate Dean of University Libraries at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Keith Jenkins, GIS/Geospatial Applications Librarian at Cornell University’s Albert R. Mann Library. Ithaca, New York, USA: Cornell University Library, 2009.
And my contribution, “Looking back—looking forward: reflections of a transitional librarian” is the last one on the table of contents.
Tom has been gone for about six years now, and in fact “Metadata in Practice,” published in 2004 (and still selling pretty well, thank you very much!) was dedicated to Tom, who was something of a missing link between me and my co-editor, Elaine Westbrooks. To explain that odd notion: for a time during my tenure at Cornell—at the beginning of the Age of Metadata—Tom was the only other person who understood what I was talking about when I tried to discuss metadata. Then Elaine came along, to take over Tom’s responsibilities when he became ill. When Tom unfortunately left us, I decided to become something of a mentor to Elaine, as Tom had been. I never asked her whether she wanted one, mind you, just noticed that she was smart and understood deadlines, and asked her to be co-editor of the book. It certainly worked out for me, especially when I broke my right arm while we were still setting up the book and the contract … but that’s another story. I’m not sure all the reasons why the release of the festschrift took so long, but the result was that something I wrote eons ago (in Internet time) is now “just out.” I’m not assigning blame, mind you—I’m hardly one to cast the first stone—but it seemed like a good idea to point out where my thinking has moved on beyond that article and where the issues I brought up then still have legs.
The issue that still speaks loudest (at least to me) is the one about standards maintenance. The bald fact is, in 2005, when I wrote most of the article that appears in the festschrift, I wasn’t yet convinced that MARC was dead, and I was looking at the issue of how standards were maintained primarily in the context of Dublin Core. Most of my experience with “process” in that context had been on MARBI, and in fact MARBI was a direct progenitor to the Dublin Core Usage Board, on which body I served until last fall. In the festschrift article, I take a few potshots at MODS (as is my usual habit) primarily because, at the time, the maintenance process for MODS consisted of one mailing list dominated by XML geeks. The MODS squad has wised up since then, and has set up a maintenance group with some credibility, but some of the damage has been done and can’t easily be undone. (And if you think I’m picking unfairly on MODS, ask me about DC Source).
Process is not an insignificant issue in the life of a would-be standard, and it is indeed staring us in the face yet again, in the guise of RDA. There has been a bit of conversation on the RDA-L list recently, precipitated by the announcement that Tom Delsey will be stepping down as Editor once RDA is officially released. So the question was, “what’s the plan for maintenance?,” and the answer given by Marg Stewart was just the sort of answer that was intended to reassure, but certainly didn’t reassure me: “The JSC will revert to its process of handling updates to RDA as it had for AACR2. Namely, the update process will be handled by the JSC itself.”
Why am I not reassured? I can’t help looking back at the process of creating RDA in the first place. In the beginning, there was the closed room with the JSC working under the cone of silence. Then, after rumblings from the field, drafts were released only to specific people in selected organizations who then became gatekeepers for their communities. Then when that didn’t work very well, drafts were released publicly. But still, the same small group made the decisions, managed the discussion, and held their meetings essentially behind closed doors, with decisions handed down from on high in a process that seemed anachronistic at best and elitist at worst. As another un-reassured commentator noted:
“And the report of the last JSC meeting shows us, that we have created a process which is so huge, that we couldn’t manage it: only a third part of the suggestions could be discussed. In spite of modern means of communication, it’s not sure, that we are able to handle a world wide process for developing a cataloging code.”
I think we need to look at the process of updating and maintaining RDA anew, recognizing that the process that created the text was problematic at many levels, certainly overly expensive, and in this age of social networking and virtual communities, unnecessarily limited in its reach. There’s also the issue that the work done to create the vocabularies and schemas is now essential to RDA, and there needs to be a process that updates those vocabularies, and provides for their rational expansion (into full vocabularies, not just term lists) as well as their extension (with new terms and more appropriate participation). What the community can ill afford is a continuation of JSC as the Marie Antoinette of organizations, perfecting their embroidery skills while the revolution continues on outside the gates of their artificial world. The current process is ponderous, exclusionary, and ensures that the “quality control” measures operate primarily as a bottleneck, without meeting the overall goals of providing consistency and utility.
What might we like to see in an RDA update process going forward? To start that conversation, let me suggest the following requirements:
1. The process must include explicit ways for a broader array of libraries to participate, not just the Anglo-American national libraries and library societies. Including these libraries only in the review process is insufficient and condescending.
2. The process must be more nimble and lightweight, using the community based tools that enable all of us to operate as a virtual community, instead of relying on expensive face-to-face meetings in closed rooms and decision-making based only on formal proposals. The NSDL Registry will be adding capability that will allow simple threaded discussions at a granular level (by property or term), which, with appropriate management, could provide a much better way to flesh out and expand the current vocabularies. This sort of capability is essential at all levels of a newly envisioned maintenance process.
3. The process must not be based primarily on the elevation of “control” as the first principle. The assumption that seems to be behind the assertions by JSC that they must be the center of the process is that this is the only one way to assure that the textual guidance and the vocabularies grow intelligently. This assumes the re-creation of the AACR2 update process with the same cumbersome, centralized methods, and the multi-year time lines for change. To my mind, this is the most Marie Antoinette-ish notion of all, an absolute denial of reality.
Can we finally look at what worked and didn’t with the RDA development process, at what the tools available to us provide to meet our needs for broad participation and quality control, and design something that makes more sense? We cannot just keep maintaining the powdered wigs and the formal dancing in the face of the revolution happening outside our gates.