… the more they stay the same.” How many times has each of us taken comfort in that phrase (and no, I’m not going to cite the French version or the source—it will just distract me from my main purpose!) I found the phrase ringing like a large bell right next to my head as I listened to the speeches from the 2010 ALISE Conference. The three presentations were largely about the last big transition for library cataloging: the AACR2 implementation, which dominated libraryland for many years prior to (and after) the January 1981 switchover. I remember those days well, as I was a newly minted librarian at the time, who had learned cataloging not via cataloging courses (I never took any in library school), but instead via instruction by a number of supervisors/trainers, some very good, others absolutely awful. I remember particularly when I was still a paraprofessional (and library student) showing my supervisor (the head of cataloging in the library I was working in) the place in the “red books” where free-floating subdivisions were described. She knew nothing about them …

But back to the speeches. Most interesting to me was the speech by Michael Gorman, editor of AACR2 and definitely the man who knows where the bodies are (still) buried. I don’t always agree with Gorman, but he is one of the most interesting people you could listen to on this subject, and he outdoes himself in this presentation. As one who’s been more seriously involved in the current transition (at least we hope that’s what it will be), I was interested (and somewhat depressed, to be honest) to hear that some of the same things that were wrong with AACR2 (according to Gorman, and me) are still wrong with the RDA rules.

But even if you don’t care anything about that, listen to it for the history of cataloging rules, from the point of view of the ultimate insider. A flavor of Gorman’s speech below (from a lightly edited transcript available from the same page as the speeches):

“And what happened was the 1949 rules were just completely disregarded in outside North America. The 1950 Library of Congress rules for descriptive cataloging, similarly, were, basically instructions on how to construct a Library of Congress card. Which is what cataloging aimed at in this country for many years. And there was [by] the early 60s, there was clearly a need for a new code. The British needed something that was‐ that actually didn’t just post‐date the invention of flight. (laughter) And the Americans needed a kind of coherent standard. At the same time, things like MARC were brewing. OCLC was brewing. … And there was a real pressure for standardization, both internally within the countries involved, but, I think even more importantly, externally. Those of you as old as I am might remember that there were, for example, floods of books coming from South Asia into American libraries by virtue of various arrangements and treaties. And what was needed was some kind of standard cataloging data for these things. The Library of Congress was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the cataloging output required by the libraries of the United States. So there is automation, there is pressure for standardization, and so on.”

So how familiar is that? Change in cataloging rules driven by changes in technology? [Ding]

Gorman goes on to describe the three most “grievous errors” made in the run up to AACR2:

“One was that, not to involve Seymour Lubetzky, who was still at that time perfectly active. In fact he lived for many more years after that. And I can tell you I attended his hundredth birthday celebration and I’ve had far less incisive conversations with people who are fifty. So, he could’ve easily participated in it and would’ve brought, I think, an air of authority to it because by that time everyone recognized that Lubetzky was right. You needed a code that embodied principles. And you could work out the details in the cases if you could deduce from those principles.

“The second thing‐ the second grievous error, was pretending that this new code was a revision of the 1967 code. It was nothing of the sort. It was completely new code on new principles, organized in a completely new way. Had they had the‐ and I say ‘they’ because I was just a humble editor, you know the policies were taken‐ you might think they were taken by the Joint Steering Committee‐ they were not. They were taken in the National Libraries. The National Libraries determined that the profession would not stomach an entirely new code a decade after they’d already adapted to the previous one. So you had to pretend that this was a revision of it. Had they had the nerve to say‐ had they had the wisdom to foresee there was going to be a fuss anyway, so you might as well have a big fuss about something worth fussing about‐ they would have called it the New Anglo‐American Cataloging Rules, or something of that nature. … But, we probably wouldn’t be here because what we’d be discussing would be something like the third edition or the fourth edition of the New Anglo‐American Cataloging Rules, or the New Descriptive Cataloging Rules. Call it whatever you want. Call it George. (laughter) So we’d be discussing George IV, there wouldn’t be anything like the fuss, there wouldn’t be anything like the need by the people who are currently doing the RDA to come up with new contrivances. To come up with something quote “completely different.”

“And the third big mistake was to allow conservative, I mean, small c, interests to dictate that new code would contain substantial chunks of the old practice. What would be much better would be to have a completely stripped down code that just gave principles. How you arrived at access points, what the description is, and so on. And then people interested in that kind of thing could produce manuals on how to catalog treaties using that, how to catalog liturgical works. And I think that that substantially weakened what AACR2 could have been because it sort of delegitimized the enterprise. So here we’ve got a structure that’s based on principle from the other hand we’re going into page after page after page of how to catalog the Bible, how to do all kinds of esoteric things. And so there we were. It came out in 1978. There was huge pressure from the Association of Research Libraries who’d heard that this was the downfall of Western civilization as we know it, was going to cost them fortunes, was going to blow up everything. I remember Lucia Rather giving a talk that brought tears to everyone in the room about how difficult it was to change a single heading in the Library of Congress card catalog, it involved, you know, boatloads of Egyptian slaves carrying cards from one building to another, and so on. (laughter) But anyway, so there was this terrible panic in the air‐ what are we going to do, how are we going to accommodate this dreadful thing? Not recognizing that the reason why it was going to be a big change was because their catalogs didn’t really work very well and weren’t user friendly, weren’t anything, you know. They were just a mess. Particularly in the card form. And particularly, if you worked as I did shortly after at a place like the University of Illinois that had a nine million card catalog in, you know, the ark of the catalog in the center of the library, this ecclesiastical surroundings with these nine million cards, where a misfiled card was lost for eternity. (laughter) You would never see it again. So, there was this huge fuss.”

[Ding, ding, DING]

And there’s more: about LC and ARL determining to postpone implementation for a year, while the Brits and others around the world started using the new code right away. [Ding]

Janet Swan Hill, the second speaker, wandered around a bit but had some interesting points about training:

“Something that we did right with the implementation of AACR2 was to mount a tremendous training effort. There were very large regional training institutes and a lot of people traveled to them and they spent a couple days in a hotel, and a couple of days in seminars learning and learning about the new rules. There were also hundreds and hundreds of lesser, smaller institutes scattered all around the country. And I know that today a lot of people are very likely to think that we don’t need the same extent of regional institutes that online training, and webinars, and self‐directed training of various kinds will do just as well. And that administrators and other people who are really worried about money are likely to balk at the expense of sending a lot of people off to regional institutes and seminars and they will be very eager to prefer computer‐based training on the grounds of money alone. And while online instruction and computer‐based training has improved a very great deal in the last decade, I would like to point out a few things in favor of face‐to‐face encounters. Of the shared experience and the camaraderie that arises from attendance at those training institutes and attendance at the bar afterwards. And to express, therefore, some concern about relying too heavily on remote, one‐by‐one personally isolated training methods that you get when you rely too heavily on computer‐based instruction.”

In fact I attended one of those institutes, and was there exposed for the first time to cataloging history and theory, filling in all those empty spaces from a library education that lacked those subjects. I gained a good bit of confidence from those, and enjoyed them thoroughly, for some of the reasons Janet cites. But in this day and age, the likelihood of repeating that huge effort, particularly since there will be no generally agreed date of implementation, is infinitesimal. Not with library budgets in the state they’re in at the moment.

And I would say that I think what we need more than training is decent tools, not necessarily for the rules themselves (I think RDA Online will do that fairly well, for a price), but to create the data, and start sharing it.

Arlene Taylor was the last speaker, and towards the end of her presentation she quoted from her mentor Kathryn Henderson:

“It was a valuable experience to have been present in the last four years of code revision in the 1960s. I learned much about the politics of code revision. I can well remember revision members from large institutions like Yale standing up and saying, “We will not change our catalogs to the new forms.” Of course, that was in the days of card catalogs. But I don’t know if it’s really any easier to change them today. Change always comes hard. From what I hear, politics is still the driving force.”

[DING, DING, DING]

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By Diane Hillmann, April 21, 2010, 6:55 pm (UTC-5)

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Currently 4 comments

  1. Comment by Kevin M. Randall

    Thank you for this article, Diane! And yes, I agree, it’s kind of depressing. Gorman stated exactly some of the things I’ve been saying for a few years:

    1) The most important thing RDA needs (and it currently lacks) is a statement of the principles behind each group of elements. Why is this element here? What is it intended to be used for? Knowing the answers to those questions would make a lot of the verbiage (and excessive examples) in RDA unnecessary, and the cataloger would have a much easier time applying the guidelines in unfamiliar situations. As it is currently written, RDA consists only of specific rules on supplying data for the elements, and one can only deduce the underlying principles for those elements by studying the rules.

    2) The RDA project really suffered because of the crazy “We have to make an all-new code but we can’t really change how we’re cataloging stuff” directive they were operating under. But at least the JSC has been keeping track of the things that people really do want to change, so they can be worked on after initial publication. At the same time, I’m just hoping that leaving those changes for later didn’t result in creating a structure that will make it harder to incorporate those changes.

    On a personal note, it was nice to see someone quote Kathie Henderson, who was my advisor and cataloging teacher at Illinois. I consider myself to be very fortunate to have had that experience, and will look back on those days fondly the rest of my life.

  2. Comment by Shawne Miksa

    Oh come on! Really?! We’ve come a long way, baby.

  3. Comment by Carol Seiler

    DING! Exactly what I heard/thought when listening to the ALISE conference (that and I’d love to be in a room chatting with these folk).
    Perhaps the answer is for the vendors to create The format/standard that works. Maybe if we were commerically driven we’d do it. Imagine a system where I don’t have to know a MARC tag or indicators or subfield codes but just what information to put – and the system would take my input and massage it to what is needed for viewing/searching.
    Oh! And let’s imagine an authority file that WORKS like it should (referencing, directing, etc. not just ‘this is the way to spell/state X name’)
    Have you seen what some in the trenches are doing to try to accomodate the user needs and use the current tools? Joining up electronic and print and audio into one big record (totally illegally) so the user can get what is desired/needed? Trying, to the best of their abilities, to thwart the current hard structure to get what is wanted?
    Let’s go build a system that does it, shall we? I’m game (although my skills are extremely limited) and willing to learn.

  4. Comment by Jonathan Rochkind

    Wow. Something about this is so depressing.

    Gorman’s words could almost exactly transcribed apply to AACR2 and RDA instead of AACR and AACR2 as he was speaking.

    What’s depressing is that 30 years (!) later, still entirely true, “Not recognizing that the reason why it was going to be a big change was because their catalogs didn’t really work very well and weren’t user friendly, weren’t anything, you know. They were just a mess.”

    I am actually somewhat surprised to discover that things were in pretty much exactly the same state 30 years ago.

    Are we wrong to be optimistic that it is even possible to do cataloging usefully?

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