I’m supposed to be writing a paper (as part of a team and as designated herder) but like most people I have strategies for avoiding such tasks, not necessarily in ways that are entirely useless, just useless in the context of a particular deadline. In this instance, I’ve been listening to an interview of Janet Swan Hill done last summer at ALA Annual and now available on a website called “Gathering our Stories: Developing a National Oral History Program of Retiring/Retired Librarians”.

It’s definitely worth listening to the interview—Janet has been present for many of the important moments in the collective past of most catalogers in this country, and her viewpoint is always worth listening to. This is not to say that I always agree with her—I don’t always, and in particular I don’t agree with her position on RDA. Some of that disagreement arises from the fact that she, like most catalogers (and far too many library administrators), thinks of RDA as the successor to AACR2, the cataloging ‘rules’. I, on the other hand don’t care at all about the rules (there, I’ve said it, are you all happy now?) Instead I see the potential of RDA elsewhere: in the vocabularies specifically, and not incidentally in the revolution they represent in the way we envision our future in metadata. Put more succinctly, it’s not what we say, but how we say it, that makes RDA a big leap forward.

But Houston, we have a problem. Janet defines it very well (quotes from the transcript accompanying the video interview above):

“I suspect that we will go ahead and implement RDA, uh, after I retire. (Laughter) I suspect that many libraries will not implement it because one of the things that proponents of RDA are most eager to say is “Oh, it won’t make that much difference. Your old records will be compatible with the new ones.” So a lot of libraries are going to listen to that and say so why should I implement the thing.”

People, this is a huge problem for us. It’s a REVOLUTION we’re talking about with RDA, not just shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic, and it has little or nothing to do with the rules. And yes, it will cost us something to implement, but the ridiculous testing regime initiated in part because Janet (yes, this Janet) convinced the LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control to include a recommendation that work on RDA be suspended, will not help us determine whether or how we should implement RDA.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. For most of the past few years, as the RDA Vocabularies have been developed, the marketing effort for RDA mounted by the JSC and ALA Publishing has been wholly focused on the guidance text and the RDA Toolkit. Only very recently have the vocabularies and their value been included in the educational efforts that have been mounted nationally and internationally around RDA. [See the ALA Webinars coming up for evidence of change.]. The small, cranky group that developed the vocabularies has gotten even crankier as a result, but there are days when I worry that without better understanding of what RDA represents, our efforts will be too little, too late. As we all wait for the result of the Testing Theater effort (see this previous post for my opinion on that) it seems less and less likely that a clear message will emerge from that confused process, and we definitely need a clear message from those most librarians still consider the leaders of the US library community.

The most recent cause for concern has been the draft ‘PoCo Discussion Paper on RDA Implementation alternatives‘. The beginning portion ended with literally the only sentence in the problem statement portion of the report that I could easily agree with: “In any scenario PCC must adapt to a hybrid environment.” But the question is, will that hybrid environment be facing backward or forward? And the question not asked in the report, but definitely assumed: in that inevitable hybrid environment, what would be the role of an organization such as PCC? The current value of the PCC is built almost entirely on the consensus-based environment of the past, where agreements on basic functionality of cataloging records emerged from a common necessity to provide a standard ‘floor’ below which efforts to rein in costs should not sink. But is that value the same in the future environment? Based on this report, it seems clear that the thinking of the writers of the discussion paper is still deeply embedded in the past, and they see the future as an entirely problematic extension with few opportunities for libraries or users in the change that RDA represents. “Perpetuating the hybrid environment long term will have a negative (and costly) impact on our catalogs and on all areas of bibliographic control.”

It seems very clear from the issues presented in the discussion paper that the negative view of the future stems from the lack of understanding of what will actually need to change to enable libraries to fully implement RDA, and what that change offers us at this critical time for libraries. A real RDA implementation, with the benefits already under extensive discussion in the library community, cannot, CANNOT, actually happen in a MARC environment with the inwardly focused assumptions in evidence in the discussion paper. This is not to say that documentation, training, protecting our legacy in terms of our MARC records and authority files are not rightfully topics that we ought to be discussing, but those discussions need to happen with fuller understanding of the environment we will be working in as we move our focus to the web, and away from our current catalogs. [See Karen Coyle’s TechSource reports here and here for a great start in understanding what we need to do.]

At the end of its paper, the Task Group proposes the following:

“Recognizing that there is a cost associated with choosing a direction that is different from the US national libraries, recognizing that PCC institutions will face a hybrid environment, and recognizing that there is a value to the PCC in member contributions from either rule set, the PCC should formally adopt RDA, regardless of the outcome of the US RDA Test, and the decision of the US national libraries, but it should set no time limit on implementation of RDA by PCC institutions.”

I heartily agree with this conclusion, and I say to the Task Group—tell us how we can help you consider some options that don’t stop with the unsustainable assumption of cramming RDA into MARC. Persuade us that moving to RDA is something we should embrace. Because the route you seem to outline can’t result in success, and libraries need successful paths, as well as correct decisions.

By Diane Hillmann, April 24, 2011, 3:55 pm (UTC-5)

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  1. Comment by Gail Spears

    Yes, RDA will more than likely be those new rules, but I think that this thing called RDA will evolve and gradually you will see a moving away from MARC. LC seems to be thinking of moving slowly away. We should!

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