A few years ago, I wrote an article for a collection of writings in honor of Tom Turner, a talented metadata librarian at Cornell who sadly died too young. That article, “Looking back—looking forward: reflections of a transitional librarian” (Metadata and Digital Collections: Festschrift in honor of Tom Turner), although it meanders around a bit (she said after reading it over for the first time in a couple of years) is a pretty good view of where my head has been these past couple of decades. A lot has happened, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been in the thick of a lot of it.

One question that occasionally comes up is about what was in that kool-aid I drank that caused me to jump ship from many of the traditional library ways of thinking to something quite different. There’s not a simple answer to that. It was a combination of things, certainly, but perhaps best expressed towards the end of the article:

“In October of 2004, I attended a panel presentation where three experts were asked to inform library practitioners by providing “evaluation” information about a large Dublin Core-based metadata repository. It was, in a small way, yet another version of the blind men and the elephant. The first presenter provided large numbers of tables giving simple numeric tallies of elements used in the repository, with no more analysis than a relational database might reveal in ten minutes. The second provided results of a research project where users were carefully observed and questioned about what information they used when making decisions about what they were given in search results—i.e. useful data, and a good start on determining the usefulness of metadata, but with no attention paid to the metadata that was used behind the scenes, well before any user display was generated. The third presenter, a young computer scientist, relied almost entirely on tools developed for textual indexing, and, concluding that the diversity of the metadata was a problem, suggested that the leaders of the project should insist that all data providers follow stricter standards.

These presentations seemed sadly reflective of most attempts to approach the problems of creating and sharing metadata in the world beyond MARC. Traditional libraries built a strong culture of metadata sharing and an enormous shared investment in training and documentation around the MARC standard. The MARC development process codified the body of knowledge and practice that supported this culture of sharing and collaboration, building, in the process, a community of metadata experts who took their expertise into a number of specialized domains. We clearly are now at a critical juncture. Moving forward in both realms, traditional and “new” metadata requires that we understand clearly where we have been and what has been the basis for our past success. To do that we need much better research and evaluation of our legacy and current models, a clearer articulation of short term and long term goals, and a strategy for attaining those goals that is openly endorsed and supported by stakeholders in the library community.”

Looking back, I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint the moment when we stopped thinking clearly about the road ahead, but until very recently, it sure looked like we had. It was probably somewhere around the time when it seemed like RDA would never be finished in our lifetimes, and that even if finished, would be too much like AACR2 to even consider implementing. Somewhere around that time, CC:DA drafted a ‘no-confidence’ memo to the JSC, and I showed Don Chatham (ALA Publishing) a late draft of it while he was at the DC-2006 conference in Mexico. At that meeting, a few of us suggested to Don that it might be a good idea to have the JSC get together with DCMI and see what could be done, which ended up being the ‘London Meeting’ of five years ago that changed the conversation significantly. This spring a five year anniversary celebration was held in London, where a big part of the discussion was about just how big that impact was, in terms of where the library community is today. As usual, nothing like a good crisis to get things moving.

It will be no surprise to readers of this blog, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking and talking about what comes next, and some of the focus of that question, particularly lately, has to do with MARC. A big part of the problem of answering that “what’s next?” question is that we tend to use ‘MARC’ to refer not just to the specification but as a stand-in for traditional practices and library standards as a whole, and this muddies the conversation considerably. What too often happens is that the ‘good stuff’ of MARC, the semantics that represent years of debate about use cases and descriptive issues, doesn’t get separately, or properly, discussed. Those semantics ought really to be seen as a distillation of all those things we know about bibliographic description, tested by time and generations of catalogers, and very much worth retaining. How we express those semantics needs to be updated, for sure (many are already expressed in the RDA vocabularies), but differentiating between baby and bathwater is clearly a necessary part of moving ahead.

One of the things about the library community that few outsiders understand is the extent to which “the library community” has developed a culture of collaboration–to the extent I’ve never seen anywhere else. Librarians collectively build and contribute bibliographic and name authority records, subject and classification proposals, participate (passionately) in endless debates about interpretation of rules and policies, and most remarkably–write this stuff up and share it extensively, asking for comments (and most often getting them). Participating in other communities after having been part of the one built by librarians is very often a frustrating thing–my expectations of participation are clearly too high.

A great example of how this works is NACO (Name Authority Cooperative Project), for those who participate in building and maintaining good authority records. In my days as Authorities Librarian at Cornell, I helped increase Cornell’s participation in the program by a significant amount, an accomplishment of which I’m still quite proud. Recently I noted a new post to the RDA-L list about some PCC (Program on Cooperative Cataloging) committee work around authority records:

“The PCC Acceptable Headings Implementation Task Group (PCCAHITG) has successfully tested the programming code for Phase 1 in preparation for the LC/PCC Phased Implementation of RDA as described in the document entitled “The phased conversion of the LC/NACO Authority File to RDA” found at the Task Group’s page

The activities of this group display some of the important characteristics of successful community activity: the goals are clearly stated, and timelines spelled out; assumptions are tested and results analysed; conclusions and recommendations are written, explained and exposed for comment. This particular activity is noteworthy because it is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and a group of PCC member institutions, and is Phase 1 of a set of planned activities designed to move cooperatively built and maintained authority data into compliance with RDA.

As for the old broads? I was recently reminded of this wonderful quote from Bette Davis: “If you want a thing well done, get a couple of old broads to do it.” So true, so true …

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By Diane Hillmann, August 5, 2012, 12:56 pm (UTC-5)

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