Many of you have heard me say “Time flies, whether you’re having fun or not”–and that has certainly been the case since I got back from the NISO Roadmap meeting a few weeks ago. Somehow, with my head down, I missed part 1 of Roy Tennant’s post “The Post-MARC Era, Part 1: “If It’s Televised, It Can’t Be the Revolution”. I’m old enough to remember the 60’s and the call to revolution that Gil Scott-Heron referred to, and in fact had a small part in it–but since it WAS live, I’ve no evidence to present about my participation, you’ll just have to believe me.

On the other hand, I’ve been very involved in the revolution under discussion in the remainder of his post, and there’s quite a bit of video to confirm that, including at the beginning of the NISO Roadmap meeting, where Gordon Dunsire and I tossed a few thought-bombs out before the conversation got going. I think it validates Roy’s point about participation to say that the points we made came up frequently in the subsequent small group sessions, which were not, I believe, on the video feed. What I observed as a participant was that more than a few folks left with some new information and (I hope) some expanded thinking about what the revolution was about; more than they came in with.

Despite the fact that I’ve acquired an undeserved reputation for being a MARC hater, I actually think that we should continue to use the semantics of MARC, and get rid of the ancient encoding standard. It’s in some ways a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde problem we have here, and we’re about to kill the ‘wrong MARC’ in our exasperated search for something simpler, because we can’t seem to get clear about what MARC is and isn’t. The reality is that the MARC semantics represent the accumulated experience in library description from the days of the 3 x 5 card with the hole in the bottom (see Gordon Dunsire’s presentation on that evolution). We’ll clearly need to map the semantics of our legacy data forward, but that doesn’t require that we carry along the ‘classic’ MARC encoding. Consider the old days of the telegraph, where messages were encoded using dots and dashes. Those messages were translated into written English for end users, who didn’t need to know Morse Code to read them. Now we use telephone messaging and email for those kinds of communications, and Morse Code doesn’t figure in there anywhere.

In addition, we need to look past all those rarely used MARC fields, and recognize that they are only irrelevant in an environment that looks very much like our current one, with artisanal catalog records records and top-down standards development. That’s not really what we’re hoping for, as we wrap our minds around what an environment based on linked open data might free us to do differently. When systems were built to process MARC-encoded records, those systems needed to be updated at regular frequencies and all the sharing partners moved in lockstep. It was very expensive to manage the code that was the plumbing of those systems and the specialized fields didn’t add much value. But remember that each of the proposals for change were extensively discussed and formally accepted. I was there for many of those discussions, and recognize that not all of them were accepted, but a considerable number were, and then not always (or often) used after they were included in MARC. Before we label all that effort wasted, and attempt to re-litigate all those decisions, let’s take a closer look at the real costs of moving those forward, in the very different environment we’re envisioning, where the costs are differently distributed and everyone need not move in lockstep. It’s entirely possible that some new communities will find these specialized fields very relevant, even though libraries have not.

Roy quotes from the BibFrame announcement, which states:

“A major focus of the initiative will be to determine a transition path for the MARC 21 exchange format in order to reap the benefits of newer technology while preserving a robust data exchange that has supported resource sharing and cataloging cost savings in recent decades.”

It’s still unclear to me (and I’m not alone here), that we really needed a ‘transition path for the MARC 21 exchange format’. Why can’t we join the rest of the world, which is tootling along quite nicely, thank you, without a bespoke exchange format? We have several useful sets of semantics, built collaboratively over the past half century–why would we need to start over? I generally read the BibFrame discussions, but rarely participate, mostly because it all seems like a reinvention of something that doesn’t need reinventing, and I have no time for that. Whatever the BibFrame people come up with will be mappable to and from the other ongoing bibliographic standards, and whoever wants to use it for exchange can certainly do that, but it will never have the penetration in the library market that MARC has.

It’s also a bit mysterious what ‘preserving a robust data exchange’ actually means. Are we talking about maintaining the current exchange of records using OCLC as the centralized node through which everything passes? What part of that ‘preservation’ is about preserving the income streams inherent in the current distribution model? What is it about linked open data, without a central node, that isn’t robust enough?

Roy ends his post with something that I didn’t expect, but definitely applaud:

“Watching the NISO event over the last two days crystallized for me that I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the Library of Congress or NISO or OCLC (my employer) would come along and save us all. I forgot that for a revolution to occur it can’t come from the seats of the existing power structure. True change only happens when everyone is involved. Those organizations may implement and support what the changes that the revolution produces, but anything dictated from on high will not be a revolution. The revolution will not be piped into our cubicles, ready for easy consumption. The revolution will be live.”

We could start by no longer waiting for LC to deliver an RDF version of MARC 21, unencumbered by 50 year old encoding standards. We already have that, at Yeah, it needs some work, but it’ll get done a lot faster if we can get some help from the 99% of the library world. Give us a holler if you’re interested.

Clearly the revolution is not happening on the BibFrame discussion list, it is happening elsewhere.

By Diane Hillmann, May 14, 2013, 4:34 pm (UTC-5)

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