While checking email during a moment of inattention at the recent ALA Midwinter meeting in Atlanta, I spotted an announcement of the new NISO publication “Understanding Metadata”, by Jenn Riley. It was a surprise, I’d not known that it was in preparation, but I hoped that such a primer would be helpful in raising the level of understanding around metadata in the general library community.

So I downloaded the publication, and as is my wont, started with the Table of Contents to get a sense of what was being covered. To my absolute astonishment, neither the list of Notable Metadata Languages: Examples in Broad Use nor the one of Notable Metadata Languages: Examples from the Cultural Heritage Sector included RDA: Resource Description and Access. In disbelief, I searched the document for “RDA” and found only a footnote describing RDA as the successor to AACR2 and categorized as a ‘content standard’. I then tried searching for “FRBR”, and there was nothing at all to be found.

Full disclosure: I’m part of the RDA Development Team and have worked on the RDA Vocabularies since late 2007, after the RDA group and DCMI got together to build them. Granted, it took until January 2014 to publish them formally and bring up the RDA Registry, but we were not hiding under a rock for those years.

There’s a long trail of articles and blog posts documenting the trajectory of RDA (only some of them with my name on them), so it’s inexplicable to me how the author of this primer, the estimable Jenn Riley, could still subscribe to the notion that RDA is all about instructions for populating element sets. That was certainly true before 2008, but I know Jenn has not been hiding under a rock, either. Particularly when efforts outside North America are considered, RDA is a force to be reckoned with in the metadata space, and interest in Europe and other places outside of North America is enthusiastic and growing.

None of the IFLA standards show up in this publication either, which suggests a somewhat US-centric view–inexplicable to me given the increasing internationalization of metadata efforts overall. Several of those missing IFLA standards, including FRBR, are being republished after extensive reviews, and at least in RDA-land, the IFLA Library Reference Model (LRM) is a significant topic of conversation where library metadata people hang out.

Then I checked out Jenn’s wonderful image categorizing metadata standards “Seeing Standards: A Visualization of the Metadata Universe”, and noted that it also included RDA as a content standard and successor to AACR2. Then I saw that the image was copyrighted 2009-2010, and the most obvious answer for the gap became clearer. [I should note that I have a large poster sized version of the image, which I had printed up so I could study the image better, back when I was doing more teaching]. I was pretty relieved by this realization, to be honest, but it occurred to me that the revolutionary change represented by the RDA Vocabularies seems to have been overlooked by Jenn (and probably others) who think they know what RDA is, but haven’t looked at it lately (or at least since 2008, when the vocabularies began to appear in the Open Metadata Registry). I guess as one involved in metadata standards for well over 3 decades, it’s been my experience that with few exceptions, metadata standards change continually, and the assumption that they are fixed in time and space is a dangerous one.

That said, there is much to be applauded in this primer. The explanation of storage and sharing is an excellent overview, clear and well illustrated. It was good to see a section covering standardization issues, but I would argue with this statement in the ‘Standardization’ section: “Formal standardization is not the norm for most RDF vocabularies; instead, communities tend to build vocabularies that are useful to them, then promote their use through a combination of documentation and open sharing of data that uses these vocabularies.” This statement absolutely does not apply to RDA, nor to the majority of the examples listed in Notable Metadata Languages: Examples in Broad Use. But in a sense it explains the emphasis on XML that seemed a bit out of date as I first read through the document

I would also argue with the following statement in the Controlled Vocabularies section: “Those developed and maintained by the cultural heritage community, such as LCSH, tend to be among the most robust controlled vocabularies in common use.” I’m not sure what definition of ‘robust’ is being used here, but I posted on Metadata Matters in 2013 about the significant problems with LCSH in http://id.loc.gov, which i think makes a strong argument against the ‘robustness’ of the LCSH services. (http://managemetadata.com/blog/2013/07/23/versions-and-services-pt-2/). Not much has changed since that post, sadly.

I guess, on the whole, I’d have to say I’m disappointed with this primer, despite some strong sections. Although I’m no fan of peer review, it strikes me that this is one situation where it might have been useful.

By Diane Hillmann, March 1, 2017, 3:12 pm (UTC-5)

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