From the catalogs of babes

{March 8, 2010}   RDA: why it won’t work

 With the release of RDA, people on every blog and listserv and Twitter feed are debating its merits. But I’ll tell you right now: RDA is not going to work. Why?

 1. It’s not easy.

2. It’s not free.

You can debate it up, down and sideways, but honestly, it’s as simple as that. Clay Shirky (in Here Comes Everybody) says, “When an activity becomes more expensive, either in direct costs or increased hassle, people do less of it.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: cataloging is hard. When it’s hard to do things right, people will get it wrong. Through no fault of their own. Who can blame the cataloger who applies subject headings incorrectly when there are literally 4 volumes of instructions, many of which have different rules and guidelines for each different subject? Who can blame someone for misremembering if a colon or a semi-colon precedes the 300b field? Who can blame a person for entering the title of a work in title case, rather than lower case (except for the first word and proper nouns), especially when the former is a national community standard taught in elementary education. And who can blame someone for not following these outdated standards because technology makes them no longer applicable or necessary?

This needs to change. It’s impacting our ability to offer quality services and access to materials.  We need to make it easy to do things well.

 I understand how complicated and complex some aspects of cataloging can be. But I don’t think “complex” necessarily has to equal “difficult.” I think there are ways we can structure software and cataloging interfaces to work for us rather than against us. When I first heard of RDA and it’s requisite electronic interface, I had envisioned it to be something along the lines of a “choose your own adventure,” or an electronic flow chart, where answering questions about the resource in hand would lead to the complete, automated creation of a catalog record.

I understand the use of consistency and standards, and how previously this was achievable solely through human application. But that’s no longer the case–many of these outdated standards can be automated, and in turn, more consistent than applications prone to human error. And if the profession values such standards, and truly wants everyone and every library to adhere to and meet those standards in order to create more interoperability, those standards not only ned to be easy to implement, they need to be freely accessible.

Many librarians are balking at the cost of implementing RDA, I think rightfully so, although not for the same reasons. I’m not bitching about it because it’s unaffordable for smaller libraries, or because it’s a subscription rather than a one-time printed book cost (although I think those are valid points). I’m bitching because putting a dollar amount on something, now matter how low it is, will stop people from using something, especially if there’s a free alternative. In this case, I see the free alternative as ‘ignoring rules altogether and/or making you your own standards.’ Requiring a price makes adhering to standards–a key value-added service of libraries and librarians–inaccessible. Which is pretty ironic, considering that libraries are supposed to be all about access. We’re all proactive about offering access to our patrons, but we can’t extend that same philosophy to ourselves, to help us do a better job??

The more depth and complexity in cataloging standards, the more we need to make it as easy as possible for catalogers to apply these standards. More work will get done (and done correctly!), more tasks delegated, turn-around times improved, access increased–all of which benefit not only the cataloger and other library staff, but in turn the patron, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

Help us, ALA. Give us better, faster, easier, more efficient ways to do our jobs so that we can, in turn, make our patron’s information experiences better, faster, and more efficient. If you can’t or won’t help us, who will?

carol says:


Dale says:

Good post. I would say there is a meta-argument here, as well. RDA will not work if those new to the profession such as yourself look at it and find it flawed and out of touch. The Googles et al. of the information world are making us increasingly irrelevant with crappy but powerful metadata (data quantity + powerful computing that neutralizes flaws = billions of users), and we cook up another complex and expensive tool to impose upon ourselves. Great strategy. Entities such as ALA and OCLC mean well, but they were born of a previous era and are having a hard time giving up bad habits.

Booker says:

> I had envisioned it to be something along the lines of a “choose your
> own adventure,” or an electronic flow chart, where answering questions
> about the resource in hand would lead to the complete, automated
> creation of a catalog record.

So you want a wizard that builds the complexity into the back end, so complex does not have to be the same as difficult — so the catalogers who use the system can devote their attention to the materials they’re working with rather than the system to which they have to adapt. I agree completely with that goal. I wonder, though, about the development costs for establishing and maintaining/updating that wizard. It has to be paid for somehow. If not by subscribers, then by whom?

ALA might be able to fund it, if that were the goal. But instead, the goal currently appears to be to set up a steady revenue stream — and don’t ever be fooled into thinking that not-for-profits don’t value that every bit as much as profit-oriented businesses do. At a minimum they also have their costs to cover, and the members never seem to want to hear about dues increasing. So I’m not sure ALA is the right source of the help you’re seeking.

I think the first argument (it’s not easy) is less valid then the second (it’s not free). The reality that cataloging tries to model is inherently complex, so you need a tradeoff between simplification and exactness. Of course you can argue whether RDA provides a good tradeoff or rather introduces more complexity.

But if cataloging rules are not free, you cannot even apply them or try to build tools that support people in cataloging. Librarians regularly underestimate the power of automation. Automation also has its problems but if you do it right it has the power to hide a lot of complexity.

Booker wrote: “It has to be paid for somehow. If not by subscribers, then by whom?”. The whole infrastructure of the Web is based on Open Source software that was build by people who just started to simplify their own tasks by automation. The largest encyclopaedia in human history has been created in less then 10 years all by volunteers. It’s all possible by the power of sharing.

Do do so you should put every cataloging rules, every bibliographic data and every piece of software that is used in cataloging freely on the Web. The “electronic flow chart, where answering questions about the resource in hand would lead to the complete, automated creation of a catalog record” is possible and you do not even have to pay for it. You only need to contribute your piece of the puzzle and it will grow. It will not grow in every direction you planned (you need to give up control) but it will improve as long as people share, use and improve the system.

I am not sure what role RDA will play in the future of cataloging and it does not even matter to me. In the end the most used *open* system will succeed. At the moment BibTeX and the Bibliographic Ontology – which include very little rules, are the most used open systems, so they will be used more, no matter how elaborated RDA will be.

Cataloging rules are nothing perpetual – if they do not open, they may go the same way like printed encyclopaedias when Wikipedia arose.

carol says:

I like the choose-your-own adventure idea. I’d like to see a format/standards integrated tool. Imagine! The system automatically inputs the proper abbreviations (or full terms if we RDA it) and all I do is choose it … or put it in the right field. Oh the places we could go!

Ivy says:

@ Dale:

Good meta-points, and not something I’d directly considered. I confess part of me hopes people do view it as flawed and out of touch, simply to break the inertia we seem to be trapped in, so that some sort of improvement, whatever it ends up being, can happen.


I love love love the open source model for catalog rules and standards. I know that James Weinheimer started a wiki-model site for cataloging standards:
I love the idea but I have mixed feelings about remaining so aligned with AACR2r.

Saskia says:

I think we need to think differently about what bibliographic description will be, especially with hierarchies breaking down, librarians no longer being the only ones providing bibliographic data, and the emergence of “ubiquitous cataloging” (LibraryThing, iTunes …). User participation so far has focused primarily on content (tagging), but will users also be involved in formal description in the future? We are not the only keepers of bibliographic information anymore, but RDA seems to want to perpetuate that status quo. Library cataloging isn’t an island, so why not be more open-minded and take input from other communities involved with bibliographic information? Why stick to the overly complex rules most of which aren’t even necessary for “serious” academic research? Why look down on Amazon etc. when in fact they tend to speak to users more through their “simplicity” than we do through our complexity? Cataloging is going through a paradigm shift and RDA is only one aspect in this changing landscape.

Librarians are not the only ones providing bibliographic data because they cannot cover everything (for instance article metadata has long been outsourced), because they just don’t share (see OCLC) and because their cataloging systems are stuck (if it all were open source you could better fix it). For instance FRBR was developed long ago but not adopted so the best source of work-level metadata is: LibraryThing (and all managed by volunteers).

When cataloging is done more distributed cataloging rules like RDA become less relevant. A rule is irrelevant if it is not applied and checked. In open collaboration you can influence little with rules but with software and data. The rules which are encoded in software and implicitely show up in available data will remain. The rules that don’t have such impact will be ignored.

I would really like to know which part of existing cataloging rules do have an impact of available bibliographic data. I bet that AACR, RDA etc. could be cut down because they are not followed anyway.

Ivy, you’re not the only one who thinks this. Over at Celeripedean, Jen quotes Elaine Sanchez:

“We should keep AACR2 alive and evolving, regardless of RDA implementation. RDA may well come, FRBR may well be implemented in online catalog displays, and cataloging on the Semantic Web may arrive, too; but we live now, we catalog now, we have budget problems now, we have administrators who want cataloging production to continue, now. We don’t live in the future, and we don’t live in theory …”

(Link at

[…] und -Ontologien. Das ist zwar leichter gesagt als getan, aber ich bin mir sicher, dass es schneller passiert als dass RDA als offizielles Regelwerk “Semantic Web” in die Kataloge bringt. Darüber hinaus muss […]

Bryan Campbell says:

This choose your own adventure idea reminds me the program AACR2Expert that comes with the book “Using the new AACR2 : an expert systems approach to choice of access points” (see Based on one’s answers to the questions, the program points you to the appropriate rule in AACR2 to apply for choosing access points. Check it out some time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: