Sunday, November 06, 2011


Town meeting. 

RDA = Resource Description and Access.  Proposed successor to AACR2. 

This panel was a town meeting of catalogers discussing the still-controversial RDA, and whether it would be implemented wholesale or abandoned.  As this took the form of a debate, the opinions of the presenters was divided, but they did poll the audience and said they’d let us know the results. I haven’t heard yet.  

First, what’s RDA?

Here’s a really good article from Reference and User Services Quarterly (RUSQ) that gives the basics of RDA and some of the implications for reference. ”Resource Description and Access (RDA):An Introduction for Reference Librarians” by Diane Zabel, Editor & Liz Miller, Guest Columnist.


The changes mainly have to do with the data model.  AACR2 is based on:
  • Limited resources determining the method of providing access - catalog cards only provide description and carefully delineated access points. Space and access points were limited resources in the world of the card catalog and early computing, but are not any more. 
  • Linear searching. In a card catalog, there’s a limit to the number of ways you can access an item – author, title, subject.  That’s not true in the current digital world.
  • A lot of the semantic weight of a catalog card is in one place – the chunk of text that makes up the description.  Computers have a really hard time interpreting that because it’s not divided up into discrete data points.  Designed for humans, not computers.  

A few things RDA does differently:
  • Designed with the user, not limited resources, in mind – richer searching, no abbreviations, all the creators listed, etc.
  • Designed for use with the semantic web – data is divided into very small pieces and consists of data points and the relationships between them.  A name, and that name’s relationship to the item being cataloged, for instance. The point of the semantic web is that with the discrete data points and the relationships, the computer can understand the data better and create meaningful data blocks without specific instructions.  The semantic web is not here yet, but it’s coming.
  • It’s a lot more flexible than AACR2.  AACR2 is still based on catalog cards, RDA is not.  RDA is based on a digital environment.

RDA has been a long time in development. The original meeting of what became the Joint Steering Committee for the Development of RDA  where RDA was proposed was in 1997, and we’re at a conditional endpoint.  We’re just coming off of an extensive testing program, where a number of libraries all over the country (including MNHS) tried RDA on a limited corpus of documents in real-life conditions. The final decision is that RDA will be implemented by the three national libraries – LC, National Agricultural Library, and the National Library of Medicine - not before Jan 2013, as long as certain conditions are met. Each library will need to decide whether to implement it or not. 

Most of the members of the MLA panel liked RDA, at least in theory.  They agreed that AACR2 has seen its day, and we can’t keep going on as we have been. The main issues the panelists had with RDA had to do with cost. Whether they were AOK or RDA was determined by if they thought the pros outweighed the cons.  Here are some of the points they made, pro and con.

  • Pro: RDA is designed to work with AACR2, and theoretically, everything won’t have to be recataloged. 
  • Pro: There is a team working on revising MARC.  Con: MARC is a legacy system, as far as the non-library world is concerned, and therefore a huge stumbling block. One of the panelists expressed grave doubt that RDA would work in any meaningful way with MARC.  MARC is a flat, rigid system designed to work with the computer technology of the late 60’s.  RDA does things the designers of MARC might have dreamed of. The panelist didn’t think MARC in any form would be sufficient – the basic construct is inadequate.  We need a whole new supporting software structure, and that means that not only would a new system have to be designed and implemented, but all records would have to be recoded, largely by hand.  MARC still has a lot of data in unwieldy chunks – physical description is all in one field, for instance – height, pagination, illustration, etc, and a computer would have great difficulty in picking it apart with any accuracy. 
  • Pro: RDA is based on XML, and is designed for interoperability and data sharing outside the library world. Under AACR2 and MARC, libraries have all this great data that no one else can import in any usable fashion, and vice versa. A specific example given was that libraries might be able to import data directly from publishers so as to cut down drastically on cataloging time. 
  • Con:  Current ILS systems wouldn’t be able to implement RDA to anything close to its full potential.  While RDA’s interoperability would mean ILSs would be far less specialized and difficult to build, the initial changeover would be expensive.
  • Con: The expense of training
  • Con: The extra expense of the RDA Toolkit, which libraries would need in addition many of the cataloging services they use now.
Melissa @ Central.

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