Posted on September 2nd, 2011 10 commentsShifting focus from information carriers back to information
Library catalogues have traditionally been used to describe and register books and journals and other physical objects that together constitute the holdings of a library. In an integrated library system (ILS), the public catalogue is combined with acquisition and circulation modules to administer the purchases of book copies and journal subscriptions on one side, and the loans to customers on the other side. The “I” for “Integrated” in ILS stands for an internal integration of traditional library workflows. Integration from a back end view, not from a customer perspective.
Because of the very nature of such a catalogue, namely the description of physical objects and the administration of processing them, there are no explicit relations between the different editions and translations of the same book, nor are there descriptions of individual journal articles. If you do a search on a specific person’s name, you may end up with a large number of result records, written by that person or someone with a similar name, or about that person, even with identical titles, without knowing if there is a relationship between them, and what that relationship might be. What’s certain is that you will not find journal articles written by or about that person. The same applies to a search on title. There is no way of telling if there is any relation between identical titles. A library catalogue user would have to look at specific metadata in the records (like MARC 76X-78X – Linking Entries, 534 – Original Version Note or 580 – Linking Entry Complexity Note), if available, to reach their own conclusions.
Most libraries nowadays also purchase electronic versions of books and journals (ebooks and ejournals) and have free or paid subscriptions to online databases. Sometimes these digital items (ebooks, ejournals and databases) are also entered into the traditional library catalogues, but they are sometimes also made available through other library systems, like federated search tools, integrated discovery tools, A-Z lists, etc. All kinds of combinations occur.
In traditional library catalogues digital items are treated exactly the same as their physical counterparts. They are all isolated individual items without relations. As Karen Coyle put it November 2010 at the SWIB10 conference: “The main goal of cataloguing today is to keep things apart” .
Basically, integrated library systems and traditional catalogues are nothing more than inventory and logistics systems for physical objects, mainly focused on internal workflows. Unfortunately in newer end user interfaces like federated search and integrated discovery tools the user experience in this respect has in general been similar to that of traditional public catalogues.
At some point in time during the rise of electronic online catalogues, apparently the lack of relations between different versions of the same original work became a problem. I’m not sure if it was library customers or librarians who started feeling the need to see these implicit connections made explicit. The fact is that IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) started developing FRBR in 1998.
FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) is an attempt to provide a model for describing the relations between physical publications, editions, copies and their common denominator, the Work.
FRBR Group 1 describes publications in terms of the entities Work, Expression, Manifestation and Item (WEMI).
FRAD (Functional Requirements for Authority Data – ‘authors’) and FRSAD (Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Data – ‘subjects’) have been developed later on as alternatives for the FRBR Group 2 and 3 entities.
As an example let’s have a look at The Diary of Anne Frank. The original handwritten diary may be regarded as the Work. There are numerous adaptations and translations (Expressions) of the original unfinished and unedited Work. Each of these Expressions can be published in the form of one or more prints, editions, etc. These are the Manifestations, especially if they have different ISBN’s. Finally a library can have one or more physical copies of a Manifestation, the Items.
Some might even say the actual physical diary is the only existing Item embodying one specific (the first) Expression of the Work (Anne’s thoughts) and/or the only Manifestation of that Expression.
Of course, this model, if implemented, would be an enormous improvement to the old public catalogue situation. It makes it possible for library customers to have an automatic overview of all editions, translations, adaptations of one specific original work through the mechanism of Expressions and Manifestations. RDA (Resource Description and Access) is exactly doing this.
However there are some significant drawbacks, because the FRBR model is an old model, based on the traditional way of library cataloguing of physical items (books, journals, and cd’s, dvd’s), etc. (Karen Coyle at SWIB10).
- In the first place the FRBR model only shows the Works and related Manifestations and Expressions of physical copies (Items) that the library in question owns. Editions not in the possession of the library are ignored. This would be a bit different in a union catalogue of course, but then the model still only describes the holdings of the participating libraries.
- Secondly, the focus on physical copies is also the reason that the original FRBR model does not have a place for journal titles as such, only for journal issues. So there will be as many entries for one journal as the library has issues of it.
- Thirdly, it’s a hierarchical model, which incorporates only relations from the Work top down. There is no room for relations like: ‘similar works’, ‘other material on the same subject’, ‘influenced by’, etc.
- In the fourth place, FRBR still does not look at content. It is document centric, instead of information centric. It does however have the option for describing parts of a Work, if they are considered separate entities/works, like journal articles or volumes of a trilogy.
- Finally, the FRBR Item entity is only interesting in a storage and logistics environment for physical copies, such as the Circulation function in libraries, or the Sales function in bookstores. It has no relation to content whatsoever.
FRBR definitely is a positive and necessary development, but it is just not good enough. Basically it still focuses on information carriers instead of information (it’s a set of rules for managing Bibliographic Records, not for describing Information). It is an introverted view of the world. This was OK as long as it was dictated by the prevailing technological, economical and social conditions.
In a new networked digital information world libraries should shift their focus back to their original objective: being gateways to information as such. This entails replacing an introverted hierarchical model with an extroverted networked one, and moving away from describing static information aggregates in favour of units of content as primary objects.
The linked data concept provides the framework of such a networked model. In this model anything can be related to anything, with explicit declarations of the nature of the relationship. In the example of the Diary of Anne Frank one could identify relations with movies and theater plays that are based on the diary, with people connected to the diary or with the background of World War 2, antisemitism, Amsterdam, etc.
In traditional library catalogues defining relations with movies or theater plays is not possible from the description of the book. They could however be entered as a textual reference in the description of a movie, if for instance a DVD of that movie is catalogued. Relations to people, World War 2, antisemitism and Amsterdam would be described as textual or coded references to a short concept description, which in turn could provide lists of other catalogue items indexed with these subjects.
In a networked linked data model these links could connect to information entities in their own right outside the local catalogue, containing descriptions and other material about the subject, and providing links to other related information entities.
FRBR would still be a valuable part of such a universal networked model, as a subset for a specific purpose. In the context of physical information carriers it is a useful model, although with some missing features, as described above. It could be used in isolation, as originally designed, but if it’s an open model, it would also provide the missing links and options to describe and find related information.
Also, the FRBR model is essential as a minimal condition for enabling links from library catalogue items to other entity types through the Work common denominator.
In a completely digital information environment, the model could be simplified by getting rid of the Item entity. Nobody needs to keep track of available copies of online digital information, unless publishers want to enforce the old business models they have been using in order to keep making a profit. Ebooks for instance are essentially Expressions or Manifestations, depending on their nature, as I stated in my post ’Is an e-book a book?’.
The FRBR model can be used and is used also in other subject areas, like music, theater performances, etc. The Work – Expression – Manifestation – Item hierarchy is applicable to a number of creative professions.
The networked model provides the option of describing all traditional library objects, but also other and new ones and even objects that currently don’t exist, because it is an open and adaptable model.
In the traditional library models it is for instance impossible, or at least very hard, to describe a story that continues through all volumes of a trilogy as a central thread, apart from and related to the descriptions of the three separate physical books and their own stories. In the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander’s life story is the central thread, but it can’t be described as a separate “Work” in MARC/FRBR/RDA because it is not the main subject of one physical content carrier (unless we are dealing with an edition in one physical multi part volume). The three volumes will be described with the subjects ‘Missing girl mystery‘, ‘Sex trafficking‘ and ‘Illegal secret service unit‘ respectively.
In an open networked information model on the contrary it would be entirely possible to describe such a ‘roaming story’.
New forms of information objects could appear in the form of new types of aggregates, other than books or journal articles, for instance consisting of text, images, statistics and video, optionally of a flexible nature (dynamic instead of static information objects).
Existing library systems (ILS’s and Integrated Discovery tools alike), using bibliographic metadata formats and frameworks like MARC, FRBR and RDA, can’t easily deal with new developments without some sort of workaround. Obviously this means that if libraries want to continue playing a role in the information gateway world, they need completely different systems and technology. Library system vendors should take note of this.
Finally, instead of only describing information objects, libraries could take up a new role in creating new objects, in the form of subject based virtual information aggregates, like for instance the Anne Frank Timeline, or Qwiki.This would put libraries back in the center of the information access business.