Friday, 31 May 2013

Metadata Update #15 - Is MARC really dead or dying?

Today I watched a video for a memorial for MARC .
It brought to mind the question of whether or not MARC is really dead or dying.  Or, is AACR2 dead or dying?


Many people would say yes.  Many people would say that both have been dead for a long time and they just haven’t fallen down yet.  This point of view has merit because both MARC and AACR2 had become technologically irrelevant in many ways starting in the 1980s. 


There are others who say that MARC and AACR2 will never die because there are millions of library catalogue records all over the world that have been created using these two standards.  Many of these records are owned and used by very small libraries in small organizations.  Some of the records are likely still in card catalogue cards.  This point of view has merit too.  It’s very unlikely that every library is going to have the resources or the interest in moving away from the older standards.


From my own point of view, I think that it’s important to remember that MARC and AACR2 are not people.  They may have a beginning or birth but they don’t necessarily die.  They don’t have feelings and they can’t be heroes or villains.  We don’t have to hold them up and venerate them as saints and we don’t have to disparage them as monsters either.  Before I cancelled my AUTOCAT subscription, I was getting the impression that there are some people who are confused on that point.  MARC and AACR2 are just tools that have been created in the library world in order to help us store metadata which facilitates, primarily, the discovery and retrieval of resources.  I agree that the library has so many more tools and options available to it today than it did in 1971 and sticking strictly to standards from that era is limiting.  But, anyone who has worked with both MARC and other metadata standards has to admit that for all its limitations, MARC is an incredibly robust and mature standard.  The library world has learned a lot from MARC and this is knowledge that will be taken forward into the future.  But has MARC been thrown under the bus by newer technologies?  I think not.  At least not completely.


Let my draw a parallel between MARC which is based in late 1960s technology and COBOL which was “born” about a decade earlier.  Through the 1960s and 70s, COBOL was a computer programming language at the heart of the incubating computer revolution.  Computer programmers during this time, for the most part, worked in or at least could read COBOL programming.  By the 80s and 90s COBOL was still taught to some computer science students but was in decreasing in popularity.  By the late 1990s, COBOL had gained notoriety because of the number of business and military programs which used it and also the fact that it had been applied in ways that made programs vulnerable to the Y2K bug.  So, after all of that Y2K bug excitement, did COBOL get thrown in the ground and buried?  No, interestingly it did not.  In 2002 there was a new version of COBOL developed and the programming was brought up and into the object-oriented programming realm.  Thus, COBOL has never actually died although it is not one of the big rollers in the world of programming as it once was.  It’s been through four major revisions along with other minor changes along the way and it still quietly functions in the background in many large government and business applications.


I think that MARC is on a similar trajectory.  MARC has been revised 21 times in the last 40 or so years.  It has also been adapted to an XML environment.  MARC has been king of the hill for a long time and it is on the downward journey.  I think that it’s getting next to impossible to deny that.  However, MARC has been the backbone of library metadata and not only has it shaped our thinking about metadata, it has challenged us and taught us things.  I think that this is exactly why MARC has become so robust over the decades.  I think that just like COBOL, MARC will run quietly in the background for many years to come.  I also think that those who are now aspiring to work in the area of library metadata would do well to learn and understand MARC rather than bury it, and as the person in the video said, not speak ill of the dead.  Yes, we will move our metadata into new environments such as linked data but MARC will always be with us in one form or another – even if it is just part of the way that we think about metadata elements.  Realistically, we will speak well of MARC and we will speak ill of MARC.


As for AACR2, this is an interesting case.  If AACR2 and ISBD had been followed precisely over the years, programs could be written to convert our bibliographic records to RDA and/or any new descriptive standards that emerge in the future.  For the most part, these standards have been applied well but not perfectly or consistently so I can see any attempts to automatically crosswalk and convert AACR2/ISBD metadata to RDA as likely more problematic than it is worth.  The latter statement is key:   Is it worth it?  Anyone who has done any crosswalking of metadata or even working with record sets for that matter knows that there is always going to be clean-up and that with effort conversion of standards-based metadata is generally possible.  However, for the descriptive elements in question would all of that work be worth it?  I really doubt it.  With the new standards such as RDA we can make better descriptive metadata but AACR2 metadata is still basically functional. To what degree will “ports” or “ill” help a user discover and access a resource?  While not irrelevant, much of the older AACR2 description isn’t absolutely critical.  And, changes such as eliminating the rule of three can’t be “updated” through an automated process since an RDA conversion would require having the item in hand and using it to add the RDA access points which are absent in the AACR2 record.  So, bottom line with AACR2?  We will have AACR2 formatted metadata for a long time even if our libraries have opted for creating new metadata using RDA or another descriptive standard.  Just like the SLIS student who learns MARC, so too should that student be learning AACR2.  Personally, I think that the depth and breadth of coverage of learning AACR2 needs to be dramatically reduced so as to make room in their program for learning other standards but not eliminated entirely.


Is MARC dead or dying?  No, not really.  Maybe MARC is going into an active retirement.

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