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MARC not living up to the times

Jun - 2 - 2009
Nicole C. Engard

Stuart Yeates is awesome :) Okay – so I don’t know him – but this post makes me think he’s awesome:

Card catalogs have a long tradition in librarianship, dating back, I’m told, to the book stock-take in the French revolution. Librarians understand card catalogs in a deep way that comes from generations of librarians having used them as a core professional tool all their professional lives.

It is natural, when faced with something new, to understand it in terms of what we already know and already understand. Unfortunately, understanding the new by analogy to the old can lead to form of the old being assumed in the new. It was true that when libraries digitized their card catalogs in the 1970s and 1980s, they were more or less exactly digital versions of the card catalog predecessors, because their content was limited to old data from the cards and new data from cataloging processes (which were unchanged from the card catalog era) and because librarians and users had come to equate a library catalog with a card catalog—it was what they expected.

MARC is a perfect example of this kind of thing. As a data format to directly replace a card catalog of printed books, it can hardly be faulted.

Unfortunately, digital metadata has capabilities undreamt of at the time of the French revolution, and card catalogs and MARC do a poor job of handling these capabilities.

The real question is why we’re still expecting an approach that didn’t solve the problems two hundred years ago to solve our problems now? Computers are not magic in this area they just seem to be helping us do the wrong things faster, more reliably and for larger collections.

Read the entire post at Open Source Exile.


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