Since I got back from ALA, I’ve been thinking about how to tie together everything I saw and thought and learned while I was there. I’ve been looking for the big picture. Throughout the week, in a variety of sessions, a few phrases kept popping into my mind: Re-think the ILS, re-think the bibliographic record. If we could erase everything we already have in place and start over, what could we build? What would work best for us and for our patrons? What would work best for the future patrons we can’t even imagine now? If we weren’t afraid of the expense, the effort, the difficulty, what would we do?
A big part of re-thinking the ILS and library metadata is asking ourselves difficult questions about why we do what we do. Why do we duplicate work, so many librarians making copies of the same records, creating records for the same items? Why do we all have our own copies of records? Do we still need to create and maintain the same kinds of metadata we’ve been creating? Why do we keep article-level data and journal-level data separate, and how can bring them together? Why do we treat networked digital content the same way we treat printed content? I know there are a lot of people asking these questions, and that’s what the work of RDA and FRBR has largely been about. But there are still a lot of library administrators and managers who are entrenched in The Way Things Are Done, and who don’t seem to be trying to imagine beyond that. I hear too many people saying they aren’t making changes because it will be too hard. We should be thinking of how to make it easier, rather than accepting current practice and our perceived limitations.
What I keep imagining is a centralized database (or more likely several) of bibliographic metadata, author metadata, publisher metadata, subject metadata. Rather than copying all this metadata into our own local systems, we could have systems that are largely display only, that pull metadata from various different networks. Local data would be entirely item-level: barcodes and call numbers and local notes, obviously, but also acquisitions and circulation data. I suspect this is what OCLC is trying to do with WorldCat Web-Scale Management, but I don’t know a lot about the technical backend of the system. However we get there, I think the end result should be less duplication of data.
And what about the data we’re linking to? The ways we’re creating and maintaining bibliographic data? Currently, our bibliographic data is far too text-based. Data should be based on unique identifiers whenever possible, and should be more granular. And I think we’re going to need to move away from MARC to get there. But it’s not just about a new transmission format. It’s about the information we’re recording in the first place. Descriptions of physical objects, of the length of the spine and the number of illustrations, were necessary when people were trying to accurately locate physical objects, but I don’t think this data serves our users as well anymore. As our data becomes more and more digital, users need to know how to access it, and librarians need to know how to preserve it. Entirely different types of metadata will be needed. And what kinds of things do users really need to know about the print books in our collections? They need tables of content, summaries, information about the author(s), and information that tells them about not just the manifestation they have in hand, but about the original edition as well. They need, yes, reviews. The length of the spine and some cryptic abbreviations about illustrations don’t help much when you’re trying to decide whether to submit an ILL request.
Most of my thoughts coming out of ALA aren’t new. People are working on these questions, but the problem is that we’re not really working fast enough. The rest of the networked world will leave us behind. We have to figure out how to get our library metadata out on the web, out where people are searching. We have to figure out how to create flexible, re-usable, modular metadata, and how to build library systems that don’t require every library to re-invent the wheel to some extent. I’m eager to see what we come up with, because I know we will come up with something. I just hope we don’t get held back by our own fears. Yes, these transitions will be difficult, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the attempt.