Know Your MARC

I’m deep in the midst of a project that involves dealing with a lot of MARC records, and I know I’ve said it many times before, but seriously? How is it possible that this “standard” involves so many un-standard elements? Sure, a lot of the core data really is in the same place in every record (unless there have been some serious cataloging snafus in a library over a long period of time, which, well, isn’t that infrequent). But there is still so much digging and poking and searching I have to do to find things like local bibliographic record numbers and holdings data. Some of this has to do with variations among systems. Some has to do with libraries where systems weren’t well implemented. Some has to do with indifferent catalogers. Sad, but true.

What has really been surprising, though, is how often librarians don’t really know what their MARC records look like. Ok, I guess it’s not that surprising when you think about it. Librarians hardly ever work with raw MARC records. We work with library systems and software like Connexion that mask the MARC in graphic interfaces and user friendly field labels. In fact, one of my biggest surprises when I got my first library systems job was how difficult it is to look at an actual MARC record, or to see a MARC record translated into something human readable. We just don’t have a lot of software that does this.

Librarians also often don’t know what their library system will export. You’d think a system would just export everything. Behind the scenes, those systems should be translating various data fields into MARC tags, and every piece of data you’ve entered into a record should come out somewhere in MARC, right? Not so, my friends. Different systems are set up to export different pieces of data, and sometimes to export different data in different ways for different purposes. And then, of course, some systems force you to pay extra if you want to be able to export the data you need, if it wasn’t set up that way from the beginning. Brilliant.

If you’re a technical services librarian, and you’re not 100 percent sure what your MARC records look like or what your system is capable of spitting out, I say go ahead and experiment. In fact, I hope anyone who comes across this post who doesn’t know what their data really looks like should immediately start exporting whatever they can export. Download something like MarcEdit (which is, actually, the only piece of relatively user-friendly software I know of that will let you know look at MARC records in a human readable way). Export whatever you can, in as many different ways as you can. Use MarcEdit to convert it to marcmaker (a readable format designed by the Library of Congress) and start poking around. You can’t break it once you’ve pulled the records out. You might be surprised what you can (and can’t) get out of your library system.

There is no excuse for us to be so clueless about our own records, and the tools we have available to deal with them. Looking at your records outside of your ILS is the first step to really understanding how shareable an useable they are (or aren’t). Once we know what we’re working with, we’re much more capable of knowing how to make it better.

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