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Library of Congress May Begin Transitioning Away from MARC

**Reprinted from Library Journal**

By Michael Kelley May 26, 2011

The Library of Congress has announced that it is going to undertake a major reevaluation of bibliographic control in a move that could lead to a gradual transition away from the 40-year-old MARC 21 standard in which billions of metadata records are presently encoded.

“It’s a ten,” said Sally McCallum without hesitation when asked to rank the project’s scope and importance on a scale of one to ten. McCallum is chief of the Network Development and MARC Standards Office at LOC.

The goal of the Bibliographic Framework Transition Initiative is to determine “what is needed to transform our digital framework” in the light of technological changes and budgetary constraints, said Deanna B. Marcum, the library’s Associate Librarian for Library Services, who will lead the initiative. “It’s very important that we find a way to link library resources to the whole world of information resources not focusing exclusively on bibliographic information,” she said.

By rethinking MARC, which has supported resource sharing and cataloging cost savings for many years and is the predominant standard for the representation and communication of bibliographic and related information in machine-readable form, Marcum said that the LOC hopes to determine whether the standard can “evolve to do all the things we’d like it to do, or do we need to replace it” with something more compatible with the Internet world.

As the LOC concludes what to retain from current metadata encoding standards, the library community may eventually need to get comfortable with other data structures.

“We have a huge library infrastructure very much built up over the years around the MARC format, and this will cause some disruption of that and that costs something and it has to be done smartly and carefully,” said McCallum. “We can go on as we are but it’s not desirable,” she said.

Inspired by RDA
The hope is that a move toward new data structures will “enable bibliographic data to be used in very new technologies and technical configurations, such as the semantic web,” McCallum said.

“I think we need to go into some of these new data structures with more alacrity than we have,” McCallum said. “It would behoove the community to get comfortable with other data structures, like XML or RDF.”

There is also a desire in the library community to “reap the full benefits of new and emerging content standards,” as indicated by the comments that accompanied the testing of the new Resource Description and Access (RDA) standard, Marcum said.

RDA is a cataloguing code which covers all types of content and media (including digital resources) and was released about a year ago to replace the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd Edition Revised (AACR2). Its development was a recognition that libraries operate in a digital environment and have to deal with metadata creators who are not librarians. RDA integrates library cataloguing records with this new metadata, but the testing raised further issues that have spurred the new initiative.

“Many people made the comment that while the new code [RDA] will allow us to better link the disparate resources that are available, there are inherent difficulties in using MARC as the carrier for the records we create in this new code. It’s just time to get serious,” she said.

The Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control, formed in 2006, also helped drive the new agenda.

“They raised this issue. I give that group credit for raising this issue of whether it is time to reevaluate the MARC standard,” Marcum said. “And I think by focusing on that question it has increased the sensitivity of all of us to the barriers that exist in our current system to making information fully accessible,” Marcum said.

Change will come slowly
The LOC intends any changes to be gradual.

“MARC is going to be around for another ten years. It’s used too universally,” McCallum said. “There are too many services and products based in MARC, and its use will simply dwindle as people convert and as they can afford to convert,” she said.

“We want change with stability,” McCallum said. The LOC is mindful that libraries have to contain costs even as they are being asked to provide cataloging metadata for the exploding amount of digital material.

The project will also:

  • Foster maximum re-use of library metadata in the broader web search environment.
  • Explore the use of data models such as Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) in navigating relationships, whether those are actively encoded by librarians or made discernible by the semantic web.
  • Plan for bringing existing metadata into new bibliographic systems within the broader Library of Congress technical infrastructure.

Marcum said the initiative will be “fully collaborative,” and an initial discussion will take place in June at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans. A series of meetings with stakeholders are expected in 2012 and 2013.


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  1. Pingback: To Book or Not to Book? | OpeningPotentials

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