Wednesday, 27 August 2008

RDA: a Really Decisive Action or a Relatively Disappointing Area?

So. Resource description and access has landed. Sort of. Every time I glance at planet cataloging, open my Update magazine, or happen to browse the CILIP website, there it is. Draft proposals. More draft proposals. And yet more - well, you get the idea.
Ann Chapman provides a really concisive overview of the new code in Update magazine this month. Yet, the more I read about it, the more I feel that I'm missing something.

I understand that AACR was developed in a pre-computerised world. In this world, the catalogue card was King. The main access entry point was Queen and the added entries were really just some half-royal illegitimate infants running blindly through the castle keep. Most information was printed in books. The nearest we came to the concept of multi-media was listening to cassette tapes on our oh-so-trendy walkmans. It is amazing that since then the world has changed so rapidly. Many people conduct so much of their lives in an online environment, not least their education. Although I am wary of falling into trap of believing in the simplistic "information society" worldview, no one can doubt that the impact of digital resources on many people's lives has been enormous.

In practical terms, for the library user this meant the development of the OPAC and enhanced searching facilities. In this environment, the card catalogue Kings were deposed by the people's republic of the online public access catalogue, thus rendering the concept of main and added entries obsolete for the user. As new forms of media developed, it became problematic to catalogue electronic, digital and mutli-media items within the world of AACR2.

Thus changes needed to be made, but I can't help wondering whether they have been the right ones. RDA seems to be concerned predominantly with updating the language and the layout of the cataloguing rules, which is fair enough and makes good sense. It also lets us catalogue non-print items in a more meaningful way; again, big points there. Yet attempting to have one code to cover all media, when said media all behave in such wildy different ways, is perhaps (and I say this only tentatively) not the easiest concept with which to identify. There is also issue of the millions of MARC records currently doing their job perfectly thank you very much; what will happen to those?

As RDA works on a FRBR model, there is a need for functionality, which is great. However, the concept of 'preferred' and 'variant' access points is a little worrying, especially when so much work is currently going into the NACO project.

The simplification of terms, for example ‘s.l.’ being replaced by statements such as ‘place not recorded’ or ‘place not known’, might be easier for new cataloguers but it concerns me that it may lead to a gradual decline of skill and a steady decline in the quality of bibliographic records.

It is a concern that, the further we simplify the skill of cataloguing, the further we thus move to a library management who believes that cataloguing could be automated. After all, save the salaries of cataloguers and speed up a mechanical process. Except that it isn't mechanical. It involves skill, a clear vision of local practice and user needs, and an ability to apply rules with skill and panache. However, I'm not saying that RDA will lead ultimately to this future, but we do have to be careful as cataloguers to raise our advocacy within the wider library community.
Practically, there seems like there will be little change. I suppose only time will tell.

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