Saturday, June 28, 2014

Linking, really linking

Some time ago I posted a bit of wishful thinking about linking search engine results to library holdings. Now Overdrive has made this a reality, at least in Bing:

This appears in the "extended information" area of a Bing search for the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy. This is based on you having an Overdrive account and I believe you may also have to have given the browser permission to use your location.

I don't usually use Bing, and so I was unaware that Bing has made much better use of linked data (in part promoted by the use of standards) than Google. Here is the Google extended sidebar for the same book:
Google results
Now look at what Bing provides:
Bing results
If you can't see that there are advantages to linked data after looking at these examples, then, like the global warming deniers, you just don't want to be confused by the facts. Now to get on to how we can make library offerings as rich as this.

**HT to Eric Hellman for blogging this from ALA.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let's link!

Tom Johnson responded to a statement of mine in which I said that we need non-programmer tools for linked data work. He asked for case studies, and so I'm going to do some "off the top of my head" riffing here, just to see what might come of it.

First, let me say a little something about some analogous technology. Let's take HTML. I'm one of those folks who learned HTML many decades ago when all you needed was <p>, <i>, <b> and maybe <hr>. With these, you could create a web page. Web pages in those days didn't have banners, sidebars, tables ... adding an image was going all fancy. There were no WYSIWYG tools because it was very simple to create such a web page. Then we got more sophisticated formatting (server-side includes, side bars, tables(!)), and now there is a whole programming language called CSS to handle page creation (and destruction, since CSS is very complex.) It doesn't take much looking around to understand that most people today need TOOLS to create a web page and lots of tools exist, tools that cost little or nothing (WordPress, Drupal) and can be used by folks who've never written 50 lines of working code.

Essentially, on the web today, a few people are providing the structure and the tools, but most folks are providing content without knowing the guts of the technology. Content is, in my mind, the actual goal of the web; technology is the means.

I've spent a lot of time talking to folks about linked data, but linked data is not itself a goal. I've started trying to move the conversation from the underlying technology to what I see as the real goal: making connections -- connections between concepts, ideas, statements about things. This is inherently more social than technical, but of course it needs the technology behind it in order to work. The easier it is for people to make connections, the more connections they will make.

The problem that I'm seeing today in the linked data space is that we don't have an idea of what kinds of connections people will want to make, or what they will do with them. I don't think we're going to know until we apply some scientific method to the problem -- that is, try, fail, try again, rinse, repeat.

I created a really funky web page with one idea. The page looks like this:

It talks about having the ability to profile types of data that can then be selected in the content of the page. Each of these will then pull additional content (maps, term definitions, biographical information)  from available linkable data into the page. This could begin as a very simple application with only a small number of options, as a proof of concept. (WordPress?) I'm sure that others can greatly improve on it.  Take a look at the display in the FAO AGRIS catalog to get an idea of how this might look with a better display.

Have at it, please.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Works, Expressions, and the Bibliographic Universe

In 1545, Conrad Gessner set about to create a bibliography of everything ever published, the Bibliotheca Universalis. He nearly succeeded. In 2004, Google set about to create a digital universal library by digitizing millions of books from library shelves. Shortly thereafter the Internet Archive began a project, the Open Library, to create "One web page for every book ever written." Meanwhile, OCLC's WorldCat has grown to over 300 million records from 72,000 libraries. All of these exemplify the concept of some universal bibliography or database that make up what I am calling, for now, the bibliographic universe.

The other side of this coin is the catalog of an individual library (or library consortium). This bibliographic data set is expressly designed to be local, not universal. It does not include materials not available to the library user, and what it does include has been selected with that library's constituency in mind.

The FRBR study is a conceptual view of this "bibliographic universe"; that is, an abstract view of intellectual resources and their relations to each other. To say that Magic Mountain is a translation of Der Zauberberg is to make a statement that is unrelated to any actual example of that text, much less the holdings within any individual library. We can conclude that FRBR addresses bibliographic data universally because it claims to be agnostic to any particular usage of the bibliographic concept, and to be able to define any and all bibliographic resources and their relationships.

The problem that arises, as I see it, is where this universal view meets the individual library. Do you express these relationships between items in your library, or do you express the relationships in the bibliographic universe? If your library has Magic Mountain in English and Spanish, but not in German, should you organize your presentation of data around the original German version, even if your users will not be able to read or understand the title in that language? What if you only have the English version - should this be displayed as a manifestation of a translation of the original German text? Is there a purpose to creating bibliographic information about relationships between works, even if the library does not hold those works?

A key question that we need to ask is: what is the purpose of providing these bibliographic relationships? The answer that I believe I would get from catalogers today is that the purpose of this information is to provide an organized view of the library to the user. While in a large library, works and expressions may be organizing principles, in a small library with often only one version of the resource, the addition of information about the work and the expression could be more disorganization than organization, because it doesn't give the user a more organized view of the library's holdings but adds information that may be confusing. This doesn't mean that the information about works and expressions isn't useful - the work and expression could be used to provide interesting information to the user, but in this case they do not provide a useful organizing function in the catalog.

As far as I can tell, neither FRBR nor the cataloging rules (past and present) clearly differentiate between organizing a library, organizing a larger context within which the library operates, or describing the bibliographic universe. I'll accept that organizing the bibliographic universe is probably out of scope in today's world, but where does one draw the line between the individual library and the larger useful bibliographic context that might be useful to your library users?

This is not a new problem. AACR2 introduced the idea of the work by adding the uniform title to the catalog record. The uniform title turned out to be less uniformly used than perhaps was intended because it was not applied by catalogers to all records where it was applicable. In a library with only one (or a small number) of editions of a work, the uniform title was deemed to be either unnecessary or not worth the time of the cataloger. This worked fine in individual libraries but caused problems for sharing and in union catalogs. It also makes it more difficult to move from today's cataloging records to a FRBR-ized catalog, since the essential clues about works are not provided consistently.

FRBR is a conceptual model, but it isn't clear to me what context it is modeling: a library catalog, the conceptual collective of all or most library catalogs, or the bibliographic universe. The original task was to model the essential things of a library bibliographic record to respond to a set of user tasks.  However, at the 30,000 foot level at which FRBR operated, the questions about how one would serve users in a particular library is left open. The FRBR user tasks are a look at the existing concept of a library catalog and what one mythical "user" does when approaching it. It also is a look from the point of view of a large library catalog: no one on the study group was from a small or even medium-sized library. FRBR is very much a top-down look at the bibliographic world. If we look at the library bibliographic world from the bottom up -- either looking from the point of view of individual users, or of individual libraries, then we would need to see the FRBR concepts as possibilities, not requirements; possibilities to be used as appropriate for ones particular situation.

We know that a given library serves its particular users, not the "universe of users." The best service for a library's users is to allow the library to make choices that are appropriate for those users. For that reason, requiring libraries to present, in their catalogs, data that has the bibliographic universe as its context is going to be detrimental to library service. At the same time, it would be ideal to have a true catalog of the bibliographic universe available from which a library could draw information or could create links as a way to expand its catalog information for users who need more. For example, the user who looks up the Chicago Manual of Style should be able to learn if the copy the library holds is the latest version. The user looking for "Harry Potter" and seeing that the library has copies in English and Spanish should be able to ask if the book was translated into Vietnamese (yes) or Tegulu (no).

It would be naive to say that we have no use for a bibliotheca universalis. However, a bibliotheca universalis is not a library catalog. It would also be naive to say that every library has the same needs regarding bibliographic data. What we seem to be lacking is the way to bridge the gap between the 30,000 foot FRBR bibliographic view and the needs of the individual library. I think we have the technology to do this today, and some of the possible answers can be found in general databases like WorldCat or DBPedia. It's the connection between these that needs to be designed.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

FRBR group 1: the gang of four

(This is a very delayed follow on to my earlier  post on FRBR groups 2 and 3. It's not that I haven't been thinking about it... and I hope soon to be able to post my talk from FSR2014 on FRBR, as well.) 

Parts vs. views

Each of the three FRBR groups is defined briefly in the introduction to section 3 of the FRBR document. The second and third groups have fairly concrete definitions:
group 2 "...those responsible for the intellectual or artistic content, the physical production and dissemination, or the custodianship of the entities in the first group"

group 3 " additional set of entities that serve as the subjects of works"
The definition of Group 1 is more complex and considerably less clear:
"The entities in the first group (as depicted in Figure 3.1) represent the different aspects of user interests in the products of intellectual or artistic endeavour." [FRBR, p. 13]
Where groups 2 and 3 are made up of similar but independent things (which is a common definition of a class of things), group 1 consists of aspects of a single thing ("intellectual or artistic endeavor"). The term "aspects" can be defined as either parts of something or points of view about something. The difference between "parts" vs. "points of view" is important. Parts could be defined as simple, observable facts, such as the parts of a particular automobile (motor, chassis, wheels). These are characteristics of the thing itself, independent of the observer. Points of view, of course, vary for each viewer and perhaps each viewing. This would fit with the FRBR document's statement on the work:
"The concept of what constitutes a work and where the line of demarcation lies between one work and another may in fact be viewed differently from one culture to another. Consequently the bibliographic conventions established by various cultures or national groups may differ in terms of the criteria they use for determining the boundaries between one work and another." [FRBR p. 17]
That the FRBR document states that the entities are aspects of user interests rather than aspects of an intellectual endeavor implies that the entities of group 1 are not parts of the endeavor, but constructions in the minds of users. From the remainder of the FRBR document, in particular the areas where the attributes are defined for each entity, it is clear that the FRBR Study Group chose to define the bibliographic description of intellectual endeavors as a single point of view. For each entity, the Study Group has a provided a set of elements that are each defined for only that one entity, with no concession made for different points of view or interests. This is, however, in spite of the statement above that communities may have different views.

To reinforce the view of group 1 as parts of a whole, there exist dependencies between the group 1 entities such that, with the exception of work, each can only exist in combination with certain others to which it is linked. Therefore none represents a whole on its own. (In fact, there is no concept of a whole bibliographic description in FRBR. That would need to come from a different analysis.) The definitions of the entities express these dependencies.
"work: a distinct intellectual or artistic creation." [FRBR, p.17]
"expression: the intellectual or artistic realization of a work in the form of alpha-numeric, musical, or choreographic notation, sound, image, object, movement, etc., or any combination of such forms." [FRBR p. 19]
"manifestation: the physical embodiment of an expression of a work." [FRBR p. 21]
"item: a single exemplar of a manifestation" [FRBR p. 24]
as does the description of the cardinality of the relationships:
"The relationships depicted in the diagram indicate that a work may be realized through one or more than one expression (hence the double arrow on the line that links work to expression). An expression, on the other hand, is the realization of one and only one work (hence the single arrow on the reverse direction of that line linking expression to work). An expression may be embodied in one or more than one manifestation; likewise a manifestation may embody one or more than one expression. A manifestation, in turn, may be exemplified by one or more than one item; but an item may exemplify one and only one manifestation." [FRBR pp. 13-14]
This directionality, or fixed order, of the dependencies is the source of the image of group 1 as a hierarchy, where each entity connects to the entity "above" it. But there is more than one interpretation of these definitions. Taniguchi [taniguchi] reads the description of the entities as a "Russian doll" with each succeeding entity containing the previous ones. In the definitions of expression, manifestation, and item, above, each entity appears to encapsulate the one or ones above it in the diagram ("the physical embodiment of an expression of a work"). When diagrammed, this view would look like:

(Note that this does not exclude the one-to-many and many-to-many relationships as long as both expressions and manifestations can be part of more than one nested structure.)

The other interpretation, which is the most common interpretation of the entity-relation diagrams, is similar to a database design where each entity represents a single set of data elements that can be shared in one-to-many or many-to-many relationships. This view presents the four aspects as separate entities with strict relationships between them.

I perceive a contradiction between the verbal definitions in the document and the diagrams, which one presumes are intended to represent the information in the text. The decision to represent the group 1 entities as separate parts and without any overlap in data elements is a conceptual reduction of the definitions that are given early in the document, and no where does the document state that such a decision was made. There could be good reasons to implement the FRBR group 1 concepts in a particular technology as a simplified structure, but it is clear to me that the model in the diagrams is not as rich as the concepts in the text would allow.


Some interpretations of FRBR treat the work, expression and manifestation as a process or continuum, moving from the idea in the creator’s mind, to an expression of that creation, and then to a manifestation where the expression becomes "manifest" or physical in nature.
"Content relationships can be viewed as a continuum from works/expressions/manifestations/items. Moving left to right along this continuum we start with some original work and related works and expressions and manifestations that can be considered ‘equivalent,’ that is, they share the same intellectual or artistic content as realized through the same mode of expression." [tillett p. 4]
The FRBR group 1 "continuum of entities" runs into problems when faced with the reality of publishing and packaging. While the line from work to expression to manifestation may follow some ideal logic, it may have been more functional to separate the description of the package from its intellectual contents. Instead, manifestation, as described in FRBR, is still based on the traditional catalog entry that mixes content and carrier by including creators, titles, and edition information, which better fit the definition of expression than manifestation.

Most explanations of work, expression, manifestation, item (WEMI) move from work to expression, then to manifestation, in that order, and most give only a slight nod to item. But in terms of cataloger workflow, WEM is a single unit that is encountered with the item in hand. While you may be able to store information about a work or expression separately in a database, you cannot separate the work from the expression or the manifestation in real life.


FRBR provides a static view of the bibliographic resource with little agency. The entities simply exist, they are not described as created as the result of an action. In fact, the entities seem to be actors themselves, as when the expression "realizes" the work. It would make more sense to say that the expression entity is the realization of the work, and that some sentient being acts to create the expression. Instead, in FRBR some unnamed magic occurs between the work and the expression. The same is true of the manifestation, which should be the result of some action that produces a physical manifestation of the expression of the work.

This static view is compatible with library cataloging, which is mainly interested in describing the item in hand as a single unit. The development of a model that emphasizes relationships between creative outputs begs for a more actor-centered view of the bibliographic universe. One could argue that it is precisely the intervention of specific actors that creates a differentiation between entities. The same music piece performed by different musicians, or the same musicians at a different time, must be a different expression. The "studio cut" and the "director's cut" of a film are either different expressions or different works (depending on your definition of work), based on the agent in control. Adding agent intervention to the model could be useful in developing clearer rules for the determination of separate entities during the cataloging process.


While FRBR groups 2 and 3 are composed of real world things (in the semantic web sense), group 1 appears to be an analysis of the current data of bibliographic records. The division of attributes into the four "boxes" of WEMI does not introduce new data elements but partitions the existing bibliographic record among the entities. The resulting group 1 picture resembles ISBD rather than AACR/MARC in that it is a static view of a bibliographic "done deal" with no indication of agents or subjects. Others have noticed that there are neither creator no subject attributes among the listed attributes for the work -- instead, these are included in the model as relationships defined between groups 2 and 3 and group 1. This is a logical outcome of the use of the database design methodology where data is stored for subsequent use but is not part of a data creator or data user workflow.

In the past bibliographic description has been unitarian, with one record representing one, indivisible bibliographic thing. FRBR posits a quatritarian view of the same data. The difficulty, however, is that the FRBR group 1 is not like the division of an automobile into chassis, motor and wheels; instead, where one draws the line between the separate aspects of the FRBR quaternity -- or whether one prefers a unitarian, duotarian or even a quintitarian approach -- is not based on empirical data, but on one's particular point of view. That point of view is not arbitrary, but has many factors based on material type, organization type, and the needs of the users. FRBR's four-part bibliographic description is one possibility. It may represent a particular bibliographic view, but one cannot expect that it represents all bibliographic views, either in libraries or beyond them.

[FRBR] IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. (2009). Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Retrieved from

[taniguchi] Shoichi Taniguchi. “A conceptual model giving primacy to expression-level bibliographic entity in cataloging”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 58 Iss: 4, 2002. pp.363 – 382.

[tillett] Tillett, B. What is FRBR? A conceptual model for the bibliographic universe. (p. 8). Washington, DC. 2003.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The FRBR Groups

FRBR has three groups of entities, numbered 1-3. Each group, however, has its own set of characteristics that are very different from each other, so different that they really are different kinds of groups. These differences make it hard to speak of them in one breath.

One of the key things to know about the groups is that they aren't classes in the data modeling sense. Why they are therefore grouped at all is not clear, except perhaps it was a convenient way to speak of them. The IFLA FRBR Review Group maintains that the groups do not represent classes and that the ten (or eleven, with family) entities represent the highest organizational level recognized by FRBR. Unfortunately the treatment of them as groups throughout the document tends to contradict this statement. This just adds to the confusion about the meaning and nature of the groups.

Group 2

I'm going to take Group 2 first because it is the simplest. Group 2 is a group of "agents" or "actors" that perform actions in the bibliographic environment. The original entities of the group were person and corporate body, but family has been added through the work that was done on the Functional Requirements for Authority Data (FRAD). In most kinds of data modeling the members of Group 2 would be members of a class, and the class would have certain characteristics that define the kinds of things that could be members and their shared characteristics. For example, one could say that all members are people or groups of people, that they generally have names, they perform certain actions, etc. These characteristics would therefore not need to be defined separately for each member of the class, and definitions of members would only include characteristics unique to that class. Because no classes exist in FRBR, each Group 2 entity is described separately through its own attributes, although there is a fair amount of overlap between them.

Note that each of the Group 2 entities stands alone with no dependencies on any other entities. (This matters when we get to Group 1).

Group 3

Group 3 is an odd grouping because it has a rather miscellaneous nature. The entities that are described as Group 3 are ones that are needed for subject description in bibliographic data: subject; object; place; event. Not much is said about them because FRBR, not unlike cataloging rules (AACR, ISBD), does not really address subject assignment. It isn't clear to me where these particular entities come from because they are not equal to the "facets" of LCSH (form, chronological and geographic). It would be interesting to know how this particular set came about, since the FRBR Study Group was looking beyond North American practice.

What makes Group 3 odd, though, is not its composition but that it is only a partial listing of the subject elements; the full set also includes all of the members of groups 1 and 2. So the actual meaning of group 3 is: all of the subject entities that are not in other groups.

It remains to be seen what will happen to these entities when FRBR and the Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Data (FRSAD) are merged. FRSAD takes a 30,000 foot view of subjects, and essentially concludes that if you can call it a subject and give it an identity and a name, it's a subject. This aspect of the original FRBR study, which was specifically directed at the charge of defining the elements of a core bibliographic record, could change as the model becomes more generalized, which seems to be what is happening.

Group 1

All that I will say about Group 1 here is that it is a group that represents one thing divided into four levels of abstraction. Group 1 deserves its own post, rather than making this one overly long. That post will be next.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

FRBR goals: entities, relations, and a core level record

The FRBR study was motivated by a 1990 international seminar on cataloging held in Stockholm. The charge to the study group was approved by the IFLA Standing Committee of the Section of Cataloguing in 1992. That document, called the Terms of Reference for a Study of the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, stated:
Today the expectations and constraints facing bibliographic control are more pressing than ever. All libraries, including national bibliographic agencies, are operating under increasing budgetary constraints and increasing pressures to reduce cataloging costs through minimal level cataloging. [1]
Or, as Olivia Madison, the chair of the FRBR Study Group from 1991-1993 and 1995-1997, put it:
The Stockholm Seminar addressed the general question: "Can cataloging be considerably simplified?" [2]
The Standing Committee decided that consultants with particular skills in the area of cataloging were needed in order to approach the task, and three (later four) consultants were engaged. The primary charge to the consultants was:
1. Determine the full range of functions of the bibliographic record and then state the primary uses of the record as a whole.
This is at the very least a daunting task. However, the Terms of Reference gave the consultants some guidance about how to go about their work. The remaining tasks for the consultants were:
2. Develop a framework that identifies and clearly defines the full range of entities (e.g., work, texts, subjects, editions and authors) that are the subject of interest to users of a bibliographic record and the types of relationships (e.g. part/whole, derivative, and chronological) that may exist between those entities.
3. For each of the entities in the framework, identify and define the functions (e.g., to describe, to identify, to differentiate, to relate) that the bibliographic record is expected to perform.
4. Identify the key attributes (e.g., title, date, and size) of each entity or relationship that are required for each specific function to be performed. Attribute requirements should relate specifically to the media or format of the bibliographic item where applicable.
The notions of entities, relationships, and attributes don't appear in traditional cataloging theory; they come instead from the world of database design, and in particular relational database design. Because these concepts were expected to be unfamiliar to members of the committee and perhaps also the consultants, the Terms of Reference provides definitions, using as its source the 1984 book Data Analysis: the Key to Data Base Design, by Richard C. Perkinson. (Note, some of this is re-iterated in the FRBR final report, in the section on methodology, where four books are cited as sources of information on entity-relation methodology.)

Those were the tasks for the consultants, the selected experts who would do the analysis and present the report to the Study Group. The Study Group itself had this task:
5. For the National Libraries: for bibliographic records created by the national bibliographic agencies, recommend a basic level of functionality that relates specifically to the entities identified in the framework the functions that are relevant to each.
It appears to be this last charge that directly addressed the needs expressed in the Stockholm seminar: the need for a core level record that would help cataloging agencies reduce their costs while still serving users. I read the charges to the consultants as mainly providing a working methodology that would allow the consultants to focus  their energies on what amounts to a general rethinking of cataloging theory and practice.

The Terms of Reference is a rather bare bones statement of what needs to be done, and it says little about the why of the study. According to Tillett's 1994 report [3], some of the concerns that came out of Stockholm were:
"the mounting costs of cataloging," the proliferation of new media, "exploding bibliographic universe," the need to economize in cataloging, and "the continuing pressures to adapt cataloguing practices and codes to the machine environment."
The FRBR document states the motivation as:
"The purpose of formulating recommendations for a basic level national bibliographic record was to address the need identified at the Stockholm Seminar for a core level standard that would allow national bibliographic agencies to reduce their cataloguing costs through the creation, as necessary, of less-than-full-level records, but at the same time ensure that all records produced by national bibliographic agencies met essential user needs." [4] p.2
At this point, it is worth asking: did the FRBR study indeed result in a "core level standard" that would reduce cataloging costs for national bibliographic agencies? It definitely did define a core level standard, although that aspect of the FRBR report is not often discussed. Chapter 7 of the FRBR document, BASIC REQUIREMENTS FOR NATIONAL BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORDS, lists the "basic level of functionality" for library catalogs:
Find all manifestations embodying:
  • the works for which a given person or corporate body is responsible
  • the various expressions of a given work
  • works on a given subject
  • works in a given series
Find a particular manifestation:
  • when the name(s) of the person(s) and/or corporate body(ies) responsible for the work(s) embodied in the manifestation is (are) known
  • when the title of the manifestation is known
  • when the manifestation identifier is known
Identify a work
Identify an expression of a work
Identify a manifestation
Select a work
Select an expression
Select a manifestation
Obtain a manifestation
This of course looks quite similar to the goals of a catalog developed over a century ago by Charles Ammi Cutter:
Section 7.3 of the chapter lists the descriptive and organizing elements (headings) that should make up a core bibliographic record. This chapter should be a key element of the FRBR study results, yet it isn't often mentioned in discussions of FRBR, which tend to focus on the ten (or eleven, if you add family) entities and their primary relationships to each other (is realization of, manifests, etc.), and the four user tasks (find, identify, select, obtain).

While most people can hold forth on the FRBR entities, few can discourse on this outcome of the report, which is a basic level national bibliographic record. Admittedly, the report itself does not emphasize this information. The elements of the basic level record use the terminology of ISBD, not of FRBR, which makes it difficult to see the direct connection with the rest of the report. (I haven't had the fortitude to work through the appendix comparing FRBR attributes with ISBD, GARE and GSARE but I assume that a matching was done. However, this does make the recommended core record hard to read in the context of FRBR.) For example, there are core descriptive elements relating to uniform titles ("addition to uniform title - numeric designation (music)") yet uniform titles are not mentioned among the FRBR attributes and the term "uniform title" is not included in the index.

It is not clear to me what has happened to the goal to provide a solution for cash-strapped cataloging agencies. The E-R model, which in my reading was offered as a methodology to support the analysis that needed to be done, has become what people think of as FRBR. If the FRBR Review Group, which is currently maintaining the results of the Study Group's work, does have activities that are aimed at helping national libraries do their work more effectively while saving them cataloging time, it isn't nearly as visible as the work being done to create definition of bibliographic data that follows entity-relation modeling. In any case, I, for one, was actually surprised to discover Chapter 7 in my copy of the FRBR Study Group report.

[1] Terms of Reference for a Study of the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. (1992). Available in: Le Boeuf, P. (2005). Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR): Hype or Cure-All?. New York: Haworth Information Press.
[2] Madison, Olivia M.A. The origins of the IFLA study on Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. In: LE BŒUF, Patrick. Ed. Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR): Hype, or Cure-All? [printed text]. Binghamton, NY: the Haworth Press, 2005.
[3]Tillett, B. B. (1994). IFLA Study on the Functional Requirements of Bibliographic Records : Theoretical and Practical Foundations, (April), 1–5.
[4] IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. (2009). Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Retrieved from

Friday, February 14, 2014

FRBR as a conceptual model

(I have been working on a very long and very detailed analysis of FRBR, probably more than anyone wants to know. But some parts of that analysis might be generally helpful in understanding FRBR, so I'm going to "leak" those ideas out through this blog.)

The FRBR document, in its section on Methodology, gives the reasoning behind the use of entity-relation modeling technique:
The methodology used in this study is based on an entity analysis technique that is used in the development of conceptual models for relational database systems. Although the study is not intended to serve directly as a basis for the design of bibliographic databases, the technique was chosen as the basis for the methodology because it provides a structured approach to the analysis of data requirements that facilitates the processes of definition and delineation that were set out in the terms of reference for the study.
E-R modeling is a multi-step technique that begins with a high-level conceptual analysis of the data universe that is being considered. Quoting the FRBR document again:
The first step in the entity analysis technique is to isolate the key objects that are of interest to users of information in a particular domain. These objects of interest or entities are defined at as high a level as possible. That is to say that the analysis first focuses attention not on individual data but on the "things" the data describe. Each of the entities defined for the model, therefore, serves as the focal point for a cluster of data. An entity diagram for a personnel information system, for example, would likely identify "employee" as one entity that would be of interest to the users of such a system.

This is a very good description of conceptual modeling. So it is either puzzling or disturbing that most readings of FRBR do not recognize this difference between a conceptual model and either a record format or a logical model. In part this is because few have done a close reading of the FRBR document, and unfortunately it is easy to view the diagrams there as statements of data structure rather than high level concepts about bibliographic data. (It's not surprising that people get their information about FRBR from the diagrams, rather than the text. There are three very simple diagrams in the document, and 142 pages of text. Yet even if a picture is worth a thousand words, those three are not equal to the text.)

One of the main assumptions about FRBR is that the entities listed there should be directly translated into records in any bibliographic data design that intends to implement FRBR. For example, there is much criticism of BIBFRAME for presenting a two-entity bibliographic model instead of the four entities of FRBR. This reflects the mistaken idea that each Group 1 entity must be a record in whatever future bibliographic formats are developed. As entities in a conceptual model there is absolutely no direct transfer from conceptual entities to data records. How best to create a record format that carries the concepts is something that would be arrived at after a further and more detailed technical analysis. In fact, the development of a record format might not seem to be a direct descendent of the E-R model, since the E-R modeling technique has a bias toward the structure of relational database management systems, not records, and the FRBR Study Group was not intending its work to be translated directly to a database design.

There are innumerable ways that one could implement a data design that fulfills the conceptual view of FRBR. In E-R modeling there are subsequent steps that build on the conceptual design to develop it into an actionable data design. These steps are actually more detailed and imposing than the conceptual design which is often used to bridge the knowledge gap between operational staff and the technical staff that must creating a working system. The step after the conceptual model is usually the logical design step that completes the list of attributes, and defines the types of data values that will be stored in the database tables (text, date, currency) and the cardinality of each data element (mandatory, optional, repeatable, etc.). It then normalizes the data to remove any duplication of data within the entire database. It also resolves relationships between data tables so that one-to-many and many-to-many relationships are correctly implemented for the applications that will make use of them. Although this is couched in terms of database design, an equally rigorous step would be needed to move from a conceptual view to a design for a format that could be used in library systems and for data exchange.

As an illustration, here is a logical design for the bibliographic system MusicBrainz that stores information about recorded music. It has many of the same concepts as FRBR (works, performers, variant expressions), and must resolve the complex relationships between albums, songs, and performances (not unlike what a music library catalog must do):

With perhaps some difference in details you could say that this implements the concepts of FRBR. Still, this is a database design, and not a record format. For many databases, there is no single record that represents all of the stored data. Business databases are generally a combination of data from numerous departments and processes, and they can often output many different data combinations as needed.

It does say something about the state of technology awareness in the library profession that once a presumably successful conceptual model was developed there was no second step to make that model operational. What was the ultimate goal of FRBR, and did it fulfill that goal? Look for another post soon on that topic.