Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Cataloging v. Metadata

The joke goes:
Metadata is cataloging done by men.
The point of the joke (yes, I know it isn't funny if you have to explain a joke) is that the term metadata was coined to make cataloging palatable to the computer community, and that they're really the same thing. We often use the terms interchangeably, but my recent forays into the world of RDA development have led me to look more closely at the meaning of the term cataloging, and I have concluded that metadata creation and cataloging are very different activities. I do consider a catalog record to be a form of metadata, but not all metadata, and not even all bibliographic metadata, is cataloging.

It's not just a matter of having rules or not having rules, however. Although it seems obvious to say this, the goal of cataloging is the creation of a catalog. Catalogers create entries for the catalog using rules that are designed to produce not only a certain coherent body of data, but to enforce a particular set of functions (access via alphabetically displayed headings is an example of a function) that are required to support the catalog. The catalog entries create the catalog.

Library cataloging, as a form of metadata, has traditionally had well-defined goals. The catalog records were defined in terms of the catalog's physical structure and functions. With the card-based cataloging rules, from the ALA rules through AACR2, each catalog entry was a precise, unchangeable unit of the catalog, a cell in a well-designed body. As the cataloger created the record, she could know exactly how headings would be used, exactly where they would be filed in the catalog, exactly what actions users would have to take to navigate to them.

This precision ended with the creation of the online catalog. Catalog entries that had been created for a linear card file were being accessed through keyword searches; displays no longer followed the "main entry" concept; the purposeful unit created by the cards in the catalog was destroyed. There was no longer a match between the catalog and the cataloging.

Which is why many of us are having a hard time with the development of our future cataloging rules, RDA. RDA doesn't define the catalog that it is creating catalog entries for, which brings into question how decisions are being made. What is the concept of a catalog in this highly mutable world of ours? I can't imagine that we can create cataloging rules until we define the catalog (or catalogs) that the rules pertain to. It may not be the highly structured system that we had with the card catalog, where access points were THE access points and every card had its one place in the ordered universe that was the catalog. Still, we need to define the catalog before we can expect to create the entries that go into it. We can start with the FRBR "find, identify, select, obtain," but we must close the enormous gap between those functions and actual catalog entries.


Anonymous said...

"...the goal of cataloging is the creation of a catalog..."

Maybe just semantics, but I think the goal of cataloging is to help people find things (e.g. Cutter's goals). A lot of catalogs don't fully meet this goal.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, thanks. I think in the current environment the distinction between 'cataloging' and 'metadata creation' is not a good one---except to the extent that by 'cataloging' we mean 'the way it's traditionally always been done and we still tend to do it for traditional materials' and by 'metadata' we mean 'the new ways we're trying to figure out how to do it better.'

I don't think there is a _principled_ distinction--rather than one based on historical accident and inertia--that makes sense in 2006. I don't think there is anything to be gained by limiting a definition of 'cataloging' to something unambitious.

The goal of cataloging and metadata creation should be to create metadata records that flexibly support varied applications, functions, and displays, now and in the foreseeable future.

I think you're right that this is awfully vague, and it would be extremely helpful to have some concrete objectives---WHICH applications, functions and displays must be supported? This is the point of the IFLA Objectives of the Catalog or the (very similar, not un-coincidentally) RDA User Tasks. But more work can be done here, and it IS tricky.

But it's an issue that faces metadata creation in general, I think, not just 'cataloging'.

I also think that a lot in fact CAN be done by applying general principles. General principles of software engineering and data and information architecting can be succesful in creating data that can be succesfully used in unexpected contexts. Of course, we may not practically be able to do this completely, we may need to identify our objectives in order to prioritize what areas of our metadata we will actually work on designing well, and what we will sadly default on.

Also, these principles of succesful data architecting are still being discovered too. How to do metadata right is a topic of serious practical investigation in this 21st century, we are not alone---all the more danger to start thinking that 'cataloging' and 'metadata' are something different, I think.

Jonathan Rochkind

Karen Coyle said...

"... the goal of cataloging is to help people find things..."

I would say that's the goal of the catalog -- you create a catalog so that people can find things. You implement the catalog through technology (cards, OPAC, etc.) and through the creation of entries in the catalog. That's cataloging. My definition gives the catalog primacy, and makes the decisions of cataloging directed by how the catalog's goals are defined. Essentially, I don't think that there is cataloging without a catalog. I do think you can create metadata without a catalog, however. So my question to myself is: in the future, will we be creating catalogs? If so, what will they look like, and how does that effect the cataloging that libraries do?

Karen Coyle said...

Jonathan said:

"General principles of software engineering and data and information architecting can be succesful in creating data that can be succesfully used in unexpected contexts."

If you have some good resources to point to, could you add them to the wiki? It would be good to start gathering up some concrete info in this area. Thanks.

Mia said...

Cataloguing is not about creating a catalogue. Its purpose is to describe an object, by transcribing, and then interpreting (and/or vice versa) the elements under scrutiny by applying an understood set of rules and grammar; and secondly, to assign and formulate attributes and values, semantic and notational (aka subject headings, descriptors, classification numbers, marc coding, etc.) for those elements.

Cataloguing is a process, not the end result in itself. The end result could be anything other than what seems to be equated with a catalogue.

Karen Coyle said...

Mia, what you describe is what I would call "metadata creation". I happened on this concept of catalog and cataloging when trying to understand the work being done by the JSC for the revision of the cataloging rules (now being called RDA). When librarians talk about cataloging (and especially when catalogers talk about cataloging) I think they mean what I described in my post -- and although the act is one of describing items, the cataloging rules in our case are entirely about building a particular thing that we call the library catalog. It has some very specific characteristics: access is through controlled headings that take certain forms; there are main and added entries; relationships are often described in notes; there is some adherence to ISBD. If what you describe and what AACR2 describes are both cataloging, then we need some more distinctions if we are going to understand each other. Maybe what it comes down to is that library cataloging is a very particular kind of cataloging, in the same way that the MARC record is a particular kind of metadata record. It's the pecularity that I want to bring out and distinguish from more general actions of metadata creation.

Anonymous said...

or can we say that cataloging is for physical objects while metadata creation is for digital
or may be metadata is just a trendy term for cataloging? Suppose metadata use the same content standard and structure..would'nt it be the same as cataloging?

Karen Coyle said...

We already do add digital items to our library catalogs, using the cataloging rules that we use for other forms of content. So it's not a difference of physical/digital.

I'm seeing it more as single purpose v. multi-purpose, I guess. Fixed v. flexible. Prescriptive v. neutral. Let's say you have a database and it has exactly 6 fields. When you create entries for that database, you can only create entries that fit into those 6 fields. You can't create a 7th field or repeat a non-repeatable field because all that you are doing is filling in those 6 fields. (Imagine it like there's a form that constrains input, as there is in many cases.)

Now imagine that you are creating a record in a free-standing record creation module. It's going to be used to fill in that database with 6 fields, but it's also going to be sent along to someone who has a database with 12 fields, and to someone else who has a database with 3 fields, and you don't even know how many others might use it. In this case, you are not bounded by a single database design. Nor can you have much control over how your data is used.

In my judgment, catalogers are filling in the 6 fields, with no ability to add others. The records they create are designed to fulfill the needs of that database in terms of access and display... and no others. Creators of metadata must produce a record that can be used in a variety of known contexts, and that hopefully is so granular and non-prescriptive that new contexts and new uses can be supported. It won't be perfect, and it will always turn out that there were some assumptions that violate the theory of total neutrality. But the goal is considerably different to those of a cataloger.

Anonymous said...

Like several previous posters, I consider cataloging to be the creation of metadata for a specific purpose - the creation of a catalog. I think the distinction has value as a reminder that the metadata creator should always be mindful (to the extent possible) of the ultimate use for which the metadata is being written.

Karen Coyle said...

I agree, and I think you are agreeing with the message in my post. Not all metadata, therefore, is cataloging -- that is, not all metadata becomes part of a catalog, much less a library catalog. (Think of the metadata elements in an OpenURL SAP entry.) Library cataloging is the creation of metadata for library catalogs -- a very specific purpose, and not very re-purposable given the rules for today's catalogs (e.g. main entry, headings designed for left-to-right textual access, important information in notes that are not machine-actionable). We can only conclude, IMO, that library cataloging and the library catalog have to change together because they are not separable.

Dorothea said...

Curiously, I find myself wobbling on both sides of this divide when I do subject keywording for the IR I run.

For some collections, I'm aware that the items are part of a great conglomeration of stuff harvestable by OAI-PMH. Open-ended, flexible, and all that.

Other collections seem to have more of a unified identity, and keywording them feels more like making them stand out among the rest of the items *in the collection* -- which if I'm understanding Karen's distinctions correctly is more like "creating a catalogue."

It's a little like looking at an optical illusion. Practices turn inside-out on a moment's notice!