Sunday, August 16, 2009

What is a (FRBR) Work?

"What is a Work?" is an oft-discussed question. Answers tend to come down on one side or another of what is essentially a philosophical reaction to the inherent abstractness of the nature of the FRBR Work.

I was poking around in the Futurelib wiki (much neglected of late, but I have recently gathered there all of my posts on Martha Yee's article on library cataloging and RDF), and came across an interesting comment by Kristin Antelman from over 2 years ago:

I realize this is a point of absolutely no controversy in the FRBR community, but I have never been happy with the title attribute in association with the abstract entities, work and expression. It seems contrary to the spirit of an abstract entity, not to mention creating practical problems (e.g., for serials). There obviously could be many titles associated a work in its manifestations. Libraries may want to select one over another for the "work," or display, title. Works and expressions only need identifier attributes: for the work, author and subject.
RDA recognizes both a Work title and a Manifestation title (called title proper). I've been known to argue that these are distinct data elements: the Manifestation title is transcribed from the piece and is part of the surrogate for the manifestation; the Work title (which we used to call "Uniform title") acts as a unifier for all of the Expressions and Manifestations of the Work. Kristin's comment got me thinking about this again, and I agree with her: there is no title for the Work. The Uniform title served as an identifier for the Work in the days when we used things like titles to identify things. But FRBR and RDA recognize that entities will have identifiers that are separate from the display forms of names and titles that we have used in the past.

This "no title" solution actually helps out with one of the sticky problems in creating Work displays, particularly in a multi-lingual catalog. When you follow the concept of uniform titles, the Work title should be the title of the original. This means that we would be showing our users Война и мир as the title for the Work that most of them will know as War and Peace. We could show them the English language title, but what if your catalog users are global? What if some of them will only understand the title if you display it in French or Turkish or Chinese? If a Work has an identifier (which is only useful for machine processing, not for display to humans), then you can let users choose what language they prefer in Work displays. (Obviously having some default for the case where the user's preferred language isn't available.)

So I like the idea of not assigning a title to the work, but I must admit that I'm increasingly seeing the Work not as a thing but as a set; a set made up of things that claim to be Manifestations of the work. Each resource that claims to be a Manifestation of that Work (using the Work identifier) is then part of the Work set, and it is the set that defines the Work.
The Work set is not fixed - new items can add themselves to the set at any time. Thus, the Work is defined from the bottom up, from the contents of the set. The members of the set have titles and have subjects, and that means that the Work also has those titles and subjects.

This "solution" requires us still to make decisions about what we display to represent the Work. Do we show subject headings as related to the Work? What about reviews and excerpts? If you want to add a cover to the display, how do you select from among the various covers you may have?

A great advantage of this solution is that you can make different display decisions at different times, or in different contexts. A public library can point users directly to the shelf location from the Work display; a rare book archive can include key information about available editions; a social networking site can list the users who own versions of the Work. The concept of Work becomes somewhat fluid and malleable, which in my mind is closer to reality than a fixed thing that has only certain attributes.


Lukas Koster said...

Very good points, Karen. This is similar to the idea an old colleague of mine and I had years ago for an "all purpose, flexible" data model, using abstract concepts (just ID's), with multiple multilingual "labels" for names, descriptions, etc.

We definitely need to look into the FRBR and RDA design model again!

Irvin Flack said...

I agree that thinking of FRBR entities as sets of items is a practical way to go.

But I don't see a problem with assigning a title to a work because it's an abstraction or a set of things. We give titles to other abstractions, why not to works?

For example, the United States is an abstract entity but we don't shrink from giving it a name and assigning it 'properties' like "hasPresident" or "hasGDP". And the name assigned might be different in different languages but they're all describing the same abstraction.

Actually, how could we practically discuss a work without giving it a title? I can't imagine saying, "Hey, have you read one of the set of items authored by Jane Austen about social life and customs in 18th century England?" rather than "Pride and prejudice" :-)

Also, is there really a difference between assigning a title to a abstraction and assigning an author or a subject to one? I'm thinking of a textbook which has gone through many editions with changes and contributions by new editors but still has the original author assigned as _the_ author of the work.

Karen Coyle said...

Irvin, maybe I should have been more specific. RDA has a single element that is the Work title, and catalogers must decide what that title is. The title then identifies the work. In fact, there will be many titles in a set of works, and different communities will refer to the work with different titles, e.g. the French will talk about "A la recherche du temps perdu" while English speakers will talk about "Remembrance of things past." If we select only ONE Work title for library data, then we have to display the same one for everyone, regardless of their point of view. If we don't assign that Work title, then we can do like we hope to do with other elements, which is make a choice of display based on the user's context (e.g. language). We don't want to force everyone to see the Russian title for War and Peace, right? So it doesn't mean that we won't call the work something, it just means that the title of the Work isn't fixed once and for all time in our library data.

Jonathan Rochkind said...

I am increasingly thinking that work-centric-focused displays are the way to go. (I agree thinking of the work as a set is the way to go, ala Svenonius). So, when you show a 'work' in a hit-list, if it doens't have a title... what do you label it for the user?

Sure, you _could_ just take, say, the title of the most popularly held edition in Worldcat (if you have that data). (Or, an obvious refinement, the most popularly held edition in the langauge of the user) But the extent that the work is indeed conceived of as a unit in popular conciousness... there's _some_ label it is known or recognizable as. What's the harm of having a human cataloger enter this label for future use? There seems to me to be no harm and significant value to having that.

Of _course_ it should be possible to record work titles in multiple languages, and display the label in the language of choice for the user. Or perhaps even multiple labels for different communities even within a language (known as X to theologians, but as Y to physicists? Are there really any examples of such works? I dont know, but a data model ought to support recording such a thing, sure, why not).

And, certainly we need to get used to dealing with records that have various levels of completeness about them. Maybe there's one work that has a human-assigned label, and another that doens't. Certainly the system needs to be able to come up with a label for the latter as well, by heuristically analyzing the titles of the manifestations in the work set and picking one, sure.

But it seems to be odd to say that there's no need or use for humans to enter labels that a work is known as in a given language. Is this not useful?

(And of course no argument that we should STOP using (or trying to use!) these labels as machine-recognizable identifiers!)

Jennifer Parsons said...

Lukas, I like the idea of multiple "labels" for the same work-- but, to be fair, I wonder how that can translate into software.

Most ILS software I've encountered works on a manifestation--> item level, and that's how it translates to catalog display. Certainly a work-centered display, as Jonathan pointed out, is more intuitive. It would also make the outside linking of "discovery interfaces" a lot easier.

My question, then, is this-- how far do we want these labels to extend, and to what purpose? Keep in mind that our users are going to use the "labels" for all aspects of FRBR; "War and Peace" will be used to refer to the copy in their hands as well as the listing in the WebPAC.

In helping identify works, titles will only take us so far, at least if they're not structured. To use database-speak, do we think that works need primary keys so that they can be identifed? Should they be titles? How will the titles be chosen? And most importantly, how will this affect display of the work to users?

Karen Coyle said...


"But it seems to be odd to say that there's no need or use for humans to enter labels that a work is known as in a given language. Is this not useful?"

We MAY need humans to enter labels for what a work is known as, although that information should already be in the title of the manifestation in that language. So the English version of "War and Peace" has the title "War and Peace." The Italian one has "Guerra e Pace." If we are able to gather these, and other translations, together into a set that then makes up the work, we have the translated titles available to us for display.

If we have to choose one and only one title to represent the Work - which is what we do today - then what does that title represent? Not necessarily what the users think of as the title of the Work, since the Work title may be the original and our users may only know the title in translation.

It's that "one and only one -- as identifier of the Work" that I don't think serves us. Instead, we have a Work with a number of titles in different languages.

What becomes tricky in FRBR (and RDA doesn't solve it, I don't think) is that neither FRBR nor RDA have a concept of "original Work" or "original Expression". This makes the selection of a single Work title fairly tricky. If by chance you have a bunch of versions of the same work and have no idea what the original was (say, some publication of a piece by Aristotle) then you don't have a way to formulate a work title. In that sense, the title of the work is really the set of all of the titles of the manifestations, because there isn't one that you can point to and say: this is the actual original title of this Work. So I'd rather have an identifier for the work, and a lot of manifestation titles are available for display. Obviously, you'll always need to display at least one for users, but how you choose which one to display is up to you, not inherent in the Work.