Thursday, April 06, 2017

Precipitating Forward

Our Legacy, Our Mistake


If you follow the effort taking place around the proposed new bibliographic data standard, BIBFRAME, you may have noticed that much of what is being done with BIBFRAME today begins our current data in MARC format and converts it to BIBFRAME. While this is a function that will be needed should libraries move to a new data format, basing our development on how our legacy data converts is not the best way to move forward. In fact, it doesn't really tell us what "forward" might look like if we give it a chance.

We cannot define our future by looking only at our past. There are some particular aspects of our legacy data that make this especially true.          

I have said before (video, article) that we made a mistake when we went from printing cards using data encoded in MARC, to using MARC in online catalogs. The mistake was that we continued to use the same data that had been well-adapted to card catalogs without making the changes that would have made it well-adapted to computer catalogs. We never developed data that would be efficient in a database design or compatible with database technology. We never really moved from textual description to machine-actionable data points. Note especially that computer catalogs fail to make use of assigned headings as they are intended, yet catalogers continue to assign them at significant cost.

One of the big problems in our legacy data that makes it hard to take advantage of computing technology is that the data tends to be quirky. Technology developers complain that the data is full of errors (as do catalogers), but in fact it is very hard to define, algorithmically, what is an error in our data.  The fact is that the creation of the data is not governed by machine rules; instead, decisions are made by humans with a large degree of freedom. Some fields are even defined as being either this or that, something that is never the case in a data design. A few fields are considered required, although we've all seen records that don't have those required fields. Many fields are repeatable and the order of fields and subfields is left to the cataloger, and can vary.

The cataloger view is of a record of marked-up text. Computer systems can do little with text other than submit it for keyword indexing and display it on the screen. Technical designers look to the fixed fields for precise data points that they can operate on, but these are poorly supported and are often not included in the records since they don't look like "cataloging" as it is defined in libraries. These coded data elements are not defined by the cataloging code, either, and can be seen a mere "add-ons" that come with the MARC record format. The worst of it is that they are almost uniformly redundant with the textual data yet must be filled in separately, an extra step in the cataloging process that some cannot afford.

The upshot of this is that it is very hard to operate over library catalog data algorithmically. It is also very difficult to do any efficient machine validation to enforce consistency in the data. If we carry that same data and those same practices over to a different metadata schema, it will still be very hard to operate over algorithmically, and it will still be hard to do quality control as a function of data creation.

The counter argument to this is that cataloging is not a rote exercise - that catalogers must make complex decisions that could not be done by machines. If cataloging were subject to the kinds of data entry rules that are used in banking and medical and other modern systems, then the creativity of the cataloger's work would be lost, and the skill level of cataloging would drop to mere data entry.

This is the same argument you could used for any artisanal activity. If we industrialize the act of making shoes, the skills of the master shoe-maker are lost. However, if we do not industrialize shoe production, only a very small number of people will be able to afford to wear shoes.

This decision is a hard one, and I sympathize with the catalogers who are very proud of their understanding of the complexity of the bibliographic world. We need people who understand that complexity. Yet increasingly we are not able to afford to support the kind of cataloging practices of which we are proud. Ideally, we would find a way to channel those skills into a more efficient workflow.

There is a story that I tell often: In the very early days of the MARC record, around the mid-1970's, many librarians thought that we could never have a "computer catalog" because most of our cataloging existed only on cards, and we could NEVER go back and convert the card catalogs, retype every card into MARC. At that same time, large libraries in the University of California system were running over 100,000-150,000 cards behind in their filing. For those of you who never filed cards... it was horribly labor intensive. Falling 150,000 cards behind meant that a book was on the shelf THREE MONTHS before the cards were in the catalog. Some of this was the "fault" of OCLC which was making it almost too easy to create those cards. Another factor was a great increase in publishing that was itself facilitated by word processing and computer-driven typography. Within less than a decade it became more economical to go through the process of conversion from printed cards to online catalogs than to continue to maintain enormous card catalogs. And the rest is history. MARC, via OCLC, created a filing crisis, and in a sense it was the cost of filing that killed the card catalog, not the thrill of the modern online catalog.

The terrible mistake that we made back then was that we did not think about what was different between the card catalog and the online catalog, and we did not adjust our data creation accordingly. We carried the legacy data into the new format which was a disservice to both catalogers and catalog users. We missed an opportunity to provide new discovery options and more efficient data creation.

We mustn't make this same mistake again.

The Precipitant

Above I said that libraries made the move into computer-based catalogs because it was uneconomical to maintain the card catalog. I don't know what the precipitant will be for our current catalog model, but there are some rather obvious places to look to for that straw that will break the MARC/ILS back. These problems will probably manifest themselves as costs that require the library to find a more efficient and less costly solution. Here are some of the problems that I see today that might be factors that require change:

  • Output rates of intellectual and cultural products is increasing. Libraries have already responded to this through shared cataloging and purchase of cataloging from product vendors. However, the records produced in this way are then loaded into thousands of individual catalogs in the MARC-using community.
  • Those records are often edited for correctness and enhanced. Thus they are costing individual libraries a large amount of money, potentially as much or more than libraries save by receiving the catalog copy.
  • Each library must pay for a vendor system that can ingest MARC records, facilitate cataloging, and provide full catalog user (patron) support for searching and display.
  • "Sharing" in today's environment means exporting data and sending it as a file. Since MARC records can only be shared as whole records, updates and changes generally are done as a "full record replace" which requires a fair amount of cycles. 
  • The "raw" MARC record as such is not database friendly, so records must be greatly massaged in order to store them in databases and provide indexing and displays. Another way to say this is that there are no database technologies that know about the MARC record format. There are database technologies that natively accept and manage other data formats, such as key-value pairs

There are some current technologies that might provide solutions:

  • Open source. There is already use of open source technology in some library projects. Moving more toward open source would be facilitated by moving away from a library-centric data standard and using at least a data structure that is commonly deployed in the information technology world. Some of this advantage has already been obtained with using MARCXML.
  • The cloud. The repeated storing of the same data in thousands of catalogs means not being able to take advantage of true sharing. In a cloud solution, records would be stored once (or in a small number of mirrors), and a record enhancement would enhance the data for each participant without being downloaded to a separate system. This is similar to what is being proposed by OCLC's WorldShare and Ex Libris' Alma, although presumably those are "starter" applications. Use of the cloud for storage might also mean less churning of data in local databases; it could mean that systems could be smaller and more agile.
  • NoSQL databases and triple stores. The current batch of databases are open source, fast, and can natively process data in a variety of formats (although not MARC). Data does not have to be "pre-massaged" in order to be stored in a database or retrieved and the database technology and the data technology are in sync. This makes deployment of systems easier and faster. There are NoSQL database technologies for RDF. Another data format that has dedicated database technology is XML, although that ship may have sailed by now.
  • The web. The web itself is a powerful technology that retrieves distributed data at astonishing rates. There are potential cost/time savings on any function that can be pushed out the web to make use of its infrastructure. 

The change from MARC to ?? will come and it will be forced upon us through technology and economics. We can jump to a new technology blindly, in a panic, or we can plan ahead. Duh.



4 comments:

Tsunshine said...

Hi Karen, juts out of interest why the dot co dot nz? I'm from Auckland

Karen Coyle said...

It's a blogger thing - it changes based on the country in which it is viewed. In the US it's just .com

Tsunshine said...

Hi Karen, I am quite new to libraries but not so new to cloud storage. As you see it, what are the main hurdles to worldwide catalogue sharing on a cloud system please?

Karen Coyle said...

Well, we already have a huge shared cataloging database in WorldCat (http://worldcat.org) with over 70K participating libraries. The main hurdles are:

1) money
2) a stable organization to manage it
3) data standards that aid de-duplication

Although we have a near universal data standard in ISO 2709 (see: http://www.loc.gov/marc/specifications/ for a freely available version) bibliographic data is mainly text and can vary significantly for perfectly good reasons. The big hurdle is getting to a single entry for each single bibliographic "thing" while still serving the needs of local users.

4) manageable updates of local holdings

There's not much use having a bibliographic database if it doesn't tell you if the item is available to you, either physically or digitally. I think we need a cloud of bibliographic data and then a large distributed network to manage local and personal access. This network needs to reduce the burden on local inventories, which are often running on cheap systems that can easily be overwhelmed. Those systems are vendor-supplied, have minimal if any APIS, and are not easily modified; they would need some software that pushes updates to the network, which would carry most of the query burden.

It's an interesting problem and one that I would like to see studied further. Go for it!