Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Work

I've been on a committee that was tasked by the Program for Cooperative Cataloging folks(*) to help them understand some of the issues around works (as defined in FRBR, RDA, BIBFRAME, etc.). There are huge complications, not the least being that we all are hard-pressed to define what a work is, much less how it should be addressed in some as-yes-unrealized future library system. Some of what I've come to understand may be obvious to you, especially if you are a cataloger who provides authority data for your own catalog or the shared environment. Still, I thought it would be good to capture these thoughts. Of course, I welcome comments and further insights on this.

There are at least four different meanings to the term work as it is being discussed in library venues.


First there is the concept that every resource embodies something that could be called a "work" and that this work is a human creation. The idea of the work probably dates back as far as the recognition that humans create things, and that those things have meaning. There is no doubt that there is "work-ness" in all created things, although prior to FRBR there was little attempt to formally define it as an aspect of bibliographic description. It entered into cataloging consciousness in the 20th century: Patrick Wilson saw works as families of resources that grow and branch with each related publication;[1] Richard Smiraglia looked at works as a function of time;[2] and Seymour Lubetzky seems to have been the first to insist on viewing the work as intellectual content separate from the physical piece.[3]

"Work Description"

Second, there is the work in the bibliographic description: the RDA cataloging rules define the attributes or data elements that make up the work description, like the names of creators and the subject matter of the resource. Catalogers include these elements in descriptive cataloging even when the work is not defined as a stand-alone entity, as in the case of doing RDA cataloging in a MARC21 record environment. Most of the description of works is not new; creators and subjects have been assigned to cataloged items for a century or more. What is changed is that conceptually these are considered to be elements of the work that is inherent in the resource that is being cataloged but not limited to the item in hand.

It is this work description that is addressed in FRBR. The FRBR document of 1998 describes the scope of its entities to be solely bibliographic,  specifically excluding authority data:
"The present study does not analyse those additional data associated with persons, corporate bodies, works, and subjects that are typically recorded only in authority records."
Notably, FRBR is silent on the question of whether the work description is unique within the catalog, which would be implied by the creation of a work authority "record".

"Work Decision"

Next there is the work decision: this is the situation when a data creator determines whether the work to be described needs a unique and unifying entry within the stated cataloging environment to bring together exemplars of the same work that may be described differently. If so, the cataloger defines the authoritative identity for the work and provides information that distinguishes that work from all other works, and that brings together all of the variations of that work. The headings ("uniform titles") that are created also serve to disambiguate expressions of the same work by adding dates, languages, and other elements of the expression. To back all of this up, the cataloger gives evidence of his/her decision, primarily what sources were consulted that support the decision.

In today's catalog, a full work decision, resulting in a work authority record, is done for only a small number of works, with the exception of musical works where such titles are created for nearly all. The need to make the work decision may vary from catalog to catalog and can depend on whether the library holds multiple expressions of the work or other works that may need clarification in the catalog. Note that there is nothing in FRBR that would indicate that every work must have a unique description, just that works should be described. However, some have assumed that the FRBR work is always a representation of a unique creation. I don't find that expressed in FRBR nor the FRBR-LRM.

"Work Entity"

Finally there is the work entity: this is a data structure that encapsulates the description of the work. This data structure could be realized in any number of different encodings, such as ISO 2709 (the underlying record structure for MARC21), RDF, XML, or JSON. The latter two can also accommodate linked data in the form of RDFXML or JSON-LD.

Here we have a complication in our current environment because the main encodings of bibliographic data, MARC21 and BIBFRAME, both differ from the work concept presented in FRBR and in the RDA cataloging rules, which follow FRBR fairly faithfully. With a few exceptions, MARC21 does not distinguish work elements from expression or manifestation elements. Encoding RDA-defined data in the MARC21 "unit record" can be seen as proof of the conceptual nature of the work (and expression and manifestation) as defined in FRBR.

BIBFRAME, the proposed replacement for MARC21, has re-imagined the bibliographic work entity, departing from the entity breakdown in FRBR by defining a BIBFRAME work entity that tends to combine elements from FRBR's work and expression. However, where FRBR claims a neat divison between the entities, with no overlapping descriptive elements, BIBFRAME 2.0 is being designed as a general bibliographic model, not an implementation of FRBR. (Whether or not BIBFRAME achieves this goal is another question.)

The diagrams in the 1998 FRBR report imply that there would be a work entity structure. However, the report also states unequivocally that it is not defining a data format.(**) In keeping with 1990's library technology, FRBR anticipates that each entity may have an identifier, but the identifier is a descriptive element (think: ISBN), not an anchor for all of the data elements of the entity (think: IRI).

As we see with the implementation of RDA cataloging in the MARC21 environment, describing a work conceptually does not require the use of a separate work "record." Whether work decisions are required for every cataloged manifestation is a cataloging decision; whether work entities are required for every work is a data design decision. That design decision should be based on the services that the system is expected to render.  The "entity" decision may or may not require any action on the part of the cataloger depending on the interface in which cataloging takes place. Just as today's systems do not store the MARC21 data as it appears on the cataloger's screen, future systems will have internal data storage formats that will surely differ from the view in the various user interfaces.

"The Upshot"

We can assume that every human-created resource has an aspect of work-ness, but this doesn't always translate well to bibliographic description nor to a work entity in bibliographic data. Past practice in relation to works differs significantly from, say, the practice in relation to agents (persons, corporate bodies) for whom one presumes that the name authority control decision is always part of the cataloging workflow. Instead, work "names" have been inconsistently developed (with exceptions, such as in music materials). It is unclear if, in the future, every work description will be assumed to have undergone a "work name authority" analysis, but even more unreliable is any assumption that can be made about whether an existing bibliographic description without a uniform title has had its "work-ness" fully examined.

This latter concern is especially evident in the transformations of current MARC21 cataloging into either RDA, BIBFRAME, or From what I have observed, the transformations do not preserve the difference between a manifestation title that does not have a formal uniform title to represent the work, and those titles that are currently coded in MARC21 fields 130, 240, or the $t of an author/title field. Instead, where a coded uniform title is not available in the MARC21 record, the manifestation title is copied to the work title element. This means that the fact that a cataloger has carefully crafted a work title for the resource is lost. Even though we may agree that the creation of work titles has been inconsistent at best, copying transcribed titles to the work title entity wherever no uniform title field is present in the MARC21 record seems to be a serious loss of information. Or perhaps I should put this as a question: in the absence of a unform title element, can we assume that the transcribed title is the appropriate work title?

To conclude, I guess I will go ahead and harp on a common nag of mine, which is that copying data from one serialization to another is not the transformation that will help us move forward. The "work" is very complex; I would feel less concerned if we had a strong and shared concept of what services we want the work to provide in the future, which should help us decide what to do with the messy legacy that we have today.


* Note that in 1877 there already was a "Co-operation committee" of the American Library Association, tasked with looking at cooperative cataloging and other tasks. That makes this a 140-year-old tradition.
"Of the standing committees, that on co-operation will probably prove the most important organ of the Association..." (see more at link)

** If you want more about what FRBR is and is not, I will recommend my book "FRBR: Before and After" (open access copy) for an in-depth analysis. If you want less, try my SWIB talk "Mistakes Have Been Made" which gets into FRBR at about 13:00, but you might enjoy the lead-up to that section.


[1] Wilson, Patrick. Two Kinds of Power : an Essay on Bibliographical Control. University of California Publications: Librarianship. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978.
[2] Smiraglia, Richard. The Nature of “a Work”; Implications for the Organization of Knowledge. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
[3] Lubetzky, Seymour. Principles of Cataloging. Final report. Phase I. In: Seymour Lubtezky: writings on the classical art of cataloging. Edited by Elaine Svenonius and Dorothy McGarry. Englewood, CO, Libraries Unlimited. 2001


Frank Newton said...

This is very interesting! I came across it from the reference to it in a library news source, AL Direct 7/11/2017. My own thinking, which is developing very slowly, is that strategy to help pin down what we mean by a "work" in the bibliographic sense, is to pin down what we mean by the adjacent term in the FRBR hierarchy, which is "Expression" -- the term in the FRBR hierarchy which didn't make it into RDA (or hasn't yet made it into RDA). If I were to rank the FRBR hierarchy levels in terms of fuzziness or absence of specimens, I would say manifestation and item are concrete -- thousands and millions of specimens are available for our study -- and work is fuzzier, but expression is the fuzziest level of all in the hierarchy. I think any research which would help to bring to light actual specimens of "expressions" would, by the same token, help clarify what we mean by work. The key to focusing this research, in my opinion, would be to focus on works that have been around long enough to have two or more editions, but not long enough to develop extensive ramification or branching. That rules out all Shakespeare and Jane Austen too I suppose, but there ought to be twentieth century works which have that intermediate amount of ramification which would repay study for those of us who would like to be able to say, here's how we know the FRBR hierarchy is on the right track. Frank Newton (Cataloger, Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, North carolina)

Daniel Lovins said...

Thank you, Karen, for this helpful four-fold analysis of "work". Sorry if I'm missing something obvious, but in the "Upshot" section, you write that "where a coded uniform title is not available in the MARC21 record [that is, in the 130, 240, or subfield $t of author/title field], the manifestation title is copied to the work title element. This means that the fact that a cataloger has carefully crafted a work title for the resource is lost." I'm just wondering what constitutes the "carefully-crafted work title," in the absence of one of those MARC21 fields? Thanks again. - Daniel Lovins, NYU

Karen Coyle said...

Hi, Daniel. Maybe I didn't word that well. I'm considering the 130, 240 "carefully crafted", aka Uniform titles created by cataloger. (There's also an issue relating to fields with $t and whether that is controlled or not.) In other words, there is no difference in BIBFRAME coding in the bf:Work entity, AFAIK, between a Uniform Title and a transcribed title when the title in the work entity is derived from the MARC record. I could be wrong about this, but I ran two records through the MARC-2-BF converter and that's what I saw. The fact that a title is a "Uniform title" is lost.

Daniel Lovins said...

That makes sense, Karen. Thanks for clarifying.

Sherman Clarke said...

My favorite old model of bibliographic/cataloging "Work-ness" is that of the printed British Museum book catalog which presumably is an application of Panizzi's rules. Classic works like those of Plato had a hierarchical WEMI-like arrangement. It didn't include a full work-description, your second meaning. Still, you had to be aware of the catalog hierarchy in order to make sense of some of the later expression and manifestation descriptions (to borrow FRBR terms). The expressions/manifestations inherited the work-ness.

"Simple" works, in one edition, just had a card/description that conflated the WEMI characteristics.

The BM catalog that I am familiar with is the Photolithographic Edition to 1955 (263 vols. London, 1959-66). The BL website lists earlier catalogs and I don't know if the Work-ness model goes way back to the 18th century catalog.

Larry Creider said...

Thank you for posting this to the Bibframe list as well as to your log. I think that the division of discussion into Work-ness, Work description, Work decision and Work Entity is quite interesting. If I may make a few comments.

Work-ness In bibliographic terms this goes back to Panizzi, as I am sure that you know. Once you have the decision to records different editions of the same work together in a catalog(or catalogue in BM's case), there is a notion of the work, which gives rise to uniform titles to connect them. Lubetzsky's efforts led to the concept of a work being placed into the Paris Principles, whence it has created all sorts of issues. I think that one of the basic problems is that in a bibliographic universe which is oriented to describing material objects the work is exists only as a concept to unify and distinguish objects.
One problem that I find with most considerations of the concept of work is that while differences between work and expression and between one expression and another are fairly easy to make, figuring out where one work stops and another starts is difficult. Cataloging codes generally provided some guidance for particular cases (e.g., adaptation), but these have not been theoretically or clearly defined. Another issue is that part of the definition of a work is its reception as a work, that is, there is a social aspect to how a work is defined. For example, there are multiple very different versions manuscripts of and Old English Chronicle, that has a common core. The versions are known collectively as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Early Irish history is told in chronicles that exist in later manuscripts but a common core compiled at Iona has been identified. Each version, however, has a separate name. The situation in regards to medieval French romances See Bernard Cerquiglini's In Praise of the Variant for some fascinating instances. I have tried to deal with this in an article in "Cataloging, Reception, and the Boundaries of a “Work," CCQ 2006.
More common is the situation where a work has an independent existence and an existence as a part of another work. Not so much situations like the volumes of the Lord of the Rings with their separate titles, but things that have acquired a separate identity outside of their original context. Canticles such as the Magnificat or the Canticle of Zachariah (Benedictus) some to mind. The Dies Irae started as a separate work that was integrated into the Tridentine Requiem (and thence into many, many pieces of music). Similarly with the Creed. I am not sure how FRBR handles these.

In your discussion of Work Description, what has changed is that the current cataloging environment has come to the conclusion that it is both possible and desirable to describe a work independently of its expressions and manifestations.

The Work Entity seems to me ill-named. The data structure that is being described is neither the work itself but a description of the work. How about "Describing a Work" for your second category and reserving "Work Description" for the data structure. Your point that MARC21 does not distinguish expression elements from work elements is sound. I am not so sure about manifestation elements, are those used mostly to distinguish different expressions"

I would be interested in how you envisage the recording and display of distinguishing elements of work, expression, and manifestation within a single description. Certainly such descriptions would be possible, and machine coding could be used to when one element serves all three purposes or only one or two of them (t.p. vs. work vs. expression).

Thank you for a good analysis of some of the problems,

Laurence S. Creider
Professor Emeritus
Archives and Special Collections
New Mexico State University Library
P.O. Box 30006
Las Cruces, NM 88003-8006

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen et al.

I may as well share my little musing which some time ago I constructed after finding my copy of “The Fable of the Bees” after RDA was instituted.

This isn’t about Mandeville’s work (which was originally just a short-“ish” poem but then much expanded to a book, which is an interesting FRBR exercise in itself), but about a thought-experiment devised using analogies of the hive for libraries and their collections/holdings, and honeycombs for all the works/titles and their relationships.

I imagined something a bit like Karen’s post but in a different sort of order.

1. If there is something like a work which is created (Intellectual Entity, Concept), you have intellectual “honey” to put in the “hive.” This to my mind
equates roughly to Karen’s “Work-Ness”

2. A cataloguer then creates a bibliographic “cell," which I imagined to be the title and its format (not really a “Work Entity”, I confused this with expressions/manifestations, and I see David’s DVD/Blu-Ray example here) --- this is where my little analogy falls over – do cataloguers make the “right decisions” or just “necessary decisions”?

3. Next I imagined a matrix of attributes/elements in the FRBR sense, and gave them general names borrowed from orienteering – I see this to be somewhat like Karen’s “Work description”

--description (well, description)
--direction (access points / horizontal, vertical relationships)
--details (subject)
--distance (i.e. extent, size, etc.)
--designation (i.e. language of work, etc.)
---------And added one of my own,
--demarcation (uniform title, authorities, authorised access points) which determines which other cells would connect (like “Work Decision”?)---and from here other cells can connect to our cell making relationships, etc. (Incidentally, "how" cells connect would be something Karen has mentioned, RDF-XML, JSON-LD or what have you in the future using the dialect of the machine coding)

4. The result: A bibliographic container for the “Work-Entity,” represented by the hexagonal structure of a cell in the honeycomb, which would embody the final output of the cataloguer.

Karen notes under her “Work-ness” ‘First there is the concept that every resource embodies something that could be called a "work" and that this work is a human creation.

I agree, and obviously I have conflated FRBR & RDA and other things in my little though-experiment description above. It was some time ago But, as I mentioned, my intention was to use Mandeville’s bees to describe human output (like he did).

My thinking (my “Up Shot”) is that as cataloguers the work is a problem for at least two reasons: we (the cataloguers) seek to show things as we see them in a Bibliographic World (in our “hives” we make the “honey” fit into a “cell”!) and how creator/author, etc. may actually view their work (never mind the public at this point, sad as it is to say). Other "hives" have similar rules, but do not always connect with our bibliographic cells, as it were.

All I can suggest, in light of my failed thought-experiment above, is to urge that work on “What is a Work” tease out a way to either unite, or better differentiate i) Work-ness (“concept that every resource embodies something that could be called a "work" and that this work is a human creation”), and ii) Work-Decision (“this is the situation when a data creator determines whether the work to be described needs a unique and unifying entry within the stated cataloging environment to bring together exemplars of the same work that may be described differently”) so that it is clearer in cataloguing? How can we make a "Work-Decision" more uniform using principles?

Kind regards,

Steve Clement | Senior Collection Description Librarian
National Library of New Zealand

Anonymous said...

Hi again Karen

With a future cataloging environment in mind, could this sort of definition be partially useful:

While a work may be a concept, a bibliographic work is the embodiment of a labor acted upon by a single "catalog objectification" (using rules and format, e.g. RDA, XML or MARC) whereby the type of work (for example an aural, visual or tactile expression) is given a logical data design for use either independently of or within other catalogs, with provisions for unique utilitarian codifications (e.g. authorities, uniform titles, or URI representing these).

I suppose this is nothing new, but I felt I should add it. It's the "single" aspect of that is so troublesome, even when we can define the "work-ness" ... linked data may be able to help with this in future, helping catalogs collate expressions, etc.

Steve Clement
National Library of New Zealand

Karen Coyle said...

Steve, not exactly sure I understand what your 'single catalog objectification' is. I think because you are referring to things like aural/tactile that you are talking about the expression (or the BIBFRAME work, which combines the abstract work plus its utterance). FRBR work leans on intellectual genres, like symphony or poem or novel. I do agree that the idea that there would be a strongly defined "singularity" that is the work is going to get us into a world of trouble. The closest I can get is to say that a work is whatever you say it is, with "you" being plural and there being lots of "you's" in the world. That said, certain cataloging communities will undoubtedly at least try to have a uniform definition that results in everyone agreeing on the works that are defined. I think that in reality that will make current authority control decisions look like child's play. Especially when it comes to the very difficult question of aggregates.