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.


Ben Abrahamse said...

As a cataloger I think you are on to something here. You might be interested to know that the question of "universal" versus "local" usefulness predates FRBR/WEMI. In the proceedings to the now-famous IFLA 1963 "Paris Conference", there is an interesting exchange between Lubetzky and another cataloger (whose name sadly escapes me... it's been a while since library school) concerning how to treat translations. Lubetzky argues for using what would eventually become enshrined in library practice as the "uniform title" to collocate such works; his counterpart argues that while such a device would be useful in large, multilingual collections, for the typical library there is no need to go to such lengths, as the chances of them having multiple translations of the same work would be low. Why the added effort, as well as the risk of confusing users, if it only benefits a few, albeit important, collections?

Obviously Lubetzky won that round (And in this case I must say would side with him.) But the question persists: should catalogers, who work collaboratively and share their work across a network, catalog to meet local needs first, and not worry about the shared aspect of our product, or should all catalogers work according to a single standard regardless of whether it meets the needs of every library or not?

In the past this question was not so much addressed as ignored, because catalogers could do one thing on the shared level (for example, enhancing a record in OCLC) and something else locally (modifying the record before export to their local system.) With the advent of "cloud catalogs" such as "Worldcat Local", the problem is once again front and center because the shared record is what users will see regardless of whether they are accessing it through a local or universal portal.

I don't really know the answer, but from my understanding of FRBR/WEMI, the model itself doesn't really seem to add much to a possible resolution. If anything, by adding a sort of theoretical "metalayer" to the cataloging rules, it seems to push catalogers towards having fewer choices of how to describe things, rather than more.

I also think--somewhat tangentially--that the WEMI model is too complex and fragile for what it needs to do. For example--why have "Works" and "Expressions" as separate "entities" when you could just as easily describe a "work to expression" relationship (such as: E1 is a translation of W) as a particular kind of relationship between two works (W2 is translation of W1)? Having watched the discussion surrounding the RDA rollout quite carefully, it seems to me that the "Expression" is the most problematic (most difficult to understand, identify, or express) of the so-called "Type 1 entities", but I don't see what tangible benefit it actually brings to the table.

I would prefer to see a flatter and simpler model--one that basically has two categories: content, and context. The latter is where descriptive cataloging would reside, and the former would be for where authority work and subject analysis, etc. (I won't take credit for this idea, it is pretty much lifted from Svenonius's Intellectual foundations (2001)).

Karen Coyle said...

Thanks, Ben. I edited this post many times because there are a number of different aspects to the problem and I kept going off on tangents. I was hoping that catalogers would weigh in because obviously you face this in real life.

To me, FRBR seems fine as a conceptual model but unrealistic as a guide to actual cataloging activities. If we could dream of a worldwide universal bibliographic data store, then FRBR would probably need to be expanded, but might provide interesting ideas. If we are trying to create our own small, local catalog, then FRBR is too complex and, more importantly, too rigid. However, we could still use the FRBR concepts as "good ideas" even if we don't follow them slavishly in our solutions.

FRBR also seems inadequate for non-books since the number and type of expressions for things like stage performances, films, dance, improv (stage and music), etc. indicate that there might be more than one level between work and manifestation. But for artworks (paintings, sculpture) the work/expression difference is undefinable.

I would like to see a bottom-up analysis, both for the needs of local libraries and for the needs of special libraries. But more than anything else, I'd like to see us give up the idea that one single standard will rule them all. There is a big difference between a good idea and a standard. I have another blog post in mind regarding that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Karen, really interesting to read your ideas, as always.
Your point about what the FRBR model is modeling is particularly well made, I think, and my research is looking at it from the bottom up (or at least, from the outside in - as users are 'outside').

Of course the FRBR report itself is quite vague on the matter. I suspect that if it had approached it at the national level only (as it does in chapter 7) it would have been both clearer and more demonstrably related to catalogues per se. As it is, there are at least three separate definitions given in the report itself of the bibliographic universe and one is (most unhelpfully) 'entities described in bibliographic records' which is far to circular for my liking.

I've come across another discussion by Francis Miksa:
Miksa, F. L. (1996/2007). The cultural legacy of the 'modern library' for the future. Retrieved from

On p. 15 and 16 he balances the bibliographic universe with the role of the library: "A library is sense-making and value-adding process applied to the bibliographic universe, an effort to bring some sort of useful control (i.e., bibliographic control) to a segment of the whole. At its core it constitutes a thoughtfully selected collection from among all possible informational objects placed in a rationally organized space for a designated target user population."