Tuesday, September 12, 2006

R.I.P. MARC -- murder or suicide?

For the last week, the "Next Generation catalog listserv" has been buzzing with discussions of what is needed to bring library catalogs into the modern era. Listserv participant Karen Coyle describes the need to "Murder MARC" as part of the process. But I'm afraid that when MARC goes, it may be a suicide.

Our cataloging process is as broken as our cataloging format.
We need to rethink the idea of 1,000 catalogers maintaining 1,000 separate versions of the same OCLC or LC-sourced MARC record in 1,000 separate local catalogs. One can see signs that this model is failing in the declining quality of new original cataloging and in the increasing use of non-updated "raw" CIP records in catalogs. We used to worry that too many cataloging decisions were being made by paraprofessionals-- now many decisions aren't being made at all.

There is another model of sharing and updating files (which is really what modern cataloging is). The cooperative teams behind Open Source software programs use version control systems to manage the updates (bug fixes, new features, etc.) going into the program's code from programmers all over the world. Maintainers work to ensure the updates work as promised and don't create more problems. Once the maintainers sign off on a new release, it goes off to data repositories and from them to users around the world.

In this system, the changes made by the contributors are made against a master copy that is then shared with everyone. The same problem is not fixed 1,000 times for each local installation-- it is fixed once, and the next 999 contributors can work on the next 999 problems.

What if library cataloging worked this efficiently? Because most enhancements or corrections are currently made by hand at the local level, there is a massive amount of duplicated effort. A new model which uses technology to eliminate this waste could allow the labor to go into quality control or other activities where catalogers are needed (that special collections cataloging backlog, for example).

As the debate about the post-MARC format rages on, we must remember that sustainability is at least as important as functionality-- and we just can't afford to maintain the traditional cataloging model.

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