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The Library of Congress and the Future of Bibliographic Control: Working Group Report
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Posted On December 10, 2007


Last November, the Library of Congress (LC) established a Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control (www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future). It’s staffed by leading research librarians as well as executives from key private sector players, such as OCLC, Google, and Microsoft. The group’s goal was to "to examine the future of bibliographic description in the 21st century in light of advances in search engine technology, the popularity of the Internet, and the influx of electronic information resources." On Nov. 30, 2007, the Report became available to the public for commentary (www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/news/lcwg-report-draft-11-30-07-final.pdf). Despite the broad vision implied in the goal, the actual recommendations of the report seem predominantly focused on book cataloging and, in that regard, how to curtail LC’s role in the future.

For a century or more, the Library of Congress has taken a leadership role in the U.S. and international library communities, particularly in the provision of cataloging content and the setting of cataloging standards. Early in the document, statements refer to the growing difficulties LC faces in carrying out those responsibilities, reminding readers that LC is not an official national library nor is it adequately funded to serve the nation’s library community. In this regard, the document does not allude to the LC budget provided by the nation’s taxpayers nor to the fact that the Library reports to the nation’s legislators and, one might assume, to share in the obligation to serve the constituencies of those legislators.

The members of the Working Group included representatives from the leading information organizations—American Association of Law Libraries, American Library Association (ALA), Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Coalition for Networked Information, Medical Library Association, National Federation of Abstracting & Indexing Services, Program for Cooperative Cataloging, and Special Libraries Association, plus three vendors (Google, OCLC, and Microsoft). José-Marie Griffiths (dean and professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill) and Olivia M. A. Madison (dean of the Library, Iowa State University) co-chaired the Working Group.

Deanna Marcum, LC’s Associate Librarian for Library Services, established the Working Group and charged it to do the following:

  • Present findings on how bibliographic control and other descriptive practices can effectively support management of and access to library materials in the evolving information and technology environment
  • Recommend ways in which the library community can collectively move toward achieving this vision
  • Advise the Library of Congress on its role and priorities

The report’s discussion and recommendations fall into five themes:

  1. "Increase the efficiency of bibliographic production for all libraries through increased cooperation and increased sharing of bibliographic records, and by maximizing the use of data produced throughout the entire ‘supply chain’ for information resources."
    (The 15 recommendations under this theme all focus on eliminating redundancy and improving efficiency in assigning metadata.)
  2. "Transfer effort into higher-value activity. In particular, expand the possibilities for knowledge creation by ‘exposing’ rare and unique materials held by libraries that are currently hidden from view and, thus, underused."
    (The second theme has 10 recommendations on focusing on distributing bibliographic responsibilities and nine recommendations for collaborating on authority files. The recommendations seem to outline the shifting of tasks now performed or led by LC to others—librarians, vendors, etc. And what will LC do with its newfound extra resources upon implementation of the first two sets of Theme Two recommendations? Work on the third set of 13, which recommends enhancing access to rare and unique material by better cataloging and indexing and large-scale digitization.)
  3. "Position our technology for the future by recognizing that the World Wide Web is both our technology platform and the appropriate platform for the delivery of our standards. Recognize that people are not the only users of the data we produce in the name of bibliographic control, but so too are machine applications that interact with those data over the network in a variety of ways."
    (The 19 recommendations in this theme focus on eliminating MARC and building better standards and standard-making processes that focus on costs and sustainable business models. The very first set of recommendations are entitled "Suspend Work on RDA." (The report strongly questions the viability of RDA, aka Resource Description and Access, www.collectionscanada.ca/jac/rdafaq.html#1, a system adapting the FRBR model, which the report considers promising. See below.)
  4. "Position our community for the future by facilitating the incorporation of evaluative and other user-supplied information into our resource descriptions. Work to realize the potential of the FRBR framework for revealing and capitalizing on the various relationships that exist among information resources."
    (This theme involves 24 recommendations. Four focus on evaluating FRBR, saluted as an exciting, new—perhaps in 10 years?—approach to cataloging. Seven recommendations focus on issues of integrating user-generated content into bibliographic records as well as content based on analysis of usage. All the remaining 13 recommendations focus on improving LC Subject Headings and similar controlled vocabulary situations.)
  5. "Strengthen the library profession through education and the development of metrics that will inform decision-making now and in the future."
    (This theme encompasses five recommendations for building and mining an "evidence base" on library bibliographic usage and seven for improving the education of catalogers and of all new librarians on cataloging issues.)

In total, the report provides 102 recommendations tagged for target implementers, e.g., All, LC, OCLC. Almost all the recommendations focus on producing book cataloging. In section 4 of the report, language appears that seems to censure librarians for equating "bibliographic control with the production of metadata for use solely within the library catalog. This narrow focus is no longer suitable in an environment wherein data from diverse sources are used to create new and interesting information views. Library data must be usable outside of the catalog, and the catalog must be able to ingest or interact with records from sources outside of the library cataloging workflow." Nonetheless, the report does not comment directly on bibliographic control issues relating to journal articles or even nonbook monographs, such as government reports, gray literature, etc., much less all-digital formats. For example, when it comes to the integration of journal article access tools with library periodical holdings, nowhere in the report do the words "link resolver" occur.

Some Initial Reactions

In its 12-month effort, the Working Group held three regional group meetings where invited panelists traveled to Mountain View, Calif., Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The regional meetings focused on various aspects of bibliographic control, followed by oral and written comments from the audience. In total, the Working Group received 74 written submissions, with more than 15 coming from interested organizations or institutions. Originally, a public release of the report for Web downloading, accompanied by a Webcast forum, was reportedly scheduled for Nov. 1. However, the schedule slipped and LC issued a press release announcing the report’s availability and the webcast for Nov. 15. The webcast took place on that date (still available at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4180), but technical problems severely limited access, and the report itself was not available until Nov. 30. The original date limit for public comment on the report was Dec.15. Despite the slippage in online availability of the report, that date still stands, as the final, revised report must be delivered to LC on Jan. 9, 2008, presumably in time for the ALA Midwinter Meeting.

Comments can be submitted electronically. (For more information, go to www.loc.gov/bibliographic-future/contact.) Snail-mail or fax written submissions to Olivia M. A. Madison, Dean of the Library, 302 Parks Library, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-2140, 515 294-2112 (fax).

Different players with different interests will each have their own view of this document. Jill O’Neill, director of Planning & Communication for NFAIS (National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services), alerted her members, saying:

I again stress the necessity of reading the full report from the Working Group and believe that NFAIS members may want to consider the implications of this report’s recommendations in any strategic planning initiatives. What would be the repercussions on information services if Google or Amazon started to deliver bibliographic data competitively to the library community? How might vendor knowledge of name disambiguation strategies and computational systems help the customer base? What possibilities exist for new revenue streams from libraries to abstracting and indexing services, should those services respond to the Working Group report?

One interested party spoke from a somewhat traditional viewpoint (even with a mildly nondigital eye). Overall, he found "a great deal to like in this report and very little with which to quibble." His only concern was how soon recommendations would start to be implemented. In fact, he thought some of the recommendations should have been recommended "yesterday."

Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and a member of the Working Group, explained that the Group had discussed such issues as the growing electronic formatting of monographs, matching digitized book collections with physical copies, the migration of content to the Web, etc. "This collection of issues was part of our thinking," said Lynch, "but the framework on this was very much what should LC be thinking about as they are looking at their role in bibliographic control and the future developments that will shape their efforts."

orking for an organization funded by large research libraries and educational institutions, Lynch was pleased with the recommendation for LC to "direct a considerable amount of energy and resources to make unique materials accessible—special collections, photographs, manuscripts, etc." He also saluted the effort the Group gave to the issues of name authority infrastructures. As a longtime techie, he also approved of the recommendations that "fundamentally call for development of a new carrier format which would allow incorporation or linking of lots of different metadata, including commentary and reviews as well as traditional bibliographic records." Overall, he said, there was "some very good stuff in the recommendations that came out."


Barbara Quint is contributing editor for NewsBreaks, senior editor of Online Searcher, and a columnist for Information Today.

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