A weblog following developments around the world in FRBR: Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records.

Maintained by William Denton, Web Librarian at York University. Suggestions and comments welcome at wtd@pobox.com.


Confused? Try What Is FRBR? (2.8 MB PDF) by Barbara Tillett, or Jenn Riley's introduction. For more, see the basic reading list.

Books: FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed by Robert Maxwell (ISBN 9780838909508) and Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools edited by Arlene Taylor (ISBN 9781591585091) (read my chapter FRBR and the History of Cataloging).

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Reservations About Reservations About FRBR

Posted by: William Denton, 6 June 2006 7:10 am
Categories: Papers

Back in April I mentioned a short piece by Jeffrey Beall called “Some Reservations About FRBR” (Library Hi Tech News 23: 2 (2006)). I finally got my hands on a copy. It’s quite short, under two pages. I’ll pick out the key arguments and offer some comments. (Others can give far better responses to some of his points and I hope they’ll speak up.) This is the first published anti-FRBR article I’ve seen, and it’s worth reading; it’s too bad it’s not on the open web.

  • Beall compares FRBR to the Cooperative Online Resource Catalog, “a new way to share metadata for digital objects,” which failed because it was “decided by committees and organizations and then thrust on the field without sufficient testing and proof” that it was useful.. This is the first I’ve ever heard of CORC so I won’t comment on the comparison, but as for testing and proof, see below.
  • Groupthink: “our field discourages dissent.” I’m not a cataloguer, but I haven’t noticed this as a problem. From the outside it looks like a fairly conservative field (which is good, when the job is long-term preservation of information) but not closed to dissent.
  • Unwarranted enthusiasm. Beall says that Dublin Core was “largely accepted before being proven” and “has largely failed.” FRBR could prove the same. Is DC a failure? That’s the first I’ve heard of it, but I don’t use it a lot. Beall also says that though FRBR “has not been proven successful, the literature treats it as a smashing success.” I haven’t seen that. It’s a topic of great interest, so it gets attention, but the papers show curiosity, questions, plans, testing, implementations, research, and analysis. Lots have people have raised questions and points that need clarification, but that no-one has rubbished it probably just means it’s a good idea.
  • FRBR wasn’t developed in North America. “[A]fter a new standard is proposed, employees in well off organizations organize development meetings in far flung, exotic locales about once a year. It takes at least five years to develop a standard, so participants get at least five, company-paid vacations during that time…. [FRBR's] development occurred in a vacuum, largely devoid of input from practitioners.” Beall objects to where it was developed (by which he means where IFLA’s annual meetings were held), and who could go (people from large institutions who have a good travel budget). All that work was done about a decade ago, so let’s set that aside and look at how things are now. The are four working groups in action right now, and the people on them don’t need to go to IFLA conferences and can do most of their work by e-mail. The list of people on the Working Group on Aggregates can be examined to see if it’s “largely devoid of practitioners.” Pat Riva, the chair of the FRBR Review Group, is a working cataloguer, as is Patrick Le Boeuf, the former chair. I asked Pat Riva about how people can get involved and she said they could e-mail her, or start with their national or specialist associations, which probably have some sort of FRBR group set up and I bet are eager to have interested people join them. The FRBR-influenced Resource Description and Access revisions are being done in an open way (I’ve noted some here) and there’s a fair bit of discussion about it on AUTOCAT and the FRBR mailing list. If you’re interested in FRBR (pro or con), you can speak up as an individual or work through an organization, and your ideas will be considered. (People can post comments here, too!)
  • Work, expression, and manifestation aren’t always clearly defined. Serials are hard to handle. True. People are working on this. Implementations will need to have good rules to follow.
  • FRBR is chiefly for large libraries. For smaller ones it will just mean more work. I’d object to this on two points: first, that there’s just One Big Library, and sharing between all its various branches will only increase, so it should be made easier to navigate that enormous union collection (and bookstores and music stores); second, that copy cataloguing and good library system implementations will make it easy to manage FRBRized records. Granted, that’s just hand-waving from someone who isn’t a cataloguer.
  • MARC records can’t handle FRBR, so sharing records will be harder. Some people think so, others (like Martha Yee) would disagree. How all this will work when widely implemented is uncertain, but yes, it’ll take work and special attention for sharing records.
  • “The justification for FRBR is insufficient. It has never been adequately explained why this new model is needed. The current model of bibliographic records is more than adequate at representing library holdings at the work, expression, and item level.” (Beall agrees manifestations aren’t done well enough, I assume.) I wrote a paper in library school (FRBR and Fundamental Cataloguing Rules) showing how FRBR embodies fundamental laws and objectives of cataloguing and librarianship. It’s the next step in the process of making things easier to find and use. Here’s an example of the inadequacy of the current model, at least as displayed by a Dynix system: search my public library’s system for Harry Potter books. Horrible. Any objection to FRBR on the grounds that our catalogues are easy enough to use gets a puzzled look from me.
  • Conclusion: “When objective research and extensive beta testing have shown FRBR to be successful, then it should be adopted widely. But not before.”

One problem with the piece is that Beall seems to mix up the FRBR model, as finished in 1997, with current work on implementing it, hence the repeated comments about testing and proof. The people that wrote the original report (Olivia Madison, Nancy Williamson, et al.) put forward a model based on research and experience. If the model is useless, people are free to ignore it. They aren’t. They’re doing research and writing papers about it. They’re starting to implement it, but slowly, because, as Beall points out, to do so is hard work and the rules aren’t completely clear. There aren’t many big implementations to point at right now, and each new one that’s done turns up more questions and problems. That’s a lot of the research and beta testing: not done in labs and written up for journals, but done out in the open, for all to see, by people who want to make their systems better. They think FRBR will do that, and so far it has. OCLC’s xISBN service, for example, is a building block, and it helps LibraryThing group manifestations into works. That’s successful. We can all look at it, try it out, and adapt it if we like it. The new North Carolina State catalogue is run by people who’ve said they think FRBR will make it even better to use. They’re paying salaries for people to do the work, and they’ll test FRBR and drop it if it’s no good.

I haven’t seen wild, unquestioning acceptance of FRBR. Interest in it spread slowly for years, but lately it’s picked up. People who hear about it say, “Hey, that sounds like a pretty sensible way of organizing things … but won’t it be a lot of work? Is it ever going to get anywhere?” Some organizations that can work on it are working on it; others are waiting for better rules and easier tools. FRAR and FRSAR are part of the big plan too, and they should all be considered together. Of course, they’re just new, and all this stuff moves rather slowly, and I can’t point at anything showing how great it’ll all be in five years.

Beall raises some points in his article that I agree with, and he should be happy to hear FRBR people are trying to fix them. On other points, like unwarranted enthusiasm and the lack of testing, I think he’s wrong.

If you have a comment about this, please leave one here. I get swamped by comment spam but I’ll keep a close eye out for real people.