Chris Oliver on RDA and the Future of Cataloging

I had a chance to interview Chris Oliver, author of ALA Editions Introducing RDA. Chris has been involved with RDA from its early stages, so I asked her about what this new cataloging standard could mean for catalogers and librarians in general.

Chris Rhodes: You’ve been a cataloger at McGill University for twenty years.  What about your work has changed in your time there?

Chris Oliver: It’s hard to imagine that I’m still in the same department, in the same library. So much has changed that it doesn’t feel at all like the same place! The first thing I had to learn when I began cataloguing at McGill was to write neatly and legibly. Cataloguing librarians were expected to write out bibliographic information on data forms and then we gave the forms to input operators who entered our data into our Canadian bibliographic database called UTLAS (a Canadian version of OCLC). We then proofread the printouts and annotated the printouts by hand with corrections. At that time, I was the Rare Books Cataloguing Librarian, and title pages of rare books have always been fun, lots of Latin and Greek, different ways that words were spelled during different eras. It was a challenge to make sure that my title page transcriptions made it successfully through this process. The day when we finally began to catalogue online was the happiest day of my career! Even though I have been here for twenty years, it has never gotten boring. It has been one big change after another. And it’s been a wonderful experience because of the great people with whom I work, including quite a number who were already at McGill when I began and who are still my colleagues today.

CR: Why a new cataloguing standard? 

CO: AACR2 has been a successful and widely used standard, and it’s taken us a long way. It was first published in 1978, more than thirty years ago. Jennifer Bowen, when she was the ALA representative on the Joint Steering Committee, used a photograph of a 1978 car in one of her presentations when explaining the need for a new cataloguing standard. Would you still want to be driving a 1978 car? In 1978, the card catalogue was the norm. We now operate in a digital, networked environment. We need a cataloguing standard that is designed for the environment in which our users engage in resource discovery.

CR: What does RDA offer, what were the limitations of AACR2 that we were bumping against?

CO: I’m going to quote RDA because I think these two sentences sum up the essence of what RDA has to offer: comprehensiveness, extensibility and adaptability:

RDA 0.3.1

A key element in the design of RDA is its alignment with the conceptual models for bibliographic and authority data developed by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). The FRBR and FRAD models provide RDA with an underlying framework that has the scope needed to support comprehensive coverage of all types of content and media, the flexibility and extensibility needed to accommodate newly emerging resource characteristics, and the adaptability needed for the data produced to function within a wide range of technological environments.

AACR2 had deep-seated structural problems that prevented extensibility, and could not “support the comprehensive coverage of all types of content and media.” Up to the 1990s, the amendment process had been sufficient in dealing with changes. By the mid-1990s, there was a proliferation of new publication practices, new electronic resources, new methods for scholarly and creative communication. New resources challenged cataloguers because the existing rules could not extend to describe new characteristics and new combinations of characteristics. For example, there were fundamental inconsistencies in the “class of material” concept and in the treatment of content and carrier aspects. New amendments could no longer be grafted onto the existing structure because of these inconsistencies.

One of the key features of RDA is its flexible and extensible framework for the description of traditional and new resources. RDA data is also designed to function both in current and future technological environments. RDA is a content standard, a standard that guides the recording of robust and useful data. It is not an encoding standard, nor is it tied to a particular encoding schema. It is also not a data presentation standard. Thus, it is adaptable for use in a wide range of environments, and it’s not necessarily for library use only. It has great potential.

CR: When you’ve spoken with colleagues (at conferences etc.), what are their biggest concerns?

CO: Among my Canadian colleagues, the biggest concern is training: the availability of training resources, the cost of training, having sufficient time to train oneself and one’s staff. It’s a challenge especially at a time when budgets are tight. We will have to rely on our tradition of resource-sharing, and use our associations and networks as a means of sharing training documents and training procedures. The Library of Congress and some of the other libraries involved in the U.S. Test are setting a great precedent by sharing their excellent resources with the whole cataloguing community.

A group of us from the Technical Services Interest Group of the Canadian Library Association conducted a survey on training needs this spring. One of the interesting findings was the increasing reliance on training delivered via the web. Webinars and web training were not great favourites, but, given the Canadian reality of a relatively sparse population spread over many square miles, training sessions and training documentation delivered via the web were recognized as being of vital component of RDA training.

CR: What originally attracted you to librarianship and cataloging?

CO: I came to librarianship by accident. I was asked to look after a library as a volunteer. I loved it, but I also felt frustrated because I had so many questions. I realized that there was more to librarianship than met the eye. When we moved back to Montreal, I jumped at the opportunity to go to library school. And then I was introduced to AACR2 – I was fascinated by the rules, by the interpretation and application of those rules, and also by the passionate debates that occurred in the cataloguing community. We certainly haven’t gotten any less passionate over time. Cataloguers still care deeply about their standards.

CR: What excites you about the coming years of this work?

The possibilities. The moment of implementation is exciting because we start on a new track. But there will be a lot of emphasis on continuity. Most of us will use RDA in the current environment of MARC 21 bibliographic and authority records. At the beginning, most of the records in our databases and catalogues will still be AACR2 records. We’ll continue to display our data using current online public access catalogues and/or discovery layers. But the exciting part starts to happen as we begin to travel along the new track, and as the volume of RDA data grows.

RDA data alone will not improve navigation and display because the data must be stored so that it maintains its granularity, and it must be used appropriately by well-designed search engines and search interfaces. RDA data is designed as data that can be read and interpreted by humans, but also as data that is machine actionable. The recording of clear, unambiguous data is a required first step in order to improve resource discovery. In the early days of RDA implementation, most RDA data will still be stored, searched and retrieved in traditional catalogues. But RDA data is also designed so that it can be stored and used in the web environment. It positions us to take advantage of the networked online environment, to make library data widely visible, discoverable and usable, and to improve resource discovery.

It will be very exciting to see what can be done with RDA data when it is fully utilized. There is great potential for improving the user’s experience of resource discovery, both in terms of navigation and retrieval and in terms of delivering meaningful displays of data.

CR: Do you have any advice for catalogers who are just beginning their careers?

Consider yourself at the beginning of a great career!