Focus on Library Metadata: RDA Vocabularies for a Twenty-First-Century Data Environment

By Karen Coyle |

Karen Coyle is in the putting the finishing touches on the February issue of Library Technology Reports, titled "RDA Vocabularies for a Twenty-First-Century Data Environment". In the following excerpt, she addresses the difficulty that many librarians have in understanding the basic concepts of FRBR, and offers some diagrams to clarify them. Though understanding FRBR may be tricky, she argues, it is essential to a transformation to a modern, workable data environment.

Some of our misconceptions of FRBR may arise because of the starkness of the diagrams in the FRBR document. Visualization of abstract concepts is a fine art and can make all the difference in how or whether readers understand the ideas being presented. The diagrams in the FRBR document, while correct, are deceptive in their simplicity. Robert Maxwell, in his 2007 book FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed, chooses to represent FRBR with an equally accurate but different choice of ER diagramming techniques. These diagrams may make FRBR clearer, as the figure below shows.


Source: Robert L. Maxwell, FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: American Library Association, 2007), p. 9.

This style of diagram makes it easier to see the relationships, and it also makes it easier to visualize a variety of cases. One aspect of FRBR as it is described and diagrammed is that it gives the impression of being a linear, hierarchical model from Work to Item. This is not the viewpoint of library cataloging, which has necessarily at its center a Manifestation. Without disturbing the meaning of FRBR, we can visualize it with the manifestation as the focus (see figure below).


Caption: FRBR from a cataloger point of view.

The user view of library data differs from that of the cataloger. Users seeking information on a topic could visualize the library’s holdings as shown in the figure below.


Caption: Possible view of FRBR entities from a user point of view.

It is possible that a library catalog could mimic this user view by presenting subjects as entities in the catalog, rather than as added entries on a bibliographic record. This approach is being experimented with on the Open Library, where subjects are treated as “first class” objects with their own Web pages (see figure below).


This is not unlike the treatment of persons in the WorldCat Identities pages, and both have some resemblance to what today’s information seeker might expect to find at Wikipedia. Unlike Wikipedia, however, the Open Library display is generated on the fly from the bibliographic data in its database.

The FRBR entities lend themselves easily to different views of bibliographic data in a way that is less possible with the current “unit card” presentation of library data. The entity-relationship model promises a better solution than the “one view fits all” of the current bibliographic record.

Beyond R Is for Record

Our current view of bibliographic data is that of catalog records that represent a manifestation (in FRBR terms) of a work. FRBR enforces this view with its very name, in which the final R is for records. There is a natural tendency to see FRBR as the model for a single bibliographic entity and conceive of the FRBR model as the description of a single bibliographic record. It would be more accurate to view FRBR as a model of a network of entities. Unfortunately, the FRBR document does not provide a view of this bibliographic network, perhaps in part because it is difficult to render in diagram form. Maxwell gives us a glimpse into this in his chapter on relationships. For example, this figure is a diagram of a set of sequential relationships.


Some FRBR relationships. Source: Robert L. Maxwell, FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: American Library Association, 2007), p. 104.

As you can see, rendering these relationships as diagrams is very complex. Yet it is these relationships that could transform library data into a true information network rather than a mere list of individual bibliographic items. No work actually stands alone in the human intellectual sphere; all precedents and influences either imitate previous works or stimulate the creation of new ones. This is what we could capture in a FRBR-ized bibliographic universe.