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James Weinheimer Asks "Is RDA the Only Way?"

James Weinheimer is one of the more vocal critics of RDA. If you follow AutoCat you’ll have seen his many thoughtful and challenging posts about RDA and all things cataloguing. He was recently invited to speak at the VII Encuentro Internacional y III Nacional de Catalogadores in Buenos Aires on November 2011. His presentation, Is RDA the Only Way?: An Alternative Option Through International Cooperation, along with his speaking notes have recently been released on the conference website.

Wienheimer focuses on the “abbreviations” and “transcription” aspects of RDA and notes that many catalogue users will probably not “notice any changes at all.” I agree, these are cosmetic changes.

But this does not get at the heart of the matter: data. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘data’ is not mentioned anywhere in the speaking notes for this presentation. In my mind that is the key advantage of RDA and FRBR: to start thinking of cataloguing practice in terms of the individual data elements and leave the idea of creating catalogue records behind.

Weinheimer says the following:

I believe that RDA and FRBR, although very well-intentioned and initiated by excellent and sincere cataloging experts, are going in a direction very different from what is needed by our patrons. In fact, when looking at those initiatives from such a viewpoint, it turns out that they actually only continue the same methods, and have the same aims that have been found from the very beginning of catalogs. As a result, I see no reason to adopt RDA since it will not be providing anything substantially new for our patrons. It only introduces new methods for catalogers to make what is substantially the same product. What we need are products that are useful to our patrons, who now inhabit a completely new information environment.”

And I don’t disagree with this either. However, I think RDA represents a transitional phase leading the cataloguing community to something like linked data where our bibliographic data will be able to more easily connect up with other data already on the web instead of trapped in traditional catalogue records and library information systems. Work on the RDA Vocabularies, for example, looks very promising.

The entity-relationship model that FRBR provides, and upon which RDA is based, will allow cataloguers to start thinking about their day-to-day activities in terms of creating and using data elements. Data that will connect to data already found on the web. This may potentially lead to an improvement in cataloguing productivity (freeing cataloguers from some of the descriptive tasks already carried out upstream, e.g. by publishers) and making our data truly “of the web.”

We have to start somewhere and RDA seems as good a place as anywhere to begin. And, as Weinheimer notes, RDA really won’t change the practice of cataloguing all that much. No matter what the size of your library I don’t think the commitment to implement RDA should be as economically challenging as Weinheimer suggests in this presentation. Although the situation would be so much better if RDA had been offered openly free for all to use*. This would surely have made it easier for libraries to adopt and would have increased potential buy in for non-library metadata creators, one of the many goals of RDA.

As I declared during a recent presentation at the OLA Super Conference: I remain an RDA optimist.

* Note that the RDA Constituency Review Draft is freely available.

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