Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Register
TL v67n2: Redefining Cataloging
Share |

Redefining Cataloging: Or, Where's My Flying Car?


This article is based on a presentation at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Knoxville, TN) in April 2017. Presentation slides are available at


Over the past two decades, there have been numerous developments in the cataloging world: RDA has replaced AACR2, the FRBR model has begun to influence cataloging theory, the concept of open linked data has been introduced, and BIBFRAME has been proposed as a replacement for MARC. The overall effect on most cataloging departments has been minimal so far, but the expectation, for several years, has been that we are on the verge of a cataloging revolution. Many front-line catalogers, especially those without tremendous computer science backgrounds, funding for pilot projects, or administrations eager to experiment, want to produce good cataloging and help our patrons, but we are unsure of what to do next.

In his 2002 article, “MARC Must Die,” Roy Tennant argued that MARC is difficult for humans to read, it is not sufficiently granular, it is flat, it doesn’t properly show relationships among works, it doesn’t lend itself to features that patrons want (like tables of contents and cover images), and no one outside of libraries uses it.

In the meantime, RDA was adopted, but only after much debate and after what Terry Reese (2016) called “a near act of God . . . and what it got us was a handful of new MARC fields.” Even those new MARC fields have not been heavily used; according to OCLC Research (2016), by the end of 2016, only 41% of records had a 336 and/or a 337 field, and more than 4 times as many 260 fields (the older field for publisher) were added as 264 fields (the new field for publisher).

Many of MARC’s shortcomings have since been addressed by third-party applications; for instance, many libraries import cover art, biographies of authors, and summaries into their catalog. Systems librarians, not catalogers, often work with these functions.

In the spring of this year, Jeff Edmunds (2017a) produced a white paper, “BIBFRAME as Empty Vessel,” much of which was based on email list discussions. A recording of a presentation Edmunds gave to his colleagues titled “Life After MARC? The Future of Discovery,” which is in turn based on the white paper, is available on YouTube (Edmunds, 2017b). Edmunds’ main points:

  • BIBFRAME will not catch on, not because of its merits or lack of them, but because the environment isn’t right.
  • No one knows exactly what BIBFRAME will look like.
  • No organization has the influence to promote it. For example, the Library of Congress and OCLC are no longer the leaders they were.
  • Links are constantly in flux and will be difficult/expensive/impossible to maintain.
  • There is no guarantee that BF will improve the user experience.
  • Too many things are behind firewalls and paywalls for open data to be helpful.
  • "Libraries are not, and probably never will be again, seen as primary sources of information." 

Edmunds mentions the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s online catalog ( as one of the best at the moment, but it incorporates a number of databases, including a MARC-based catalog, into a linked-data application.

A few BIBFRAME entry screens (“workspaces”) have been developed for projects; some hide the mechanics of cataloging rules more than others. Nevertheless, except for an increased emphasis on authority control--which allows for linking--not much has changed.

Regardless, librarians know there are a number of pressures on catalogs. More Americans are entering college, and not only do they expect an intuitive catalog (as opposed to using the card catalog being a necessary skill), but these students possess a range of literacy levels. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) (2017) included two library-related tasks in its most recent assessment: Locating a known item in a library catalog is a Level 3 task (where about 49% of the American population falls), and locating an item on a particular topic in a library catalog is a Level 4 task (12%). Also, catalogers are dealing with more types of material and a higher volume of materials.

A 2012 Library of Congress report listed three main goals of BIBFRAME:

  1. Differentiate clearly between conceptual content and its physical manifestation(s) (e.g., works and instances);
  2. Focus on unambiguously identifying information entities (e.g., authorities);
  3. Leverage and expose relationships between and among entities.

Although the Library of Congress has announced plans to implement BIBFRAME, it remains in the very early stages. Regardless, there are a few things that catalogers can do to prepare. That includes making bibliographic records as granular as possible by thinking of information in terms of triples (subject-object-predicate) and by not combining bits of information. Identifying known relationships among works (such as translations and film adaptations) and paying attention to authority control will also assist with the transition. The latter will admittedly be time-consuming and expensive; its feasibility remains to be seen.

Another concern is that catalogers may have little say over the patron interface. ILS designers will likely influence changes to cataloging. As Mac Elrod (n.d.) wrote:

The directions on my local bank cash machine are clearer, and have more in common with those on other cash machines, than the various introductory screens of the OPACs I use. . . . We need to return to having catalogue use skills fully transferable among libraries. This would be best accomplished, I am convinced, if we cataloguers returned to catalogue building.

This lack of transferability may limit the usefulness of open linked data.

It seems unlikely that MARC will disappear in the near future, and the holding pattern that librarians have known for at least two decades may well continue.


Edmunds, J. (2017a). BIBFRAME as empty vessel. Retrieved from

Edmunds, J. (2017b). Life after MARC? The future of discovery [Videorecorded lecture]. Retrieved from

Elrod, J. M. (n.d.). Cataloguer's role in catalogue construction: A modest proposal. Retrieved from

Miller, E., Ogbuji, U., Mueller, V., & MacDougall, K. (2012). Bibliographic framework as a web of data: Linked data model and supporting services. Library of Congress. Retrieved from

OCLC Research. (2017). MARC usage in WorldCat. Retrieved from

Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). (2017). Survey of adult skills. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from

Rampey, B. D., Finnegan, R., Goodman, M., Mohadjer, L., Krenzke, T., Hogan, J., & Provasnik, S. (2016). Skills of U.S. unemployed, young, and older adults in sharper focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014: First look (NCES 2016-039rev). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Reese, T. (2016). The world beyond MARC: Let’s focus on asking the right questions [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Tennant, R. (2002). MARC must die. Library Journal. Retrieved from


Julie Huskey is Head of Cataloging at Tennessee State University. She can be reached at

Anthony Prince is Cataloging Manager at Tennessee State University. He can be reached at


creative commons attribution no commercial




Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal