Outside libraryland musings on a Brave New RDA World

by Beth Dunning, MLIS, MA candidate in Public Policy and Administration, and student analyst, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate.

So glad Jacques posted on the RDA event first. I thank my lucky stars that LANCR Lowdown readers already have a useful scoop on the implications of soon to be published Resource Description and Access (RDA). Read Jacques’ post if you haven’t already because at this juncture I find myself a librarian not working in a library. I know. It makes me feel nervous too. My illustrious, cough cough, history in libraries [shelver, library grant administrator, reference grunt, professional liaison librarian] doesn’t even include cataloguing experience! My last attempt at “getting in” with the cataloguing crowd resulted in a list of wacky and weird subject headings. Sigh.

On the other hand, my ignorance meant I had no choice but to come away from last Tuesday’s packed room in the basement of the Rideau Branch with a better understanding of RDA and a great appreciation for the hard work LAC is doing on the issue. What I will offer is a broader, non-technical view of the changes RDA could bring about, with a focus on the user. The first impression that speaker Laura May (Standards, LAC) cleared up right away is that RDA is not a new set of cataloguing rules, but guidelines for describing content. This emphasis allows workers to take defensible, practical cataloguing decisions rather than waiting for rule interpretations that may not fit a community’s unique needs.

The switch from AACR2 to RDA has the user and efficiency in mind (yay no more rule of three, Latin or abbreviations!), but because RDA is a not a display standard, real improvements from the OPAC view will only happen once vendors get on board. Individual libraries need to make RDA support a priority in upcoming discussions for users to benefit. The greatest potential I see for RDA is in enabling the re-use of data by non-library communities and if possible, the re-use of data from non-library communities in the library world. A long-term goal and one that implies less control over data, but this development could enrich descriptions through relatively automatic mechanisms and enhance the cataloguing community’s influence in the larger knowledge landscape.

My hesitations about RDA’s potential to improve the user experience are well-summarized in a 2007 D-Lib article by Coyle and Hillmann: “Prior to elaborating detailed cataloging rules for libraries, we need to decide whether the user will view a general bibliographic tool that connects users and information resources no matter their origin, or continue to view a library inventory, that requires users to look elsewhere for other information they might need.” I think we also need to decide if real innovation in bibliographic tools can come from vendors working in the current market paradigm or if we need to articulate new collective imaginaries.

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