Bibframe and the “wisdom of smallness”

At the end of November 2013, a conference was held at the Library of Congress giving an update on the development of Bibframe. The recording and transcript can be found here. Eric Miller of Zepheira presented a fascinating first glimpse at an input tool, but it was most astonishing to hear him use the word “constrain” so many times. One example: “What we’ve done in BIBFRAME, however, is actually constrained the problem. Now we’re not talking about the entire semantic web authoring tools. We’re talking about just the authoring tools that follow a particular pattern that we in this community basically care about.”

I can see a move away from the hype of the Semantic Web / Big Data and the admiration of the enormous Linked Data cloud. The Semantic Web has exceeded the human scale. Zooming in on a local focus within a larger space of compatibility, “profiles [in the Bibframe editing tool] provides a means for us to sort of constrain the different aspects of BIBFRAME that we are interested in and project our local meaning into a common framework based on these global standards.” This ties in with what ecomonist E. F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 book Small is beautiful: “Today we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of gigantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness – where this applies. [...] For every activity there is a certain appropriate scale [...].”

Another of Schumacher’s concepts, that of “intermediate technology”, can be used as a metaphor for one of Vinod Chachra’s (VTLS) statements: “Because you’re moving at such a complex world, which is far more complex than your local library, you have to have very simple tools, like Albert Einstein said, and be able to be used by the users, with zero, and I mean absolute big solid zero training. And that’s the kind of system we’re trying to build, so then it becomes everybody’s tool, not just the tools of specialized librarians.” Schumacher defines intermediate technology as follows: “The equipment would be fairly simple and therefore understandable [...] Men are more easily trained: supervision, control, and organisation are simpler; and there is far less vulnerability to unforeseen difficulties.”

We may be on our way to an (at least temporary) understanding of what is “enough” in terms of complexity, tailoring Bibframe as a model and the underlying technology to an appropriate (human) scale.

Food for thought on the future of cataloging

I would like to share Karen Coyle’s comment from the Bibframe list for us all to contemplate:

 … And as Shlomo [Sanders of ExLibris] has pointed out in another forum, for ILS vendors who have discovery layers, it is essential that any bibliographic space today be able to seamlessly include both library holdings as well as a variety of research materials that libraries would not normally catalog. This tells me that the goal should be compatibility with the whole bibliographic universe, and not a focus on the library catalog as we know it today.

OK, I admit to this: I feel that anything we do that replicates what we know of as “library cataloging” – from FRBR to RDA to BIBFRAME – is taking us in the wrong direction. I’d rather see us designing for general bibliographic compatibility and interoperability, and then seeing how we can continue to have (for internal purposes) a decent inventory of library holdings – which should get much less of our attention and energy because it serves our users less. Bluntly, bibliographic description as we have known it is passé. FRBR, RDA and BIBFRAME (as a new serialization for MARC) are not terribly relevant.

Digital BBC World Service radio archives

The BBC World Service Archive Prototype is a website that provides access to the huge digital archive of radio programs of the BBC World Service. Yves Raimond and Tristan Ferne describe in a concise article (PDF, 8 pages) how Semantic Web technologies, automation and crowdsourcing are used to annotate, correct and add metadata for search and navigation. Ed Summers has a blog post about this project, making a comment I wholeheartedly agree with: “… [I]t is the (implied) role of the archivist, as the professional responsible for working with developers to tune these algorithms, evaluating/gauging user contributions, and helping describe the content themselves that excites me the most about this work.” I think this is not only a possible future role for archivists but also for librarians, especially catalogers and metadata specialists working with digital collections.