I seem to have acquired an obsession. This obsession manifests itself in various ways, but one clear way is that I can’t seem to stop thinking about some of the findings from my colleague’s work that resulted in the publication Implications of MARC Tag Usage on Library Metadata Practices. Chief among them, in my view, is just how few metadata elements are actually used on a consistent basis in library cataloging.
I’m so intrigued and obsessed with this, that a chart Karen Smith-Yoshimura produced probably two years ago still graces my cube wall today (see picture, and click on it to see the chart up close). One of the things the chart illustrates, is that out of the then 200 million or so WorldCat records, only about five elements appear in more than half of the records. They are:
- Identifiers (OCLC number, LCCN, ISBN, cataloging source, etc.)
- Title Statement (245)
- Publication Statement (260)
- Physical Description (300)
- Personal Name (100)
From there, the use of various fields falls off the proverbial cliff, with only fields like 500, 650, and 700 even making it above the one-quarter level. The vast majority of fields and subfields congregate, on the chart, along the very bottom, somewhere in the 0-5% range.
I stare at the chart, trying to translate its deeper hieroglyphic meaning. Is pure usage enough evidence to identify the fewest elements required to describe bibliographic objects? Has the profession really invested untold dollars and sweat into describing a few things very, very well and the vast majority hardly at all? What does this mean? What lessons can we take forward into a new bibliographic future?
I stare at it some more, as if pure observation can reveal a hidden truth.
Roy Tennant works on projects related to improving the technological infrastructure of libraries, museums, and archives.