Five Easy Pieces

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.

3 Comments on “Five Easy Pieces”

  1. Bibliographic description is not an activity decided by the use needed for the majority of books. Tag 490 is not less important of an information unit, just because it is not used in records where it is not relevant. It is about meaning and distinction, and every document should be treated according to the users’ needs. Of course it would be nice to have some more consistency, but if you pull together a world of descriptions and do not merge different languages of cataloguing, neither consistency nor completeness will be found overall.

  2. If you look at the figures weighted by holdings the figures are a little different. Fields like 650 jump from 40% to 78%, and even some relatively obscure fields like 504 (Bibliographies) and 830 (Series Added Entry) jump up to 40% and 25% respectively.


  3. Is this the result of a mass of retrospective cataloguing projects that were concerned with only getting the bare essentials from card catalogues into a computerised catalogue in order to get as much data online as quickly as possible?

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