By Alex Whelan (Metadata Strategist, New York University, Division of Libraries)
and Susan J. Martin (Chair, Collection Development and Management, Associate Professor, Middle Tennessee State University)
Against the Grain v34#1
The Balancing Act
The academic library’s long road towards linked data and digital browsing environments has seen many technical services departments splitting staff time between describing physical resources for the public catalog in MARC and describing digital collections in non-MARC schemas. Trends in collection development such as the increased focus on electronic resource acquisitions and the possibilities of open access publishing have arguably impacted users to perceive library resources as more than mere physical collections stacks. This is to say nothing of the recent infrastructural demand for remote work, teaching, and learning, all of which have reprioritized which types of materials staff are practically able to describe.
At times, I have observed divisions among technical service departments and expertise between those working with traditional MARC cataloging knowledge and those carrying out non-MARC workflows. The pressure for academic institutions especially to keep up with new and emerging trends like BIBFRAME and linked data can unintentionally emphasize recruitment and professional development around non-MARC expertise, even as fluency with MARC continues to be a necessity for library management systems and the organization of print resources. Attempting to balance these different methodologies in the workplace calls into question issues of staff communication, professional support, and the allocation of time and labor to cataloging and metadata creation. This blog post will explore the natural tensions that might arise between technical services colleagues, leadership, and institutional priorities as libraries learn to bridge the gap between MARC and non-MARC workflows.
My first exploration into this topic came during the June 25, 2021 session of the Cataloging Norms Interest Group at the American Library Association Annual Conference. Facilitating a 30-minute virtual discussion, I posed questions related to my perception of a MARC and non-MARC identity crisis within technical services. The session invited live participation via voice and chat from the 300 session attendees. The discussion began with a survey of how MARC and non-MARC workflows are defined institutionally. A broad consensus formed among participants that “MARC workflows” referred to cataloging processes for resources in the public catalog, while “non-MARC” meant any other schema including but not limited to: MODS, Dublin Core, RDF, BIBFRAME, and Wikidata. Moreover, several participants expressed a strong correlation between institutions employing MARC workflows for physical materials and resource discovery through an Integrated Library System, as opposed to non-MARC workflows which had a strong correlation with resources in digital collections and institutional repositories made available through digital browsing environments. The discussion turned towards library software and types of patron-facing tooling, such as BiblioBoard, which often use proprietary schemas incompatible with MARC or even a system of loosely structured labels such as the Dublin Core schema.
The most revealing part of the Cataloging Norms discussion followed a question about responsibilities around metadata maintenance and how workflows are divided up among technical services personnel. Namely — are there distinct areas of staff expertise that are supported through professional development and resource support, or are staff expected to handle all types of cataloging and metadata processes? Participants generally expressed that their institutions do have a standard division of labor and knowledge between traditional MARC cataloging and non-MARC metadata creation. Several participants made the point that a third area of technical services staffing pertains to information technologies and systems, as well as the need for cross-training across units on how to handle complex data transitions such as linked data or systems migrations. This naturally led to another question about those in power of such decisions: does library administration understand the meaningful differences between MARC and non-MARC? One participant made the point that MARC is a standard built for interoperability, with consistent data encoding and extensible field / subfield structure meant to accommodate all types of resource description. They argued that proprietary vendor metadata schemas such as BiblioBoard present a significant obstacle because they lack the internal consistency of MARC encoded data.
The discussion ultimately coalesced around the notion that library administration holds the perception that staff with non-MARC expertise have the freedom to accomplish data projects in ways that circumvent a formal cataloging department. Several concerns were subsequently voiced about the future of non-MARC metadata control, such as faculty and students contributing directly to institutional repositories by creating their own Dublin Core metadata without mediation. Another concern raised was about the tendency to reduce cost and time by creating and funding distinct digital projects each with their own set of deadlines, production criteria, and cross-departmental workflows, resulting in disparate standards for metadata across time and temporary project-bound staff. Yet another concern was that as non-MARC digital collections become larger and draw on a variety of sources with individual standards of consistency (e.g., users publishing under variable names and generating multiple ORCID identifiers over time), catalogers are then brought in to exert authority control in advance of data clean-up projects or systems migration efforts where inconsistencies can result in critical data loss. One participant summed up these challenges by reminding the discussion facilitators that cataloging doesn’t simply mean MARC. Instead, the participant expressed that cataloging has been a practical skill set long before machine-readable encoding was ever developed, and that cataloging as a skill set will only become more important for standardization and interoperability as linked data becomes a wider practice.
Bridging the Gap
Based on the Cataloging Norms Interest Group discussion alone, it’s tempting to generalize the difference between MARC and non-MARC workflows in stark, irreconcilable terms: the traditional versus the modern; precise versus erratic; rigid versus flexible. Yet if we zoom out and consider the possibilities for strategic application of either approach, the asserted differences between these workflows reflect the dysfunction between administrative priorities about information accumulation and the labor it takes for data can be reasonably managed. The question is not whether contemporary technical services departments are experiencing an identity crisis. The question is whether that crisis is predicated on MARC vs. non-MARC at all.
Much of the discussion’s consternation over non-MARC metadata might instead be considered in terms of re-asserting how a well-rounded technical services skillset is contingent on certain standards of professional support and the opportunity to develop experience over time. The tight deadlines of grant-funded library projects, for instance, may pair well with self-contained digital collections where the result might be a custom public-facing web page that can stand on its own within an institutional press release. However, as library administration increasingly organizes their budgets around project-based processing and digitization work, there is invariably some discontinuity between approaches and even standards for metadata creation. In my own experience with term-based employment, sometimes this simply comes down to the revolving-door nature of project work wherein dedicated staff are expected to enter a project plan, immediately start producing records and/or description with little to no institutional knowledge, and are often not renewed long enough to measure the quality and interoperability of their work. In this scenario, the divisions within technical services departments seem less the result of choosing a particular schema than a miscalculation of how challenging data management becomes without permanent, professionally diverse staff to steward traditional cataloging standards into digital collections workflows.
Of course, even an adequate valuation of professional labor would not fully resolve the extent to which new library data is simply more voluminous and disparately sourced than ever. As a means of reckoning with this scale of resources, academic library systems seem to be changing in real-time to support the user trend towards keyword searching as a functional alternative to browsing. Depending on who you ask, this trend towards complex faceting and the development of predictive discovery layers either supports or supplants the traditional reference model of directing users towards call number groupings. Perhaps there’s the sense from administration that traditional cataloging description can be circumvented if library users are largely looking for targeted metadata values such as subjects, genre, and electronic access to make sense of this vast sea of eBooks and externally-curated databases. Even if this is the case, the efficacy of providing facets for thousands of results still relies on a keen eye for controlled vocabularies and internal best practices for describing local resources clearly and intuitively. Whether using MARC or non-MARC schemas, the usability of library resources can only grow if technical services departments are given the support and personal power to make the underlying data conceivable to a broad library community.
To many early-to-mid career professionals (including myself), there is an inclination to parse technical services workflows into “traditional” and “modern” given the increasing visibility of technologies such as linked data and a broader shift in how library users relate to resources in the post-pandemic digital age. Such perceived divisions are unlikely to disappear from professional discourse any time soon. Even so, it is helpful to recognize how external pressures and demands on technical services departments contribute to a sense that cataloging and metadata staff are somehow in conflict with one another instead of with the outsized expectations of their work.