Wednesday, May 07, 2008

LC statement on RDA

I've long been on the fence with regards to the development of RDA - is it a transformative event or total folly? I think I've finally come to the opinion that RDA is overall a positive thing, and that it represents a necessary (although of course not perfect) step forward in the ongoing evolution of libraries.

What got me thinking about these issues again was a recent letter from Deanna Marcum at LC explaining why LC was issuing a joint statement with the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library outlining a testing and decision-making plan for determining whether or not to fully implement RDA. The letter and statement essentially say that wide participation in RDA development is a Good Thing (tm), yet so is substantive evaluation of it. Not much to argue with there. (Well, we always do find something to argue about, don't we?)

The stated goals of RDA, as well as its scope and underlying principles, speak to me strongly. I like the idea of a content standard written with FRBR principles in mind. The goal of making library description interoperate better in the current information environment outside of libraries is of course a laudable one. In this way, just by clearly stating these and a handful of others as the rationale behind the work being done, we've made a significant step forward. We're responding to the world as it exists around us today.

The world is changing, though. The environment today won't be the environment tomorrow. There's no indication, and perhaps even no real hope, that what we decide today will be right in a year, three years, ten. That's a reality we have to face, and I've decided I'm in the camp that says we have to move forward anyways, analyzing the risk but not being afraid of it. Looking at RDA through this lens, will it meet the goals it has outlined? Probably not. I see much in the current drafts that don't demonstrate the overall goals well. But we've never done this before, at least not in this way. We're learning. We're going to make mistakes. The stakes are admittedly high, but they're also high if we don't act. RDA has already evolved from community input, and I suspect it will continue to do so. Maybe it doesn't even stick around that long - maybe we learn enough from writing and trying to implement it that another round is warranted with some key needed improvements. We've investing many resources in this, but that's part of life as well. Many things don't pan out, and that's certainly not unique to the library world. I realize our resources are scarce, but they're going to be zero soon if we don't think creatively. I think RDA is an attempt to do that.

I'm still concerned that RDA as a content standard is stepping too far in the direction of a structure standard for my taste. It's explicitly defining "elements" whereas for content standards I like to think of "classes of elements" to help us remember that instructions in a content standard aren't necessarily a 1:1 match with fields in a data record - this is what enables us to mix and match content and structure standards as we see fit. But I'm the first to admit that the distinction between a structure and a content standard is an artificial one, and that any given standard can blur the line a bit. My concern still lingers, however - the RDA Scope & Structure document uses "elements" and "properties" interchangeably, but I believe these terms, even in the context given here, have very different connotations. We'll see, I suppose, whether my concerns are valid. Maybe I'm just being pedantic about terminology. Or maybe there's a fundamental conceptual problem here. I'm a pragmatist - I realize the only way we're going to find out is to try it.