The MARC standard format is dying!

The MARC standard format is dying!

Resuscitation attempts have proven unsuccessful! A heart transplant is underway.

Created in 1962 and the first industry ever to standardise data in a structured manner, MARC has been the watchword in protecting library data for over 50 years.

MARC is not dead just yet, even though it was foretold by Roy Tennant way back in 2002. Actually he only suggested that it should die and gave very logical reasons for why it should be replaced by XML. Fourteen years on the library world is still clinging to MARC formats as vendors and librarians alike have a built in reluctance to change.  But linked data and semantic web is not going away any time soon. As a result, the Library of Congress initiated the development of BIBFRAME in 2012.

BIBFRAME is an initiative to evolve bibliographic description standards to a linked data model, in order to make bibliographic information more useful both within and outside the library community. It is designed to replace MARC standards.

“BIBFRAME provides a foundation for the future of bibliographic description, both on the web, and in the broader networked world”.

In June 2016 the Acquisitions & Bibliographic Access Directorate (ABA) of the Library of Congress reported on the pilots that had been conducted since October 2015 to test the efficacy of BIBFRAME.

It was understood by all participants in the pilots that full functionality of the BIBFRAME system would not be present rather the pilots were to help the progression of the BIBFRAME model and vocabulary. Some 40 staff worked in the pilot including a mix of cataloguers and technicians. The task they faced was to catalogue data into their normal MARC based system followed by cataloguing the same items using BIBFRAME.

I have been keen to see how cataloguers are responding to the changes being advanced by BIBFRAME, not least because I have for some time seen MARC as a format that holds back library services. We opted to follow XML as the basis for our systems when we created Soutron Library System but we appreciate that for many MARC is the gold-standard. Having been in the library world now for over 32 years I see nothing but limitations with this format for recording data. Problems come to the fore whenever we convert data from MARC records.  I continue to be amazed that libraries looking at new systems continue to declare it as a mandatory requirement.

As part of the preparation for the pilot, training was provided to the LoC staff involved – about ten hours in total. The report deemed this was about right and any less would have left them under-trained. It is to their credit that these staff members were willing to take part in the pilot especially when it meant that they undertook this as an additional task and still had to deliver a production catalogue. They also had the disadvantage that the BIBFRAME software was still in development and missing a number of key facilities, such as retrieving a previously added record. Not easy to review your work under these conditions!

The findings of the report are instructive. Not only because the report reveals that they were able to successfully transition some 13.5 million records from MARC into BIBFRAME but also for how cataloguing and library services might develop. It revealed that the theoretical concepts of Linked Data and the Semantic Web are not easily assimilated by some cataloguers and it stated that “mastery of MARC hindered their ability to use the BIBFRAME Editor effectively” even though it was set up with RDA terminology i.e., the title is labelled as “title”, not “the 245.”

I have found this to be the case when introducing Soutron to librarians who are MARC trained. It is why we have never attempted to sell into any market other than special libraries. It takes a while to adjust to a different way of thinking when cataloguing using RDA descriptions and linking data. It demands more from a cataloguer in some ways because the cataloguer’s judgement becomes more important. The report puts it very well when it describes it thus:

“what is the best way to link these data for this resource?”

rather than

“what MARC tag and subfield codes am I limited to encoding for these data?”

BIBFRAME is designed to provide the transition path for MARC 21 format to a robust data exchange based on XML, the standard used by the web for data exchange. With XML, it is possible to describe the relationships between things living on the web. The emphasis on making relationships is at the heart of the web. It is natural for librarians to embrace such ideas to make sharing and access to information more readily available. Some might say why change a standard that has worked for 50 years? My response is that the world has changed, data has changed, people’s expectations of information and how to share and relate to it have changed.

The energies of those bringing BIBFRAME to life are to be welcomed and supported. At Soutron we continue to follow BIBFRAME developments with great anticipation.

Contact us today!


Library of Congress

On the record: The future of bibliographic control MARC must die, Roy Tennant, Library Journal October 15 2002

MARC Isn’t Dying Fast Enough , Lori Bowen Ayre
– This article originally appeared in Collaborative Librarianship, Volume 6, Number 4, 2015.


View more posts by Graham Beastall Graham Beastall – Senior Consultant and Managing Director. Graham’s background is in Accountancy, Public Administration and Organisational Theory with a deep technical understanding of databases and web technologies. More posts by Graham.

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