The Research Information Network in the UK has released a timely report: Creating catalogues: bibliographic records in a networked world [Splash page; pdf]. It is concise and has a useful Summary and Key Findings section.

I found it an interesting read, in no small part because it rehearses various key themes of these pages. Critically, it discusses systemwide reconfiguration of library services, a far-reaching and critical issue for libraries in a network environment.

There are two overarching issues. One is that library processes are inefficient because resources are consumed in redundant activity that do not create distinctive local value. The second is that a fragmented presence on the web reduces impact and visibility. Of course each of these is related to the institutional-scale nature of much current work, which is poorly aligned with emerging network organization, where we have become accustomed to institutions externalizing activities. The network allows routine work to be consolidated (think payroll) and it favors concentrated user hubs (think Amazon and Google).

So, from a processing point of view it is not surprising to see recommendations which point to better sharing of the burden of data creation across the book/journal world and between libraries (and in this context, there is a discussion of record re-use and innovation). And from an impact point of view, there are recommendations about consolidating the web presence of libraries in order to better focus user attention.

Perhaps the recommendation which will receive the most attention is the following:

Libraries are therefore spending significant resources in editing the records they receive, as well as adding data to meet their own local needs. Sustaining and developing individual catalogues for the more than 160 university libraries in the UK demands considerable resources. A shared catalogue for the whole UK higher education (HE) sector, with dynamic links to local holdings, could bring enormous benefits, in terms of reduced costs, of a more comprehensive coverage of both national and local holdings with better-quality records. It would also provide the potential for developing new user-focused services allowing them to remain relevant to their users and to compete with Amazon, Google and others.

I guess I would not emphasise competition in this way, as one of the functions of such a concentration (noted elsewhere in the report) would be to act as a switch and syndication point on the network.

The report has sensible recommendations about better provision of e-book data; it argues for better dissemination of article level data; and it supports various consensus making activities. I was surprised not to see more discussion of knowledgebase/ERM activity, although this may have been out of scope. This is especially because this is also an area with some potential for consolidation and network concentration.

I will watch with interest how this report is received and discussed. I think that it is inevitable that libraries will externalize more of what they do to third parties and shared services. This is both to increase efficiency and to increase impact. This does not remove the local role, rather it represents a natural evolution in which time and attention can be devoted to changing local needs and interests.

Update: The report does not provide a blueprint for action. It does put a stake in the ground which may shift the conversation.

Comments: 2

Jun 05, 2009
John Webb

One of the tensions that needs to be addressed is the sometimes widely differing needs of librarians and library users in the use of records. So much of a typical local record is really not of any interest to over 99$ of users, but librarians and library staffs seem not to be able to function without the extra. Extending knowledge base activities beyond the ERM world might be a possible evolution.

Jul 01, 2009
Mike Chisholm

Just come across this post via RIN eNews. As a long-standing chief cataloguer, I'm aware it has long been the dream of library chiefs to recycle the salaries of their cataloguers, and why not? However, three problems strike me with the idea of central provision:

1. The distribution of actual "need" for records to local level means only those items actually needed but absent from the primary MARC source (say, CURL or OCLC) get created locally. If you turn the pyramid upside down, then everything that is potentially needed anywhere must be created centrally, and in a timely way. That will be impossible.

2. In time, library management systems might adapt to exploit only such data as is available in a MARC record, but as things stand all LMS add locally configurable bells and whistles to the bib record and the local holdings record that do most of the work -- things like loan periods, collection codes, material types, etc. I suppose standards might evolve for such things, but they seem resolutly "local" in scope and definition to me.

3. Expertise cannot be bought in by the yard. Once local expertise has been happily abandoned for, say, 90% of bibliographic provision, then it will quickly vanish for the remaining 10%. Russian books on engineering will become as opaque as if they were written in Ogham.