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The Real Dirt About RDA

Maura Walsh
Emporia State University
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The Real Dirt About RDA

Catalogs started out as inventory lists that have kept apace quite nicely until relatively

recently. In fact, from the 1840s-1970s the catalog continued to develop and be refined and meet

most users needs. The computer has changed all that. While the practical aspects of cataloging

are reassuring and comforting in their exactness and adherence to precise rules, the changes in

what is needed in order to keep up with the dizzying speed of change brought on by the sheer

amount of information that technology allows us to produce and distribute is mind boggling.

“The library catalog and its conventions, valued by libraries as both an inventory
of regularly published items and as the sharing mechanism for catalog entries,
does not have a means to respond to this new, more chaotic information
environment” (Coyle, Hillmannn, 2007).

Resource Description and Access (RDA) is an attempt to bridge the existing systems with

the contemporary cataloging needs of information users. It is being developed to provide a better

fit with emerging database technologies and to capitalize on the efficiency and flexibility such

technologies have to offer for capturing, storing, retrieving and displaying data. RDA’s

theoretically based guidelines (from FRBR, FRAD and FRSAR) that can be applied more

broadly and concentrate more on the user. FRBR has been a great advocate for this user centered

functionality because it analyzes data from the perspective of how it will be used. The conceptual

model identifies the entities that might be of interest to users and relates their attributes so the

user can then navigate through the data to choose exactly what is needed.

FRAD and FRSAR attempt to further clarify and support the FRBR model. Following

this same philosophy, FRAD helps contextualize and justify the access points by applying the

principal theories in FRBR to authority data. FRSAR is instrumental in developing the records

in terms of aboutness and exploring the records obtained. It also helps facilitate the sharing of
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data internationally.

While all these theory models may overwhelm the typical library user, they are the bare

bones of RDA. The purpose of RDA is actually to provide a more complete and easier-to-

navigate access for that user. It encourages recoding information in clusters that will make it

easier to obtain because the arrangement creates an awareness of its purpose. Clarifying the

nature of the relationships between different entities – be they works, manifestations, expressions

or items – and their creators will make it easier for the user to identify and retrieve what is

needed. In fact, the new Cuil webpage seems to be working along similar lines.

Another claim is that RDA is being designed in order to adapt quickly to new kinds of

resources. A criticism of AACR has been that it is reactive and so it is always having to try to

catch up to the needs of the users. So RDA has tried to create categories that can easily adapt to

changes in media or sources. The way this has been done actually seems to be by simplifying

some of the current rules so that they may apply to a range of things instead of a limited set.

A benefit of this type of system is that it should be easier to teach and learn. It also claims

to be logical. Plans exist to translate the web tool into 24 languages to help launch the

international component and make it attractive to a large audience immediately. Since RDA is a

content standard and not a display standard nor a metadata system, its role is to describe the data

and its relations to like data. It doesn’t dictate display conventions so different institutions can

adapt that function as they like and make it fit their institution. It will, however, eventually

navigate through all data, like MARC records, web pages, Dublin Core. In the future, the user’s

search need not be limited to a physical institution. The RDA has the exciting possibility of

providing access around the world and throughout all recorded data. In fact, OPACs may be

swiftly following the card catalog.
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This will probably pose little problem for the user. Today’s users are usually quite

proficient using search engines. Almost everyone can surf through pages like Google and

Wikipedia with ease. In fact, many find our current OPACs rather cumbersome. So in order for

RDA to be successful it will need to present results in an aesthetically pleasing and practical way.

This poses a problem when considering the many institutions that will want to access and

provide access to information. How can RDA be tailored to meet the needs of libraries large and

small, academic and public, archives and museums? The stakeholders also include users,

catalogers, OCLC, other system vendors and owners, publishers (books and journals, Gov docs,

film, music, internet), universities, and bookstores.

But will RDA actually be so user friendly? The contradiction seems to be the incredibly

complicated rules that are guiding what is available to see up till now, the fact that it is behind

schedule (perhaps not as simple as once thought), and that nagging suspicion that it won’t really

have cut enough of the AACR ties. Since the RDA was actually started as the latest revision of

the AACR, and because it is being done by a small group of librarians (no archivists or other

information professionals), some are more that a little worried that it will turn out to be just

another incarnation of the card catalog. If the goals of RDA are goals based on the past, this may

be so.

Although FRBR gives RDA a good leg up to recording data about some new formats, it

has left web pages to the undefined future. This seems like a terrible mistake. Web search

engines are not leaving books or anything else out. If libraries do not adjust and include such

information, it will be very difficult to make the case that they are the cutting edge. Even without

RDA libraries know this. Inclusion of Web 2.0 things like tagging, user reviews and ratings can

currently be found on many local public library web pages.
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The RDA promotes itself as “a new standard for resource description and access designed

for the digital world." (Joint Steering Committee for RDA, 2008). Yet everywhere librarians are

being assured that the “new” will be completely compatible with MARC tags and formatting. In

addition, we are told that they are also compatible with everything else like EAD, database

technology and database architectures. There are two potential problems here. First there is no

incentive for others to share their data with RDA. How do they propose to capture it, let alone

have it all compatible? Second, the few draft documents available have highly structured strings

(Joint Steering Committee for RDA, 2008) that don’t look simple at all.

It is interesting to note that not everyone is putting their eggs in the same basket. The

National Science Foundation is studying proposals for DataNet, and two are currently being

considered for funding. These proposals should “integrate library and archival sciences,

cyberinfrastructure, computer and information sciences, and domain science expertise” (National

Science Foundation, 2008). This seems like a much broader mandate and the grant money is

serious: $20 million a year for five years with the possibility of continued funding may be given

to up to five groups.

The Library of Congress has also expressed many concerns including a lengthy

publication where they list the shortcomings that they have found in what the RDA has revealed

to date. They continue to support the efforts of the Joint Steering Committee. They also offer

suggestions for amending the problems that they have encountered.

Many others feel that it is just a matter of time before books and libraries as we know

them go the way of reference works and peer reviewed journals. Of course both are still available

in hard copies, but users generally need and want them in electronic formats. Maybe sticking to

RDA will hasten our end because while we are expending energy in making it work, we are
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missing the big picture in the information world. The Taiga Forum believes there are about six

years left. They advocate for a melding of the technical services functions in libraries and try to

discern what the changes will be. As Norm Medeiros says: “It is a confusing time to be a

cataloger.” (2007).

At the same time, it is a very exciting time to be a cataloger and a librarian. There has

never been so much data, so much access, and such faced paced change. People have never

needed so much information so quickly. We don’t know exactly what will change and we don’t

know exactly when, but we know change is inevitable.

Fasten you seat belt – it’s going to be a wild ride.


Coyle, K., & Hillmann, D. (2007). Resource description and access (RDA): Cataloging rules for the 20th
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century . D-Lib Magazine, Volume 13 Number 1/2, Retrieved July 28, 2008, from

IFLA working group, Classification and indexing section (2007, April 1). Functional requirements for

subject authority records. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from IFLANET Web site:

IFLA working group on FRANAR, (2007, April 1). Functional requirements for authority data. Retrieved

July 28, 2008, from IFLA Web site:


Joint Steering Committee for RDA, (July, 18. 2008). RDA. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from RDA: Resource

Description and Access Web site:

Library of Congress. (2008). Joint Statement of the Library of Congress, the National Library of

Medicine, and the National Agricultural Library on resource description and access

( Washington, DC:


Medeiros, N. (2007).The catalogs last stand. OCLC Systems and Services. 23:3, 235-237.

National Science Foundation, (2008. July 7 ). Sustainable Digital Data Preservation and Access Network

Partners (DataNet). Retrieved July 28, 2008, from Office of Cyberinfrastructure Web site:

Roberto, K. R. (2008). Radical cataloging: essays at the front. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York,

NY: Penguin Press.

The Taiga Forum, Taiga Forum Steering Committee (2006, March 10). Taiga Forum provocative

statements. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from Taiga Forum Web site: