CLA 2011

The World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax was the site of the 2011 Canadian Library Association Conference.

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The weather vane with the ship and the angled, glass walls make the convention centre an easy landmark to spot.

Apart from my own session called “Visualizing RDA” (about the new cataloguing instructions), I attended only a few sessions. The opening keynote speech by Frank McKenna was inspiring. Frank McKenna is a former premier of New Brunswick and former ambassador to the United States, and he is currently on the board of directors for TD Bank Financial Group. He is a strong advocate for raising literacy levels in Canada.

McKenna’s speech had a powerful sweep to it as he enumerated the great global challenges of today. For Canada, relying too much on our natural resources for our wealth is a potential risk. He told the story of the NY Times columnist Tom Friedman who was once in Israel, a country without natural resources. When Friedman asked a professor why Israel was doing so well, he was told that Israel had struck oil. The professor pointed out the students in a classroom—“these are our oil wells”.

The TD Bank Financial Group invests more than $1.5 million in children’s literacy programs annually. It sponsors the TD Summer Reading Club and the TD Canadian Children’s Book Week. Frank McKenna drove home the point that Canada as a country and Canadians as individuals can benefit enormously with improved literacy rates.

Given these powerful incentives to support literacy (and by extension, libraries) it was quite a contrast to hear the story of Regina Public Library in the session “To the Edge and Back.” Shortly after starting his job as deputy library director in 2003, Jeff Barber was faced with a crisis—the City faced a budget shortfall and the library was targeted. About one quarter of the library’s public service units would close and 27 employees would be laid off.

Within a year, the danger had passed, but not before dramatic action was taken. There was a public outcry and many Friends of the Library groups formed. The library board was even taken to court. A new board was appointed. Fundraising ideas were explored, and a change in mindset brought about a new openness to partnerships and a willingness to take some risks. There was a new “let’s see where this goes” attitude. A home lottery became a fixture in stabilizing the library’s financial situation. Today, the Regina Public Library is planning its expansion with a new central library.

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Web site for Regina Public Library Home Lottery: http://www.rplhomelottery.ca/

The take-away message: Dream big. Embrace your community. Find and hire experience. Learn to love risk.

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FRBR, RDA, RDF – those were the acronyms in which I was most interested at CLA 2011. My presentation on RDA was followed Friday afternoon by a presentation on the Semantic Web. Gordon Dunsire flew in from Scotland to talk about Linked Data and the implications for library cataloguing. Several of his past presentations are here: http://www.gordondunsire.com/presentations.htm

The broad rationale for moving forward, with RDA and with exploring the possibility of the Semantic Web, is that current cataloguing is still rooted in card catalogue limitations. The “flat-file” approach (while good for its day) is not efficient at eliminating redundancy. The new approach, based on FRBR, is hierarchical.

The Semantic Web goes even further. One can even talk of a single record for the entire bibliographic universe, once the data is linked via standards like RDF (Resource Description Framework). RDF atomizes our data, and allows it to be reconstructed as we need it. Our current cataloguing system, in addition to not being sufficiently hierarchical, is bulky and too fixated on whole records. Atomizing data means the presentation of data can be fine-tuned to user preferences.

In my presentation, Visualizing RDA, I used examples of actual databases and web sites that illustrate the principles behind RDA. We should be able to more easily see relationships and clusters of related data with the entity-relationship modeling (i.e. FRBR-based modeling) behind RDA. The same bibliographic work may be expressed differently (translation, audiobook, etc.), and many publications exist that contain the same content and expression. Relating those entities together is clumsy in online environments because we are still largely limited by the filing structure of headings in traditional catalogues. The future catalogue will allow us to focus better on entities of interest (authors, subjects, works), which can then draw in much more logically related information, whether it be additional attributes or relationships to other entities.

The following examples show how we can focus on entities of interest, and see related data grouped together, with links to related entities:

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OCLC’s WorldCat Identities collects bibliographic information about authors and has display options that showcase possibilities with RDA. Works are broken down hierarchically into publications, languages, and library holdings.

Relationships are explored in more detail, as seen in the Roles section (where Virginia Woolf can be seen to have been a lyricist, an editor, a compiler, etc.).

Preferred and variant access points for her name can be seen grouped together, helping users from different backgrounds and languages identify her.

And the “publications about” and “publications by” relationships are an indication of more possibilities, as relationships between bibliographic entities and those responsible for them and those that are subjects of them can be navigated with greater ease than in traditional catalogues.

Another example of the entity-relationship approach is LibraryThing:

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Similar to WorldCat Identities, LibraryThing allows us to focus on entities on a web page, such as Virginia Woolf as an author. This organization is a far cry from the card catalogue, where the most one would see of the author would generally only be the heading for the author’s name at the top of each respective catalogue card. Cataloguers keep authority records for authors, but often valuable information in these authority records is not easily accessible to the public.

In LibraryThing, the author’s page can be the gathering point for many attributes—much more than could be displayed in a card catalogue. LibraryThing can anchor a page on an entity and let users contribute data and use links to related external sites. A Semantic Web approach would mean the data from the related site can become directly part of the web page you are viewing.

And LibraryThing is already focused on the bibliographic work, not on each individual publication as a separate record, as in card catalogues. Because of this, related attributes can be grouped in wonderful new ways, such as this display of all available covers for the work “Mrs. Dalloway”:

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What RDA promises is more of this flexibility, but with greater rigour behind the scenes. Imagine this data easily translatable, matching end-user preferences on-the-fly. Imagine the data extending across the Web with Semantic Web technology, where searching can be much more precise because computers would be able to act on inferences built into the way bibliographic data is linked and encoded. A new world of possibilities exist for library cataloguing, and libraries are in a position to be trailblazers in high quality data for the Web.

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Another view of the World Trade and Convention Centre, site of CLA 2011. Note the proximity to the TD Tower—a reminder of keynote speaker Frank McKenna and the various literacy programs that TD sponsors.

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