International Student House (London)

25 October 1988

ESRC Seminar Series on Cataloguing Computer Files

The purpose of this meeting was to present the first published Review Draft of a Guide to the cataloguing of computer held files, which has been under discussion and development for the last two years by a working party organised jointly by the ESRC Data Archive at Essex and the Edinburgh University Data Library. Several other organisations had been active at various times in this or related working parties and most of them were also represented at this meeting. These included the British Library, the Institute of Information Scientists, the Archives Department of the University of Liverpool, the CCTA, the IUSC, the PRO, DTI, the Central Statistical Office, NISS and even the Oxford Text Archive.

Peter Burnhill (Edinburgh Data Library) began his brief overview of the Guide by acknowledging the encouragement and support of the ESRC specifically in its recognition of the importance of bibliographic control of machine readable data as a necessary precursor of secondary analyses. He stressed that the Guide was intended to be a guide, rather than a standard. Its purpose was to provide information for those wishing to apply existing standards (AACR2 for the logical structure, MARC for the implementation) to the cataloguing of machine readable resources of all sorts. It was therefore primarily - but not exclusively - addressed to the librarian community. Amongst specific problem areas identified, Burnhill mentioned that of the "general material description" - computer software typically came in many physical forms which might have little relevance from a bibliographic control standpoint; as an example he cited the "Aladdin" emulation package for the Atari, which was a box containing a chip set, a registration card, a manual, and two (incompatible) diskettes. To describe such heterogenous objects adequately the Report proposed four major subdivisions: bibliographic details, sufficient to identify the item described and its availability; description of the item's subject and intellectual content; technical information describing the item's physical characteristics; management and access information relative to local copies of the items. Most earlier proposals about how machine readable resources should be catalogued had tended to blur these ditinctions. Burnhill also gave a brief history of how the Guide had come into being, inspired initially by a published discussion (by Sue Dodd) of AACR2 Chapter 9 and its interpretation. It was clear that new versions of the AACR2 standard would have to deal more thoroughly with the 'intellectual content' of electronic works.

Bridget Winstanley (ESRC Data Archive) circulated a short discussion paper on the 'next steps' for the working party. She described possible test vehicles for the proposals of the Guide, ranging from simple bibliographic lists to fully fledged union catalogues and (a new buzzword for me though not for the librarians) something called "Linked" Catalogues i.e. where software is sufficiently intelligent to search many different catalogues at different sites. Conversion of the ESRC Archive's current catalogue (held in the Standard Study Description format) to MARC could be done automatically. The Bibliographic Control project at Essex, having looked at a variety of other communication formats, had reluctantly decided that MARC remained the only horse in the race, despite its somewhat jaded appearance. A simple PC-based interactive cataloguing system was under development, the output from which was MARC records conforming to the guidelines.

Sue Dodd, as inspiration of the working party's effort, began by remarking that both the books she had written in the last five years were already outdated by technological change, but gave no specific examples. Traditionally, publishers had been the source of bibliographic information: this did not seem to be the case at present for the 'publishers' of machine readable data, whoever they might be, largely for social and organisational reasons. The advent of the Guide might make it easier for electronic publishers to provide the required information in a uniform manner. She spoke of a 'natural tension' between book and machine readable file standards. For a book, all the required information was present on the titlepage. Intellectual content, if required, was as easily accessible as a physical description (provided you knew how to read). This did not apply to a machine readable file. She distinguished a useful distinction between the logical (humanly determinable) characteristics of a file and the physical characteristics of its carrier and (in my view) a less useful one between the latter and any system dependency. She concluded by mentioning three problem areas for bibliographic control among the facilities already provided by many libraries online services (how do you catalogue DIALOG?), works printed on demand in varying formats, and online works that are constantly updated.

Marcia Taylor (ESRC Data Archive) concluded the meeting by pointing to the existence of a Dissemination working party, of which all present were ipso facto made members, and there was some general discussion about the best ways of circulating the proposals in the Guide.

In my view, the Guide itself needs substantial rewriting before it can be let out of the Librarian community. However its structure and approach are eminently sound, and it is heartening to see professional cataloguers entering an arena too long left to the amateur.