Can we have open library standards, please? Free RDA/AACR2

By reeset / On / In RDA

I’ve been spending a lot of time working with the RDA specifications over the last few months due to the development of the RDA Helper and it still pains me every time I go to the RDA Toolkit that this specification isn’t open.  It’s hidden away behind pay walls from the prying eyes of non-librarians and freeloaders unable (or unwilling) to purchase a subscription to read a standards document.

I know that I’ve noted this before, but I simply don’t get it.  As a profession, librarians continue to push for open access and open data.  We point out injustices (real and imagined) in how publishers sell and package journal content.  We encourage and support faculty at our institutions to push for free and open access to their research and data.  We do all of that because we say that librarians believe in the free exchange of information, the power of open access to encourage research and discovery.  And then as a profession we create RDA as a new descriptive standard…and we hide it behind a subscription pay wall.

Each year, I find myself needing to consult a half dozen or so ISO standards documents and each year, I find myself paying a few hundred dollars per document just for the privilege of reading these standards documents.  As a developer, it’s something that I’ve come to grudgingly accept outside of the library community.  But inside the library community we should be able to do better…but honestly, we aren’t.  Say what you want, RDA is a closed standard.  Yes, the RDA vocabularies are open (if you can find them), but as a developer, they are essentially useless without the standards documents that give them meaning.  As I worked on the RDA Helper over the past 4 months, it became abundantly clear that were it not for the institutional access I was able to take advantage of through my position at Oregon State University, I wouldn’t have been able to read the specification or build this tool.  And that really bothers me and I think it should bother you too.

As a developer, this irks me.  As a librarian working with faculty to embrace open access, this offends me.  Librarians like to think of themselves as researchers (because we are) and things like RDA, our bibliographic records – these are part of our research output and data.  And yet as a profession, we continually tell other communities through our actions that we value our research more than we value others as we refuse to follow the same open access principles that we preach.

So let’s free RDA and take down the pay wall.  Let’s make a commitment that library standards will be open standards available to anyone.  Let’s be better than we are right now.


15 thoughts on “Can we have open library standards, please? Free RDA/AACR2

  1. When RDA was sooooo waylaid in 2008 I came to the realization 80% of the problem was a lack of a publishing paradigm moving from the AACR ‘way’. Can you imaging if we had committed to learning the principles of OPEN so intrinsically back in 2008.

    I totally agree with this Terry.

    As a cataloguing prof. I spend a lot of hand-wringing time on standards access for students and questions in my mind about DONATING actually teaching time to things like software training instead. (for standards and tools there I guess…) But you remind me another year is almost over and I have not taught students about MARCEdit. Will have to fix that.

    On another note… 3/3 library student reviews of classification tools last week recognized that UDC is an open standard. It might hearten you to know students are RIGHT there with you.

  2. I don’t disagree but what’s the business model that can fund the development, maintenance, etc.? Just like “libraries can’t live on love alone” – organizations can’t survive off dues alone. I’m not arguing against open – I’m just asking that we think seriously about what the alternative models are for funding things since open is free to users but not without costs. Conundrum.

    1. This is the same argument journal publishers make and we reject it because much of the work done on standards like these are done by professionals are part of service to their organizations. Look at the organizations responsible for maintaining the standards — I doubt they see any funding as part of this process. The subscription service is largely artificial and to support the toolkit. Fine — if the toolkit has value — people can pay for that. But having one doesn’t mean you cannot have the other. A PDF without the wiz-bang features of the full toolkit would have sufficed my needs and the needs of many catalogers I speak to outside of the U.S. in developing countries that are currently struggling with this new descriptive framework that they cannot see. I understand that if a tool like the toolkit is developed, someone will need a model to support it, but we cannot argue for a free and open option when it comes to research data and then turn around and take it back for our own work.


  3. I am a software developer in the library arena. You won’t want to hear this, but from my perspective, RDA is dead on arrival. Not only is it insanely long and complicated, not only is it not even available to read (which is terrifyingly dumb) but the perception among my colleagues is that it’s a long, complex, secret answer to the wrong question. The hot news all seems to be around linked data and other similarly non-monolithic representations.

    RDA might have had a chance if it had got itself into gear five years earlier. By putting what now does exist behind a paywall, it’s really killed whatever chance it had.

    1. Mike,

      I disagree simply because it has so much support by the National Libraries that are maintainers. Even LC, as they go through their process to find what comes after MARC, they are keeping RDA in mind because they want whatever they come up with to work with the specification. For catalogers, March 2013 will see US National libraries move to exclusive use of RDA as their bibliographic format of choice. Already, a number of universities are making the move in anticipation of the national library changes. Outside of the US, RDA has seen more acceptance and I anticipate national libraries making the move. I don’t see it going away anytime soon. I think some of the changes that really impact public libraries will slow that groups use of RDA, but like the borg, resistance may be futile. But I guess time will tell.


      1. Well, Terry for the sake of the brainwork that has gone into RDA, I kind of hope you’re right. But when I think of the huge investment is takes to use, and the relatively small payoff in terms of being able to actually do stuff, I can’t be optimistic.

        1. Mike,

          I think a lot of catalogers are right there with you. I get asked all the time about what I think about RDA because of MarcEdit, and honestly, from a practical perspective — the RDA implementation as it stands now doesn’t do anything but and some new data fields. I have a difficult time seeing any practical benefit because you are just replacing coded data fields for plain text ones. I think it’s the future potential of RDA where we may see the actual return on the investment — but how far into the future — who knows.

  4. Terry: I’m not disputing your points by any means, but I was wondering why you were having trouble finding the RDA Vocabularies. My guess is that you were going to the Open Metadata Registry directly, and searching/browsing among all the available vocabularies. There’s an easier way to go directly to the RDA Vocabularies: If I’m wrong about why you’re having trouble, I hope you’ll let me know! — Diane

    1. Diane,

      The reason I had trouble finding the vocabulary is I knew they were there, but I couldn’t remember exactly where they lived. So each time I wanted to find them, I had to google for them and ended up at the Open Metadata Registry. Honestly, I had no idea there was a direct URL, and the fact that its an info URL doesn’t help. Would have never guessed that in a million years. I actually had more luck finding the RDA vocabularies on the LC page where they note vocabularies currently in use by the library.


  5. I think it is useful to point out that at least one standards organization in our profession, NISO, does publish its standards at no cost on the open web:

    NISO standards are available at no cost because of the organizations that support NISO as Voting Members or are members of NISO’s Library Standards Alliance. You are invited to join us! By supporting NISO you ensure that the standards process stays strong and is responsive to your needs.
    All NISO standards are protected by copyright. NISO standards can be downloaded and reproduced for noncommercial purposes only. NISO standards cannot be translated, modified, redistributed, sold or repackaged in any form without the prior permission of NISO. Inquiries regarding commercial reproduction and translation should be directed to:

    1. RDA is just a formalism and not a ready-to-use product. It’s a vehicle to get librarians to re-think their cataloging rules based on entities and relationships, in graphs, no longer in records. That is really important news!

      I would love to see many RDA implementations, especially on the web with RDF semantics. But, such RDA implementation guidelines are completely missing yet. One important aspect is data encoding. Will LoC help us while investigating the MARC successor format? I think no – not much in the world of today. We know already, it will be possible to encode RDA into Linked Open Data. So that’s an important point that makes a lot of difference to the MARC world, which is clumsy and record-centered, and not open, because MARC records are locked in vendor systems.

      The NISO no cost strategy is wonderful. So why not try it and put on some nifty NISO standards about how to implement certain aspects of RDA principles? Why not publish some technical RFCs, just like the IETF is doing it, in a globally loosely organized open process driven by developers, about how to get RDA implemented?

  6. Hi. Thanks for bringing attention to the secretness of RDA. I hadn’t realized it’s extend until I met an Argentinian colleague last summer at IFLA WLIC in Helsinki, and was kind to explain it to me. Terrible news!

    Stuff like this wrecks our talks about opening the library data through datasets and APIs, if the data is going to be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have access to the explanation of what’s in the data. Library data is already too messy and complicated, even for ourselves, and it needs to be made simpler and more coherent, and secrecy won’t lead us that way at all.

    Thanks for the post, I appreciate it.