Thoughts on quality in bibliographic records

In the age old debate for cataloguers: “what is more important quality or quantity?”, very little is ever said about how we define quality.

What do we, as cataloguers, consider a “quality” or acceptable bibliographic record? Is it one without errors? Without any obsolete tags? One with uniform subject headings throughout, say, a series? One where all the punctuation between MARC fields is correct? Or, is a quality record a record any record that can be found or accessed?

In 2007, when I first started this blog, I wrote a post called Quality v. Quantity. At the time, I was convinced that quality demanded more than a “good enough” attitude. Recently, another blogger also wrote a very similar post, ironically enough also called Quality vs. Quantity.

My post, as well Ms. LeGrow’s neglects, I believe, what is at the heart of the matter. What do we define as a quality record and are there levels of quality based on circumstances and expertise? Unlike my views in 2007, I believe quality must be balanced with productivity, especially with the new technology (ie. “Did you mean…? feature) and increasing amounts of formats that we are put to cataloguing. My definition of quality has also changed. In an ideal world, our records would be perfect (of course, the definition of that, too, is debatable). However, I find I am more interested in access points and accessibility. With the change to RDA, I don’t believe a using a colon, rather than a semicolon will impact access, nor will the improper use of capital letters or additional tags within the record. However, cataloguers still focus heavily on these small editing issues – and debate this issue vehemently!

With the growing ability to harvest metadata from a variety of places, not just OCLC or local consortiums, at what point can we accept the work of others? After all, it is neither efficient nor acceptable, especially when harvesting large amount of metadata, to edit each individual record. Indeed, with the ability to download bib records for the most popular items in a library’s collection, if we accepted those records which we must assume are considered “quality” by the institution which created the record, wouldn’t we increase our cataloguing productivity?

And, thanks to Terry Reese, we can make mass editing changes with MarcEdit, to assist with uniformity for mass records too.

If most cataloguers believe his or her records are the best, when can we start accepting our colleagues’ records and really focus on the original cataloguing? Until we understand what we mean by quality, we can’t begin to address the issue of quantity vs. quantity.



Filed under Access Issues, future of cataloguing, The Cataloguer

9 responses to “Thoughts on quality in bibliographic records

  1. It seems to me that the determining factor of the quality of bibliographic records is tied up in whether or not the end user of the record (read: patron) can find the metadata they need to determine the usefulness of the book for their needs. In the end, all other items (as it seems to me) serve that one purpose.

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Jason – very well said!

  3. Elise Daniel

    I could not agree more. I’ve done some cataloging consulting for small and developing collections, and often have to talk myself out of a job by encouraging libraries to accept a certain lack of quality in order to get the job done. My goal is always to get the information out there, with the option to return and upgrade the quality (which realistically rarely happens!). Get it done, fix it later.

  4. Bryan

    I think it’s worthwhile to read Dorothea Salo’s “Librarians and error” ( It dates from 2004, but I think her suggestions for a way forward on some of the quality issues are still valid today.

  5. Ivy

    Second what Jason said–and that’s going to vary from institution to institution. I’m going to need a lot more detail in my fashion-related records, for example, than, say, a public library, where such additions might be a hindrance. I think one thing we really need to work on developing is tools to filter levels of “quality” from intitution to institution.

    Don’t get me started about captialization, punctuation, etc. The fact that graduate level coursework, cataloging education, job descriptions/requirements, etc. are still entrenched in such moot minutae is really one of the biggest reasons for not only lack of progress and advancement in our area, but also the stereotypical reputation assigned to cataloging librarians and why we can’t seem to be understood and taken as seriously as we ought by other librarians and administrators.

  6. I don’t have personal experience cataloging, so I’ve not had a chance to review OCLC’s “quality” (or any other commercial, farmed out cataloging service). Is it really lacking? If so, why? Shouldn’t any commercial service have the resources and savvy to create a highly accurate set of metadata?

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  8. Heather

    I’m going to be brave and pick a fight with Ivy. Of course capitalization [dare I add, sic? No, better not] and punctuation and moot minutiae matter because they are necessary to provide accurate and reliable and trustworthy bibliographic data. They also indicate a certain type of mind and approach that is required if you’re going to be a cataloguer. Don’t we keep saying that libraries are better than Google exactly because we are more accurate, reliable and trustworthy?

    The reason for the stereotypical reputation is because we don’t always discriminate between cases where detail is important, and cases where it isn’t. It should be obvious that it is worth taking a great deal more time and trouble over a C17 broadside than over a C20 paperback crime novel. It is that lack of judgement in when to apply those qualities that (deservedly in some cases) gives us the bad reputation, not the qualities themselves.

    And, to take a slightly different tack, I’m not sure that it is right to say that the users of public libraries ipso facto need less detail, accuracy etc in their catalogue records than the users of academic or special libraries. The special problem facing public library cataloguers is that their users may be looking only for a free loan of the latest crime novel (in which case, they’re probably not using the catalogue at all, but browsing the shelves) or may be private or professional experts in any subject at all – and very critical of a failure to treat their subject with the attention to detail it deserves.

  9. Laurel Tarulli

    Sorry for the lateness in responding to all, but I’ve not been feeling well for the last couple of days – which actually resulted in taking the day off today. Arghhh.

    Heather and Ivy, I think you’re actually more alike in your theories of quality than you realize. None of us want to display bib records that have a mixture of caps or spelling errors, but handling each and every record to review for that sort of thing isn’t, at least in my opinion, what makes us professionals. We’re better than Amazon or Barnes and Noble because of the hierarchical structures our controlled vocabularies provide, our ability to analyse information and represent the *author’s* intent of his/her work through words. We understand how, and sometimes not without some pain 😉 , to represent concepts with words and extract the relevant information about an item and apply it with uniform rules to create consistent access. Whether or not one term is in all caps or not from record to record is what I call “adminstrative” work. It’s the rules, underlying structures, knowledge of our end-user needs and analytical skills which we apply to cataloguing that I believe truly defines why we are important.

    I think Jason’s comment does provide our overarching mission – which is achieved through our expertise.

    And Heather you make a good point – I hope we all agree that, while different, public library cataloguing maintains the same level of quality in our records as our academic colleagues. The needs are different and the *players* are different but the skills of the cataloguers and the rules we follow are still the same!

    And Bryan – thank you for the link! I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, but I’m looking forward to reading it.

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