A change in the world of cataloguing

A change in the world of cataloguing
Moving from the AARC to RDA cataloguing standards
16 June 2014

Occasionally we get asked as cataloguers “What is it that you do?”. Generally the reply doesn’t spawn a huge level of interest, as it often involves words like metadata, filing, Dewey decimal, and subject headings. Thus you’re unlikely to know that cataloguing in itself has recently undergone a bit of a revolution. Before your mind springs forth images of armies of cataloguing staff fighting each other with handwritten catalogue-cards, it wasn’t at all that violent… Mostly.
To get your mind truly in the picture of what this revolution actually involved, and how it affects you as a reader, researcher or general catalogue user you have to go back to the world as it was in 1967.

A 1967 computer room with a worker inputing data.

1967 computers were large and unweildy, but still able to deal with more data than one could by hand. Image: Sievers, Wolfgang, 1913-2007. The computer room at the Alcoa administration building, Point Henry, Victoria, 1967, architects Bates, Smart and McCutcheon [picture]. Part of Wolfgang Sievers photographic archive [picture] 1938-1991.

1967 was a momentous year for the world. Live TV could be broadcast throughout the entire world. Barclays Bank introduced the first automatic cash machine. Computers took up whole rooms or even floors of buildings. Mariner 5 was launched. And AACR was born.

Three copies of different editions of AACR.

Some verions of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules themselves in our catalouge.

The Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR for short) was the first attempt at getting a more standard set of requirements for bibliographic access. In short it was a way for librarians to make sure they made resources findable to users. In it were rules on how to record things like a title, pagination, edition, and authors and so on. It also gave some rules for tricky things such as how to make sure John Smith Senior could be made distinct from his son John Smith Junior. It was momentous as it finally provided a consistent means of describing what was a libraries collections. Which was after all, most of what a cataloguer was trying to achieve. Also in those card catalogue days, it was designed to use abbreviations so the record could fit on a single card.


Old catalogue cards were quite descriptive, but lacked space so often abbreviations were used such as the card for this short publication on democracy and education, which is now on the online version of the catalogue http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn2130481

As the years rolled on more and more revisions, and a new edition was made (called AACR2), and in the 1990’s the internet came online, computers became common and cheap, and AARC2 was becoming outdated. It didn’t handle well the description of the new formats being produced such as CDs, DVDs, databases and ebooks. As card catalogues were replaced with online versions, the old need for those abbreviations disappeared and it was clear that most users didn’t really know what “S.l.” or “S.n.” meant (sine loco and sine nomine). Also other catalogue card related restrictions, such as the need to limit the number of authors included in a record to three, were no longer relevant. We would be contacted by indignant authors who collaborated with other authors, annoyed that they didn’t get a mention because AARC2 instructed that we only record up to a maximum of three. Our rules were becoming a limitation rather than aid to access. Finally, It was realised that a new system was needed. RDA was this new system.

Resource Description and Access (RDA) is now our new cataloguing standard. Replacing AACR2 was a major hurdle. And this is when our mascot comes in, FuRBeaR. RDA had to be a complete revamp of cataloguing, from the ground up. To do this a bunch of cataloguers got together devloped the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR for short) and soon people started calling it FuRBuR, or FuRBeaR; Hence the mascot who took the form of a small stuffed bear.

FuRBEaR (a stuffed bear) in a cardboard car with RDA related paraphanalia.

FuRBeaR a mascot for the RDA changes was created and used in training. Here he is in a RDA themed ute.

It took almost a decade for the nuts and bolts of the new standard to be made into something that would be good for the user to help them find what they wanted, and for the cataloguer to more easily describe what they had in hand. Out went almost all abbreviations (especially ones in Latin) replaced with full words. p became pages, ill. became illustrations, and so on. We could name as many authors and contributors as was practically possible, no longer fearing lack of space. We could describe items with multiple characteristics, such as DVDs with text, images, sound and videos.And we could easily cope with describing new publishing formats as they emerged such as USB flash drives and ebooks. Moreover, we could better show the relationships between resources, such as different versions of the same work. For example different editions, or the same item published in different languages amoung others. All of this and more will ensure that the users will now be better able to find and get the resources they require.

In real terms a user may not immediately notice the changes that RDA made until they look closely. First here is the old AACR2 record:


The AACR2 record for Infectious diseases : a clinical approach / edited by Allen Yung as it used to appear in Trove.

The change to RDA required a few database updates and took about a year of training. Which is when FuRBeaR came in with a crack team of RDA trainers, and in April last year the revolution began. Libraries and librarians changed cataloguing practices forever and for the better.

The updated RDA record for the same book, but there are some key changes. Notice how things like the edition statement, pagination, location for publication, and various contributors have been given more description or changed slightly to make them more accurate.


The RDA record for Infectious diseases : a clinical approach / edited by Allen Yung as it appeares now in Trove.

Of course we unfortunately will never have time to update every record in the catalogue, due simply to the added time and expense that would take, however we can make every new or updated record reflect the changes that have been made in the cataloguing world. Slowly, things will become easier to find, identify and retrieve and the user will be the one who gets the most benefit.

This post appears in our "Behind the scenes" blog. To subscribe to future blogposts in this blog add http://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/behind-the-scenes to your RSS reader. To subscribe to all National Library blogposts, use this link http://www.nla.gov.au/blogs.


It shows that even the most prescient can't be right all the time. See the first contribution at: https://sites.google.com/site/kerryspubs/songs
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