The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A brief introduction to RDA

Below are four copies of Hamlet. They’re four editions of a French translation by Carlo Rusconi, and at first glance look fairly similar. However, they have some significant differences, such as publisher, date, and inclusion in a series. In order to make sure that someone searching Hamnet for French translations of Hamlet knows what they’re finding, their catalog records each need to reflect these small but important differences, as well as specifying their location in the Folger Library. (Since these are part of the Shakespeare collection, all four are in the vault.)

Four Hamlets (French, 1875-1877)

The two translations of Hamlet below, on the other hand, are quite easy to tell apart: they have noticeably different cover styles, were published at least fifteen years apart by different firms in different countries, and they’re in different languages (Polish and Croatian), with different translators. 

Two Hamlets (Polish 1905 and Czech 1920)

Here, though, the twist is that these two books are more closely related than they first appear. The Croatian edition, in fact, is a translation of the Polish edition. Furthermore, it’s not just a translation of the play, it’s a translation interspersed into a commentary on the play. The catalog records for these books should have access points for Shakespeare, for the author of the commentary, and for the respective translators. The record for the Croatian edition should also make it clear that it is a translation of the Polish edition.

These examples are both very straightforward: making distinctions between different items is common sense, and it’s basic cataloging practice. However, within the few last decades, the library community has been making strides to ensure that these practices are clearly codified, and are updated and ready for a wide variety of resources as library collections change. The cataloging process briefly described above can be refined down to four user tasks, known collectively as FISO: find, identify, select, and obtain. 1 A catalog record should enable a user to find resources appropriate to their search (for instance, translations of Hamlet), identify the resources that are useful (distinguish between different translations), select the resource that they want to use (only editions of Rusconi’s translation), and then obtain that resource (see that the item is listed as in the vault, and request it from Reading Room staff).

The FISO tasks were laid out in FRBR—another acronym!—which refers to a report, Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, first published in 1998 by the IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). It’s freely available on the IFLA site, and you can read through it if you want. 2 In short, though, it lays out the main types of resources (works, expressions, manifestations, and items, or WEMI—yet another acronym), and the requirements for both describing a resource and laying clear its relationship to other resources (the FISO user tasks).

Together, the elements of FRBR (works, entities, relationships, and the user tasks linking them) became a major basis for a new cataloging standard which much of the library world has been transitioning to within the last few years: RDA, or Resource Description and Access.

As you can tell from its title, RDA focuses on describing library resources appropriately, and ensuring that users can access them. The word “resource” indicates that, unlike its predecessors AACR2 and AACR, which were written mainly with printed books and journals in mind, RDA is meant to be flexible and equally capable of describing anything that might be found in a library collection. These days, that can be almost anything: books and journals, DVDs and LPs, cookware, electronic files and databases, toys and games, archival collections… you get the idea. RDA was also created with an eye towards Linked Data, and emphasizes the relationships between works, other works, and creative entities.

You may have seen this Titania Barbie in our recent "Shakespeare's the Thing!" exhibition. RDA is meant to be flexible enough to handle Barbies and cassette tapes, in addition to more traditional tomes.
You may have seen this Titania Barbie in our recent “Shakespeare’s the Thing!” exhibition. RDA is meant to be flexible enough to handle Barbies and cassette tapes as well as more traditional tomes.

Under the leadership of the Library of Congress, which released a draft version of RDA in 2010, libraries have been transitioning to RDA since 2012. The Folger has been preparing for RDA since 2013, and began transitioning in 2014. How will the arrival of RDA affect Hamnet? For the most part, you won’t notice any major changes in our records, as our catalog interface is already set up to take machine-readable records and make them human-readable—RDA just rearranges where some of the information about a resource goes, and gives us more room to add additional information. 3

Fewer abbreviations

AACR2 and its predecessors relied heavily on abbreviations, especially ones in Latin. In contrast, RDA prefers information to be spelled out whenever possible. An author’s name with uncertain dates will now appear as “Liébault, Jean, approximately 1535-1596.” rather than “Liébault, Jean, ca. 1535-1596.” Common abbreviations such as “v.” and “ill.” will be spelled out, and the abbreviations “S.l.” and “S.n.” 4, used to indicate a lack of publication information, will become “Place of publication not identified” and “Publisher not identified.”

"Place of publication not identified"

More relationship designators

The Folger is ahead of the curve on this one, as we have long added relationship designators (such as “former owner,” “illustrator,” and “binder”) to many of our catalog records, but this practice will become more systematic and widespread.

Relationship designators (Hamlet, Czech, 1920)

Expanded publication information

Instead of having to fit all publication and printing information into a single string, RDA breaks this down into separate chunks, allowing the cataloger to specify publication information, printing information, copyright date, and more in separate fields. 5 Between this and widespread relationship designators, catalogers are even better equipped to clarify roles in the creation of a work.

33x fields

The information in MARC fields 336, 337, and 338 gives us information about the work’s content (is the work primarily text, still images, videos, maps, etc?), its media format (can you just pick up the resource and use it, or do you need a computer or other intermediary device?), and its carrier (is the work a bound volume, a set of loose sheets, or something else?). For now, the 33x fields are mainly meant for the computer to index, so you’ll only see them if you’re looking at the MARC view in Hamnet, or working with raw MARC records.

Fields 336, 337, 338 (Hamlet, Czech, 1920)

If you see some of these elements and want to find out whether a record has been created or updated following RDA’s guidelines, you can click on the “MARC view” button at the top of the record.

RDA records are easily identified by the "rda" note in field 040, near the top of the record.
RDA records are easily identified by the “rda” note in field 040, near the top of the record.

Keep in mind that you might come across hybrid records which have some of the elements above, but are not labelled as RDA. They aren’t mistakes, they are just part of the transition phase. Right now, we use RDA mainly for modern materials, both in the open stacks and in the Vault. You won’t see full RDA records for early modern works yet, since the special collections community is still figuring out the best way for specialized standards, like the DCRM (Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials) suite, to work with RDA. The Folger is transitioning gradually into RDA to make sure that our staff, our software, and our users are all informed and ready for changes.

  1. If you hadn’t noticed, the library community loves acronyms.
  2. “What is FRBR?” by Barbara Tillett, one of the contributors to the full IFLA report, is a shorter and easier-to-digest introduction to the main concepts: http://www.loc.gov/cds/downloads/FRBR.PDF.
  3. If you want to read more about new MARC fields, this is a good overview to start out with: http://www.itsmarc.com/crs/mergedprojects/helptop1/helptop1/variable_data_fields/rda_in_marc_bibliographic_data.htm
  4. “Sine loco” and “Sine nomine”
  5. Of course, it’s not always an option—or a good idea—to break this string apart when cataloging early modern works. The Folger is approaching RDA with care, to make sure that our current practices will adapt to new guidelines.

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