In case you’re wondering how many cows are in this pasture, I started counting and figured I could keep this series going for at least the rest of the calendar year. How long can I milk this one? After a while, though, it begins to look whiny and tired, so I thought I would end with a cow for which it might make sense to make more hay. (there, have I…ahem…butchered that metaphor enough?).
Some of last week’s work had me thinking about notes fields in bibliographic and item records. Boy, do we love notes. We didn’t quite have the guts to call them what they really are–miscellaneous fodder that doesn’t really fit in a real MARC field. No, we went one further, and created 48 different kinds of notes and put them in the 5XX fields. Was that enough? Of course not. Let’s throw in ten more (590-599) for local notes. Anyone else think we could have just scanned the whole book in the time that it took to write all those notes?
If social tagging in library catalogs is library 2.0, then notes were our 1.0 effort. We fret over their protection, their proper migration, where they display, their impact on keyword indexes, and the new relevance algorithms required to make sure they get just enough weight as we migrate MARC records to new bolt-on catalogs. Notes run the gamut from arcane impossible to interpret codes and numbers to the invaluable characteristic that distinguish one book from another.
Putting my OCLC hat on, I can’t help but argue that at least the local notes belong with the item record, not the bibliographic one. The MARC Holdings record (MFHL, MFHD, LHR…whatever you want to call it) makes a place for both local and staff notes, and if it’s truly local in nature, shouldn’t it go there? This is mostly a rhetorical question…believe me when I say that I have no intention of getting into an argument with catalogers on this one–a fight that would leave me beaten and bloodied.
What if all those notes–like social tags–were put in a great big pile, used semantically, indexed accordingly? What if all the little localized changes to OCLC bibliographic records were put in a pile and “localized” for local purposes. We might end up with 80% chaff in the pile, but the results could be interesting. Our notes are somehow sacred, but are they as useful as they could be?
I do not see the value of some kinds of notes, like a quoted note for a technical report number, especially when there are two perfectly good fields in MARC for technical report numbers: either 027
or 088. And I think most systems will at least indicate in a public display that it is a report number. Even worse is when a quoted note appears simultaneously with the report number recorded in 027 or 088. A quoted note in these cases is a waste of time, which could have been better spent adding an additional name or subject access point. The note “fhwa/vtrc 93-r13”-t.p., which is based on the kinds of report numbers I typically see, uses 22 characters. What could you do with those 22 characters? You could either
not add them at all or make them work harder elsewhere in the record. Some of these notes are really like vestigial organs, and at some point they should be removed. Alternatively, if the cataloger deems the note absolutely necessary for the work at hand, at least only display it behind the scenes so that it does
not clutter up a useful display for everyone else who is not in cataloging. Ducking for cover.
Let’s try to get beyond rhetorical and have a useful discussion on notes (but maybe risk an argument) because I am interested to know which notes you think we could keep or toss. Where do you find notes helping or hurting? For example, do you think we should keep notes like “Title from cover” or “Cover Title”? Do you have an alternative proposal for how we should indicate the source of elements outside the chief source if not by a note? Are these kinds of notes even necessary anymore? Would Lubetzky, seeing the kind of technology available to us today, ask, “Is this note necessary?” Catalogers are often forced to sacrifice some elements for others depending upon what they think is most important. I would sacrifice a note here and there if it meant that I could add a name or subject heading in its place. I hope you’ll continue the conversation.