Catalogazione bibliografica: dal formato MARC a FRBR

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Paul Gabriele Weston


Before considering the new concepts in cataloguing which are likely to govern bibliographic control in the future, it is important to look back at the way in which the migration of the card catalogue to a networked environment has affected the organization of libraries.
In many ways, the implementation of the National Library Service (SBN) has played a decisive role in “the slow and painstaking process of standardising the catalogues, with respect to cataloguing rules and record formats”, which is among the main concerns of the Italian library authorities and therefore marked as one of the objectives of a national action plan as early as 1959. The production of the tapes containing the National Bibliography records in 1975 is the first episode of some importance in the history of library automation in Italy. Used for the photomechanical processing of the bibliography in its printed version, those tapes provided data in machine readable form which could be exchanged within the framework of the Universal Bibliographic Control programme strongly endorsed by IFLA. These records were given the ANNAMARC format structure, a local variant of the MARC format in use at the Library of Congress at the time. It was Maltese who recommended the adoption of MARC on the assumption that this would facilitate the integration of the Italian agency in the international bibliographic circuit.
For several years only a few libraries, if any, could benefit from the availability of the national bibliography records. Copy cataloguing was in fact not a traditional procedure in Italian libraries the way it had been since the beginning of the 20th century in North-American libraries. The success of bibliographic utilities such as OCLC, RLG, WLN and UTLAS as well as the adoption of MARC and AACR2 as standards can easily be explained with the practice of importing the records produced at the Library of Congress into the various local catalogues. Most Italian developed cataloguing systems, instead, did not even include an import-export module, making it therefore impossible for Italian librarians to consider copy cataloguing as a promising, cost-effective option.
Technology is not the only explanation for such a scarcity of cooperative efforts. Other factors include the non existence of library schools and the absence of an overall coordination policy at a national level. The first task to be undertaken by the National Library Service was therefore of an educational nature: the systematic training of librarians towards the use of standard cataloguing criteria. This required the adoption of a closed, centralised architecture, which replaced the distributed model initially envisaged by Vinay and Boisset.
In joining the network each library or group of libraries added its existing records to the union catalogue through successive migrations of data. As a consequence of such a process, the quality of the records became rather uneven, forcing the national library as a routine to merge the duplicates and clean up the indexes. Most important, the project led to the creation of a database consisting of over 4.5 million records, contributed day by day by a thousand libraries of all shapes and sizes. The sense of cooperation, resulting in a general refinement of the acquisitions strategies as well as in the improvement of the exploitation of existing bibliographic resources, is particularly important in view of the development of the Italian digital library, as was emphasized during the 3rd National conference of libraries held at Padua last February.
Descriptive cataloguing should become a minor concern for libraries as a consequence of the improved coverage offered by the various bibliographic utilities, in conjunction with the increasing number of digital documents. This has nothing to do with the idea that digital entities will catalogue themselves and that cataloguing standards are becoming unimportant since they do not apply to web sites and the rest. Such views, according to Gorman, are “not only wrong but also noxious because, though masquerading as progressive, they are impeding progress”. Instead cataloguers should aim at developing linking devices to connect packages of recorded knowledge and information, using their titles, edition statements, issuers, dates and any other known data, and adding formalized names and titles to those descriptions and to those digital entities that allow library users to retrieve and collocate those documents, and relating them to a location either physical or virtual.
However, it proves difficult for most librarians to abandon a system of bibliographic control that has been so successful and to adopt an entirely new set of concepts that will take full advantage of the new digital environment. The professional debate at an international level seemed so far more concerned with improvements needed within the established framework and hardly looked in any great depth at new concepts in cataloguing which are required if one wants to benefit from the intrinsic feature of a computer which resides in the ability to “establish, coordinate and connect syntaxes of signs”, as suggested by Serrai.
The need for a reassessment of the foundations on which cataloguing is based appeared with great evidence in the theoretical activities leading to the publication of the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records in 1998. On the one hand it was felt that many inconsistencies were caused by bibliographic representations heavily relying on ISBD, a standard which uses principles having little relevance in an electronic environment, having been defined with a concern for the printed versions of the national bibliography and the exchange of bibliographic record at an international level, rather than as a data model for the needs of the individual library catalogue. On the other hand, it is evident that because of the large size of many databases and the number of hits that most searches produce, users tend to be frustrated in attempting to use a catalogue and sometimes wonder if the complexity is really necessary, especially if compared to the apparent user-friendliness of the general web search engine.
The difference, according to Ayres, is a conceptual one which is already to be found in information retrieval where two basic types of searching have become established. These are pre-coordinate and post-coordinate. Cataloguing has so far always been a pre-coordinate operation and is based on what cataloguers do at the input phase, both as regards the description and the access terms. In particular, authority control (or “entry point control” as Gorman termed it already in 1977) in its present form is expensive to set up, to maintain and to use. Nevertheless, it is the foundation stone of sound cataloguing and a key factor in information retrieval and digital resources management. Again Ayres suggests that authority control be used to provide the link rather than the preferred heading, bearing in mind that from the user's viewpoint the preferred heading is the heading that he/she searches by and that in searching he/she wants the heading that he/she has thought about to be linked to the headings that he/she has not thought about. This means that the present authority control files will become linking files and that the entire procedure will implicitly be a post-coordinate operation. A fully developed electronic catalogue should be able to function in two ways, according to the specific needs of the user, providing “intellectual” (that is, access to the contents of library resources) as well as “bibliographic” control (that is, access to the physical packages in which content appears).
Eventually, catalogues should give access to cultural heritage information, not just of a bibliographic nature, which is now under distributed control, bridging the barriers to access that have been created by specific traditions of custody and documentation. The feasibility of such a vision largely depends on the capability of the system within which they are stored to interoperate with those around them, but above all it relies on the intellectual effort dedicated to build up some kind of semantic, political, human and legal interoperability, both nationally and internationally.

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