Content versus carrier

This is a little idea I’ve been mulling over for a while, since doing the Cambridge 23 Things over the summer. As a cataloguer, we do talk about “content vs carrier” (particularly in conversations about RDA) but this is looking at it in a slightly different way.

When I set up this blog, as part of 23 Things, I spent a quite ridiculous amount of time agonising over the choice of WordPress template, colour scheme and details of layout. I spent time admiring the design of other blogs and wondering how to create something as aesthetically pleasing. The only thing that took me more time and effort than the appearance of the blog was the blog name (which I am also not very happy with, but that’s another story…)

As 23 Things progressed, however, I realised that I was reading the majority of other people’s blog posts via RSS feeds using Google Reader. I was trying to keep up with all the posts on the all the blogs (slightly over-ambitious) so I often read quickly in the display screen of Google Reader, without ever clicking through to the blog itself. In fact, I frequently still do this. And reading in this way means that I don’t see any of that lovely formatting, beautiful layout and great design. I see only the content and I’m choosing to look at it through a different carrier.

Reading blogs in Google Reader

This was good news for someone like me, whose design skills are limited – actually most people hardly ever need to look at the actual design of my blog and can read the content elsewhere, blissfully unaware that I’m aesthetically-challenged. However, this did make me think about catalogue records and cataloguing.

What do I mean? There is a stereotype that cataloguers spend their time carefully honing their “artisan-crafted” perfect catalogue records. Although this stereotype is outdated and no longer accurate, it does definitely have a recognisable basis in truth. As a cataloguer, I do spend time making my records look good when I can and I’m proud of them if I feel they are sparkly, shiny and perfect. There was a time when cataloguers could hope to have a lovely, neat, attractive, controllable catalogue. When I started cataloguing, about 12 years ago, it was worth this effort because the catalogue record that I produced was the final version that was viewed by other library staff and by users of our catalogue. We had a huge amount of control over what was seen and could make a final decision about how that record would look before we released it to the viewing public.

This started to change as we moved more and more towards large databases that collected records from a number of institutions and combined them in some way. This was happening way before 1998, I realise, but my personal experience came as I moved to a larger library which contributed to OCLC and RLIN (as was). Now, cataloguers often have little control over the view provided by their institution’s OPAC. And beyond the OPAC, there are now the various resource discovery tools which can put library catalogue records into a completely different environment from the one for which we originally created that record.

I also began my cataloguing career in a time of dumb terminals, catalogue records that were only available to view through one interface. Now, we have less control over the view that is being seen by the catalogue user – they could be online on a variety of different browsers, or looking at the mobile interface on their new Christmas-present iPhone or via an app.

The content is still what the cataloguer sweats over for each record. But the carrier, the formatting, the labels on the OPAC, the design, the view, the way the user interacts with that content, is totally out of our control. Any carrier we might have is only temporary, is subject to change at any time with a change of LMS or a new resource discovery tool, through mashups and re-use of the content for different ends. I wonder whether one of the biggest changes in cataloguing is less about RDA versus AACR2, and more about letting go of the carrier and focusing on the content. The content is the data, so we should be thinking about the data and how it can be created in such a way to make it as flexible, usable, reusable and, above all, useful as possible for the whole of its life after we release it into the wild.

In essence, this is what lots of people have been saying for a long time. Certainly if we think of the carrier as being the MARC format, then we all know that the carrier is on its last legs. But I also think it’s about the mindset of the cataloguer, particularly when facing the changes that may come with RDA in the next few years but which RDA itself (since it doesn’t solve the carrier issue) doesn’t quite address. We shouldn’t spend our efforts on worrying about the design/layout/presentation (the presence or absence of full stops, the order of notes), we should be focusing on the content and always the content.

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3 comments so far

  1. Saskia on

    Generally I agree with the gist of your post, and I really like the Google Reader vs. blogs proper analogy. One caveat, though: Making our metadata useful, remixable outside of the library community depends on content *and* carrier. Do away with the (often) overly arcane and complicated rules so that the content becomes more accessible (I’m not sure RDA achieves this either) and use a carrier that is understood by users/developers/programmers outside the library world – that could be one path towards more flexible library metadata.

  2. Céline on

    You’re right, the analogy doesn’t quite work all the way!

  3. Jennie on

    I really liked this post, although I agree with Saskia that the carrier is often necessary to export/manipulate the data in other ways. I work with people who still agonise over crafting perfect records – in a recent meeting to standardise serials holdings the argument over whether to have a space before a hyphen or not went on for a couple of (soul destroying)hours! I feel very strongly that we need to move on from this and wholeheartedly agree about content being King. Saskia’s point about using a non-library standard is excellent – why aren’t we all using something like XML instead of MARC?


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