Interview with Rebecca Guenther

Rebecca Guenther has over 35 years of experience in libraries, primarily at the Library of Congress, where she developed national and international metadata standards, including MARC 21, MODS, PREMIS, METS, and ISO language codes. She has served on numerous national and international standards committees and given numerous presentations and workshops about them. She continues to serve on the PREMIS Editorial Committee, MODS Editorial Committee and PB Core Advisory Subcommittee. She is currently based in New York and consults on metadata issues. Some of her previous and current consultancies include the Library of Congress (BIBFRAME, LC’s Linked Data Service, PREMIS), the New York Art Resources Consortium (metadata for Web archives), the National Book Foundation, and Metropolitan New York Library Council, among others. She teaches metadata at NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program.

Rebecca teaches a class on BIBFRAME for Library Juice Academy. She is currently preparing to teach it for the second time next month. She agreed to do a brief interview here in order to give people a better sense of what her class is about and what they can expect to learn from it.

Rebecca, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Many people in the cultural heritage community (libraries, museums and archives) have taken an interest in BIBFRAME as a successor to the MARC Format, which has had remarkable staying power— this year is its 50th anniversary. The course aims to familiarize people with the concepts, vocabulary, and development of a new approach to metadata in libraries.

The first question I’d like to ask is, “What is BIBFRAME,” but I also want to ask how much background you would like your students to have in the course. If it more for people who already know what BIBFRAME is? So, those two questions to start out…

BIBFRAME is an emerging standard for describing information resources that is intended to replace MARC, while leveraging the rich and valuable metadata that already exists. It is based on a Linked Data model, which has as its goal to enhance discovery of information by combining data from many sources on the Web. It isn’t necessary for people to have a background in BIBFRAME, because it is still under development and experimental, so it isn’t mature enough for there to be a large body of knowledge about it. What people should know about is how metadata is encoded and used. It would be useful if potential students have some background in XML and other encodings for structuring metadata, as some of the content is technical. The first half of the class will be on Linked Data and the Semantic Web, which should provide students with the necessary background about the Linked Data model.

Could you describe a bit about what BIBFRAME will do that MARC does not, what this innovation will mean for resource description?

MARC is sometimes misunderstood, and it is important to remember that there is a difference between MARC as a communications format and MARC as an element set. It has been highly successful at allowing libraries and other institutions to exchange metadata records (aka catalog records) based on a widely implemented standard encoding. A huge infrastructure has been built around it so that the data can be imported and exported in a standard way, but customized in whatever system they choose to use. MARC as an element set is rich and can carry precisely tagged data so that complex searching combining information in different elements and limiting by others can bring back relevant results to satisfy research needs.

One big problem with the MARC communications format is that your system has to understand MARC to use the records, and that isn’t an easy task. It’s a format that was developed in the late 1960s when storage was expensive and a compact format was necessary— hence all the coded data. What BIBFRAME aims to do is develop a vocabulary (a term used in the RDF world, but it essentially defines what we would have called a metadata scheme for a particular domain) that is understood by the Semantic Web, enabling BIBFRAME data to be shared as Linked Open Data. That means that the data can interact with other data on the Web and enhance searching. For instance, as the theory goes (and we’re seeing applications of this now), we can imagine that doing a search on a person could bring back results from multiple sources (all of which has put their data out as Linked Open Data). For instance a search on George Clooney could bring back information from LC (or VIAF) Name Authority records, Wikipedia data (i.e. DBPedia, which is its Linked Data form), the Linked Movie Database (LD version of IMDB), etc. It makes the Web into a large database and opens up all the rich information in bibliographic records to the Web.

The notion of exchanging bibliographic records will change, and it will no longer be between designated partners who know how to use the records, but they will be available openly (in fact in the Semantic Web world, people don’t like to call them “records” but multiple “statements”). As for the element set, if an institution needs an element (in Semantic Web speak, classes or properties) that BIBFRAME doesn’t have, it can use appropriate ones from other vocabularies (e.g. from schema.org, IMDB ontology, etc.).

Wow, that is very clear and succinct. I think a lot of people will be interested in this introduction to BIBFRAME. You’ve taught the class for us once so far. What was your experience like teaching for us?

I’ve taught a number of online classes and I might have liked this experience the best. One was a metadata class for the Rutgers School of Information and Library Science, and, since it was a full semester and a masters’ program, it was difficult to evaluate the students and was a lot of extra work to be constantly online with them for 4-5 months. This was also an asynchronous class. Others have been synchronous and just 2 hours. I thought that the month long time period was the right amount of time. It was also helpful to be able to see how other instructors teaching for LJA set up their classes, and the Moodle tool is fairly easy to use and does what you need to. Sometimes it is hard to engage the students, and especially because they come from different backgrounds and are taking it for different reasons.

As a final question, what would you like to say to librarians who might be interested in taking your course?

It is important to know that BIBFRAME is still under development and decisions aren’t all set in stone. A number of institutions are experimenting with the BIBFRAME ontology and there are efforts to define extensions for specific purposes where BIBFRAME doesn’t describe some forms of material adequately. It is built into RDF, the encoding for Linked Data, that you can use elements from different ontologies/vocabularies together. For instance, there are groups developing extensions for rare books and art objects, moving images, etc. That means that some of the details may change, but it is really the model and the concepts that are important to understand at this point and how what they know in MARC are represented in BIBFRAME. I also hope that the class will engage people enough that they are willing to follow its developent and see how it applies to their applications to perhaps make suggestions for improvements.

Thank you for this interview. It’s been interesting. Thank you for teaching this class for Library Juice Academy.

I hope this has sparked some interest in the class and look forward to engaging with the students again.

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