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LOC Ponders Changes to Its Bibliographic System

Correction Appended

Librarians across the country are worried that budget constraints and technological changes at the Library of Congress could stunt academic research and put a large financial burden on individual libraries.

In less than two weeks, the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control will release its recommendations on whether to change a system that provides the titles, subjects, descriptions and cataloguing numbers of books to thousands of libraries. The Library formed the group to address concerns about the system — namely, its cost and how it fits in with the age of Google and online research.

While it’s unclear what steps the Library will take next, LOC officials say that the agency hopes to significantly reduce the $40 million it spends each year researching and producing the bibliographic record of books.

“It’s a constant situation of balancing the full spectrum of needs with available resources,” said Deanna Marcum, LOC associate librarian for library services. Spending so much on bibliographic records means spending less on other programs, she said. “We are not complaining to Congress, we are trying to respond to the constraints they have.”

Like other legislative agencies, the Library never gets the full budget it wants. In the past, officials have claimed that the shortfall leaves them to pick and choose between the LOC’s core functions and its other programs. Most recently, LOC officials said more money was needed to revamp its archaic inventory system, which has left at least 10 percent of its books unaccounted for.

Rethinking and streamlining the way the Library produces bibliographic records might “free up” some funds to help with projects like the new inventory system, Marcum said.

Currently, libraries throughout the world use the LOC’s book records, copying them word-for-word from a database. Those records help fit the books into the larger system, matching them with subject headers and organizing them for searches.

For example: If a library gets the book “Dick and Jane,” employees can search for it on the database, find a previously written record and simply copy that record for use in the library’s system. Librarians say this is extremely useful; not only does it save them time and money, it also helps them sort books that may be in a different language or on a complex subject.

But as more college students research online and fewer people use the library search system, some are questioning how academic research will be done in the future. The American Library Association is worried that the Library of Congress is trying to speed up a transition that is not yet ready to take place.

“When the Library of Congress makes cuts or changes [in its cataloguing system], it impacts all kinds of library users and access to information,” said Lynne Bradley, the ALA’s director of government relations.

In the past few years, the LOC staff dedicated to creating the bibliographic record has steadily decreased — a product of retiring employees who aren’t replaced.

That has already hurt individual libraries, which can’t afford to produce their own records for new books, said ALA President-elect James Rettig at a recent House Administration Committee oversight hearing on the LOC.

“Inevitably, on the Internet, with its huge and ever-increasing amount of digital information, general search engines must be relied upon. And, in years to come, there may be far more sophisticated search engines,” he said. “But we are certainly not there now.”

The Working Group is considering several options, Marcum said. Possibilities include requiring publishers or authors to provide the bibliographic data of their books. Members of the group include the usual suspects, such as ALA members, but also representatives from Google and Microsoft.

“The Library of Congress wants very much to work with the library community and to work with the information the libraries need,” Marcum said. “What we do to deal with that is still uncertain.”

Saul Schniderman, president of the LOC Professional Guild, said the union has been working with Library management as they continue to develop technology. But he expressed concern over switching cataloguing to large search engines too soon; the issue, he said, needs to be looked at carefully. The current system is nuanced enough for academic researchers, he said, while big-name search engines are more limited.

“Just because there’s a multinational corporation named Google, let’s not rush headlong into bed with them without caution,” he said.

Efforts to bring the LOC into the digital age are widespread.

The agency has 38 “working groups” that are analyzing the digital future of everything from preservation to visitor services. And on top of the main Working Group on bibliographic control, the Library has an internal one that will decide the next step for the agency.

It’s all in an effort to prioritize projects, save money and prepare for the digital age, Marcum said.

“If people are using search engines like Google more often, what does that mean for all the cataloguing we’re doing for the Library?” she said.

Correction: Nov. 1, 2007
The article incorrectly stated that Library of Congress staff are members of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. They help facilitate the group’s meetings only.