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Library of Congress Plans New Bibliographic System

Organizing the nation’s books should be more collaborative and Web-based, and libraries should rely less on the Library of Congress to do it all for them, according to a new report.

The Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control released the report Friday, after the Library created the panel more than a year ago. Its purpose was to make recommendations for the future of a system that provides the titles, subjects, descriptions and cataloguing numbers of books to thousands of libraries.

The vision outlined in the report is ambitious, calling for a system that is both detailed and user-friendly. If the report’s recommendations are achieved, researchers would be able to use a complex, century-old cataloguing system while others could tap into that same system with a search engine much like Google.

“I don’t know that we will ever get there that fully,” said Olivia Madison, dean of the University of Iowa library and co-chairwoman of the group.

“But we can’t get there without stopping some of what we’re doing now and sharing the burden collectively.”

For years, the LOC has been the leader in creating bibliographic records, entering a book’s information into a system open to the nation’s libraries.

When a library gets a new book, it often snatches the LOC’s description, instantly placing the book into the larger sea of knowledge. Other libraries can also create records, but they sometimes don’t follow what is often called the Library’s “gold standard.”

But being the lead provider of bibliographic information is a burden on the cash-strapped Library. LOC experts who write those records are retiring and the money to do such work is slight. In fact, it was never the Library’s statutory responsibility to provide the records at all — officials simply made them widely available because they were already creating the records for the Library itself.

“We’ve been doing it since 1902, so it’s very much part of our tradition,” said Deanna Marcum, LOC associate librarian for library services. “The theory has always been we can do what we need to do for the Library and by sharing it, help individual libraries.”

But with online search engines attracting more users and the Internet becoming a popular research tool, the Library has been looking into ways to update its practices for the digital age.

Some librarians worry that this drive to modernize will cause the Library to abandon a bibliographic system they see as useful and necessary, effectively forcing smaller libraries to abandon it as well. Many libraries with little funding rely on the LOC’s work.

The report sides with this view: The current system, it says, is still useful and should not be replaced. But it does need an overhaul. Library experts can’t be expected to write entire records; instead, basic information from publishers and libraries should all be combined.

For example, publishers could give the author, number of pages and the title of a book to the Library of Congress, something the Library often looks up and puts into the catalogue itself.

The idea, Marcum said, is for the Library to “use building blocks of bibliographic record that have been created by other people so we’re not starting at zero every time.”

The report is now in draft form, and the public will be able to make comments until Dec. 15.

The Library is already experimenting with some ideas suggested in the report. Several institutions already help create bibliographic records, Marcum said, and the Library has partnered with international organizations.

“I don’t think there is anything that is new,” Madison said. “I hope that it is a report that we have pulled together conceptually to help chart the Library’s future.”

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