Letter to the Editor, D-Lib,
The remarks by Carl Lagoze in his article, "Keeping Dublin Core Simple:
Cross-Domain Discovery or Resource Description?" (Jan. 2001 issue
[http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january01/lagoze/01lagoze.html]) were very
and he makes some excellent points in his discussion of the future direction
the Dublin Core.
I completely agree with Mr. Lagoze's concern about the need for simplicity and
do not agree with the push for further refinements in DC. Still, I think this
push is probably unavoidable, and some of my library colleagues--who are used
describing items within an inch of their lives--are just as guilty in this as
But they raise an excellent point, which I don't believe is clear from the
article. For librarians, "discovery" (i.e. knowing about an item's existence)
tightly linked with "description" (i.e. knowing what that item is). This is
because librarians have learned through painful experience that it is
to describe an item well enough to distinguish it from other, similar items.
Even if there are no similar items in existence now, there most probably will
in the future.
If it turns out that we cannot describe an item to such an extent, then it
follows that we aren't sure exactly what we have. How then could a user prefer
one version of an item to another version? The user would be forced to examine
each item to determine how they differ, and in this case, we must conclude
the metadata records we have created are unsuccessful. How would you like to
have to do this for the Bible? Allowing users to "discover" Bibles without
providing a detailed description of which version(s) they are looking at would
be a nightmare.
It is incumbent for metadata creators (be they librarians, museum curators, or
others) to describe something precisely enough for users to know what an item
If we can't even fulfill this task, then how can we possibly claim that we
allowed people to "discover" an item, when we obviously don't know what that
item is in the first place?
So, in this way, the description of an item is absolutely necessary for its
For example, the first thing a cataloger must do when a new book arrives is to
determine if it is a copy of something already in the collection, or something
new. (Although this may seem to be a simple task, it can become very complex)
we can't even accomplish this, the purpose of the entire catalog comes into
Library records are designed to help us make these fine distinctions.
"Discovery" without adequate "description" is therefore highly suspect, if not
doomed to failure.
I agree with all of this reasoning, *except* when it comes to electronic
resources. The reasoning I described above is premised on an assumption that
doesn't hold true any longer: what I shall call "the assumption of permanent
documents". Detailed description by librarians has always assumed that an
will never change. As a result, a bibliographic description created for a book
today will remain fully valid forever (theoretically). By the way, this seems
hold true for the most part. At Princeton, we still use the descriptions from
100 years ago, many of which were copied from even earlier versions.
With electronic resources and their ever-changing states, this level of
description will be valid only in those rare cases when the site hasn't
from the time of metadata creation to the moment someone uses the metadata
record. A person can make a metadata record this morning, but so far as anyone
knows, the website will have changed completely by this afternoon, and the
information in the metadata record turns out to be bogus. Obviously, hitting
upon a site that hasn't changed is only a matter of luck. In the case of a
metadata record being correct for 100 years -- it is simply laughable.
As a result, I feel that the purpose and task of "bibliographic description"
we have always known it is destined for a complete overhaul, but no one is
considering this, so far as I know.
It is fully understandable that people want to avoid this issue, because it's
simpler to concern ourselves with other matters: "I want to find Leonardo as a
'painter-creator'" or "I think we have to have 'affiliation' in DC" instead of
dealing with the vital question, "How do we guarantee that a metadata record
actually gives a correct idea of the item as it is at this moment, instead of
how it looked six months ago? How can we deal with this incredibly high level
As opposed to description, the "discovery" points change far more slowly. For
example, a website will probably not change its subjects very quickly, whereas
the URL/format/publisher/dates/etc. will change constantly.
Finally, coming full-circle in my argument, "description" is just as important
as "discovery," but what that "description" should be, along with its entire
purpose, is still very much an unknown. For now, "discovery" is the best and
most fruitful area for the task at hand.
James L. Weinheimer
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