“data about data”

In DITA (Digital Information Technologies and Architectures) we have been looking at how information is organised and retrieved. In this post I will explore the use of metadata and bibliographic frameworks in library technologies.

Metadata is often described as “data about data”, but if this sounds too vague it is helpful to think of it in terms of something familiar, like a book:

Jeffrey Pomerantz (2015), Metadata MIT Press

The information given on the cover of this book is metadata: the title, its author, an image related to its contents, and often a brief description. By looking at the cover of the book, we can know what it is about without having to read all of the information held within its pages. In the digital world, the word metadata is increasingly being used to descibe the data attached to digital resources. Metadata is very important in an information society, as it allows us to organise information and be able to access it when we want to. This is an essential aspect of library and information science, and so I believe it is important to think critically about the ways in which we organise data, and whether these can be improved upon for the internet age.

Libraries use metadata in the form of a bibliographic record, which acts as a surrogate for the book (or other item such as a journal article, DVD, or online resource). Traditionally this metadata would have been held on a catalogue card, and is now in the form of a digital record to be accessed using a computer.

Most libraries use a standard called AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd ed.) to determine what information about an item is recorded. Another standard is RDA (Resource Description Format), designed to be compatible with and eventually replace AACR2, but its adoption has not been universal.

MARC (Machine Readable Cataloguing) is the format used to communicate this bibliographic data to the computer (MARC21 is the most commonly used version today).  MARC uses a 3-digit number to identify each field, e.g. 100 to indicate the author field, 245 for title, 260 for publication information and so on. (See here for more detail on MARC.)

Having these standards allows bibliographic information to be shared between libraries. Unless they are working with very rare materials, it is common for a cataloguer to copy over an existing record created by another librarian and make adjustments to it, rather than having to create a whole new record from scratch.

By learning about the history behind these standards, I am beginning to understand their advantages and disadvantages in a modern context. For example, MARC was developed in the 1960s by Henriette Avram at the Library of Congress. As it was designed at a time when computer processing was much slower and memory was much more of a concern than it is today, it is excellent at using a small amount of memory to create stable records, like catalogue cards. However, this also means that it is not ideal for expressing relationships with external resources such as webpages.

Dublin Core was designed to be a simple metadata standard for use on the web. This makes it easier for people not trained in cataloguing to use, but in simplification it inevitably loses a lot of the detail which cataloguers have achieved in AACR2 over the years. Sacrificing detail may save time, but also makes it harder to facilitate a more nuanced search that will fetch the most relevant results.

BIBFRAME is in the early stages of development, and is intended as a replacement for MARC. In addition to creating a new way for communicating bibliographic data,  the BIBFRAME Initiative is also investigating new ways of bibliographic description. It focuses on the relationships between resources, rather than the self-contained records that MARC is so good at. This is more in line with the developing culture of Linked Data and the Semantic Web. As described on their website, “It is designed to integrate with and engage in the wider information community and still serve the very specific needs of libraries.”

I am interested to see whether a new bibliographic framework such as BIBFRAME will be embraced by the library community. I think that this would help to keep libraries active in engaging with new technologies, and that it would like be exciting to be a part of!


Library of Congress guide to MARC

Dublin Core


YouTube video about BIBFRAME


How do we document performance?

On Monday I attended a symposium at City, called ‘The Future of Documents: documenting performance’. As both a library school student and someone with an embarrasingly large collection of theatre programmes and tickets, this was bound to be a fascinating and enjoyable event! The day left me with a lot to think about, especially the different ways in which we document performance, whose point of view we are documenting, and who we are doing it for.

The first speaker of the day was Toni Sant, and he called for a focus on “documentation” rather than just “documents”. I think that for me this means thinking about the purpose of documentation and what future users will get from it, rather than being dismissive of traditional “documents” themselves.

What we might think of as traditional documents related to performing arts are scripts, programmes, posters, photographs, technical plans, designs, reviews and articles. Liz Harper told us about her work at the Royal Albert Hall, and how their archives are used for education and promotion. A wonderful example of this is the mural by Peter Blake, composed of photos of performers drawn from the archive, which now adorns the entrance hall.

Interactive version and quiz of the Peter Blake mural: http://appearing.royalalberthall.com/

It was exciting to hear from Jenny Fewster about the development of AusStage, a database of performing art events, venues and resources in Australia. Ramona Riedzewski from the V&A spoke about their collaboration, using AusStage as a basis for creating a database for UK performing arts. An “IMDB for the performing arts” sounds like it would be a fantastic resource for researchers, professionals and enthusiasts alike!

Video is another way of documenting performance, normally from the point of view of the audience. Archival videos are often filmed with a single static camera, such as those filmed for the National Video Archive of Performance held at the V&A, or for the British Library’s collection. Other, multi-camera recordings are made for commercial use, such as for National Theatre Live or Digital Theatre. Stacie Lee Bennett spoke about the use of hand-held cameras and GoPros in developing training resources for actors and dancers, using the camera to capture the performer’s perspective. GoPros were also suggested as a way of creating an immersive experience of a perfomance, with multiple possible viewpoints.

Sound recordings are also used as a way of documenting performance. Eva del Rey spoke about the British Library’s Drama and Literature recordings, which include gems such as the only known recordings of James Joyce’s voice (reading from Ulysses), as well as oral histories and audio recordings of live performances. The BL’s ‘Save Our Sounds’ project highlights the problem of format obsolescence and degredation (or “plastic-rot”) which affects archives such as these.

Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses: http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2013/04/james-joyce-on-record.html

Audio recordings can be a better choice for documenting performance, as Yaron Shyldkrot demonstrated in his paper about theatre in the dark. In this case, there is a focus on the atmosphere of anxiety and isolation created by being in complete darkness. This feeling can be recreated more effectively using sound and headphones, rather than trying to film or photograph the performers.

It was great to hear about documenting another aspect of performance when Hansjorg Schmidt spoke about The Library of Light. I think it is exciting to explore the different ways of documentation that are possible, for example the use of network technologies, as explored by Zeta Kolokythopoulou in her presentation. She described the use of livestreaming and Twitter in Forced Entertainment’s Speak Bitterness, which encouraged audience members all over the world to partipate with their own contributions using the hashtag #FESpeaklive.

Article by Time Etchells of Forced Entertainment about Speak Bitterness: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/oct/16/speak-bitterness-confessions-forced-entertainment-live-stream-tim-etchells

An interesting comment came from an attendee, suggesting that we should not dismiss the effectiveness of a paper document over current trends for video and technology, for example the prompt book (a master copy of the script, annotated with the actors’ moves and technical cues), which may be a better record of a complex performance. It is important to think about who we are documenting performance for and what future users will want to get from it, whether it is the perfomers or companies themselves, audience or researchers, or all of the above.

The question of whether a performance can ever be truly documented, or if it is a unique live experience that cannot be captured is an interesting and, I expect, eternal one. However, the importance of the documention that is possible cannot be ignored, as was demonstrated by the breadth of possibilities explored at this event. I would like to thank all of the speakers, and I am sorry that I have not managed to mention every one in this post!

See the full programme and abstracts here.

The event on Storify.

APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections): http://www.performingartscollections.org.uk/