Issue 4, 2008-09-22

BOOK REVIEW: Two Books about FRBR, Compared

This article reviews 2 books on FRBR published in the past year. Although both books aim to be introductions to FRBR, their approaches are very different. One is sort of a FRBR study guide with commentary, the other a collection of essays. Robert Maxwell’s book, FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed, takes the study guide approach. Arlene Taylor edited Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools, a book of essays about FRBR and FRAD, written by cataloging experts, aimed at a broader audience, not just the cataloging specialist. The first seven chapters lay out the basics: introductions to FRBR and FRAD, FRBR research, FRBR and the history of cataloging, FRBR and RDA. These chapters provide an excellent introduction for those new to FRBR. The last seven chapters each look at different types of resources in relation to FRBR.

Maxwell, Robert L. FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: American Library Association, 2008.
(COinS)

Taylor, Arlene G. Taylor, ed. Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2007. (COinS)

By Christine Schwartz

After being around for ten years, Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) is finally coming into its own. The cataloging community is starting to realize that in order to understand the new content standard, Resource Description and Access (RDA), you need to understand FRBR (and FRAD—Functional Requirements for Authority Data). This came home to me at a library conference earlier this year when I tried to buy these two books. The Taylor book was sold out and the book vendor mentioned that they’re not used to selling so many LIS books at conferences! So the advent of FRBR is upon us and these two relatively new introductory texts arrived just in time. A lot has been written about FRBR (its official bibliography is 56 pages long), but until now, there have been very few full-length books on the subject.

The FRBR model was developed in the 1990’s by a study group of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Its impetus was a growing concern for the cost of cataloging, the proliferation of various and new library resources (especially electronic), and the need to explore changing technologies to find efficiencies and ways to share bibliographic records internationally. A study group was formed to look at these issues and to develop a set of functional requirements for bibliographic records. However, the study group did not just dig in to look at cataloging nitty-gritty. They stepped back to look at the conceptual framework for how we understand bibliographic records—the bibliographic universe so to speak. And they chose the Entity-Relationship model (E-R model), borrowing from computer science and database modeling, as the structure for a new conceptual model for how we look at bibliographic records with emphasis on the user. The initial development was by a small group of cataloging experts, the study group and consultants. But the draft document of FRBR did go through a period of public review and comment. The final report was published in 1998. Although not changed significantly, it was recently amended and corrected in February 2008. But it’s not only affecting cataloging, the FRBR model is influencing several aspects of the library world: metadata standards, integrated library system design, etc.

I’d like to start out with one caveat—the best way to understand the FRBR model is to read the text itself. Yes it’s theoretical and a little dry, but it’s good to know what it really says before you start reading all the interpretations. And being a conceptual model, FRBR is very much open to interpretation. I think that’s why over the last ten years there’s been some confusion about what FRBR is and is not trying to do. That being said, if there was ever a time when the library world needed FRBR it’s now. We’re dealing with the question of how to provide access and create discovery tools for users in a rapidly changing library landscape. We’ve been slow to exploit the capacities of the Web for collaboration, sharing metadata and content, linking, etc. So FRBR’s entity-relationship framework and emphasis on bibliographic relationships may be its most important contribution to how we think about library resources in the digital, hyperlinked environment.

Although both books aim to be introductions, their approaches are very different. One is sort of a FRBR study guide with commentary, the other a collection of essays. Robert Maxwell’s book, FRBR: A Guide for the Perplexed, takes the study guide approach. If anyone should attempt to write a step-by-step guide to FRBR, it’s Maxwell. He has a gift for making the complexities of cataloging and metadata clear. So, much like Maxwell’s well-known book on the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), this new book successfully explains and illustrates the text of FRBR. In addition, Maxwell takes a further step to speculate what FRBRized metadata as well as a database based on FRBR might look like. With the use of E-R diagramming, he presents a more visual approach than the original FRBR study text. These diagrams are excellent and go a long way toward helping to understand the model better. His book is made up of six short chapters. After the introduction in chapter 1, Maxwell explains the entity-relationship model in chapter 2. Both entity-relationship diagramming and FRBR diagramming are explained. The focus of chapter 3 is the FRBR entities. Maxwell carefully goes over each entity and its attributes. Chapter 4 deals with bibliographic relationships. This was an excellent chapter. However, I did find one typographical error: systematic is used incorrectly several times, starting on page 94. In the original FRBR text it is systemic. Chapter 5 covers the FRBR user tasks (my least favorite part of FRBR). The last chapter, chapter 6, looks at the FRBR model in relation to the MARC and AACR2-based cataloging model. He concludes by arguing in favor of implementing a FRBR data model for library metadata and database structures. Maxwell comes off as being in the pro-FRBR camp. I wouldn’t call Maxwell’s book an easy read, but if you want to get a better handle on FRBR concepts and possible future implementations, it’s a must-read. Of the two books, this is the better choice for coders because the author takes a close look at database models.

Arlene Taylor edited Understanding FRBR: What It Is and How It Will Affect Our Retrieval Tools, a book of essays by leaders in the cataloging community. The essays (which cover both FRBR and FRAD) aim at a broader audience, not just the cataloging specialist. The first seven chapters lay out the basics, for example: introductions to FRBR and FRAD, FRBR research, FRBR and the history of cataloging, FRBR and RDA. These chapters provide an excellent introduction for those new to FRBR. I particularly liked Bill Denton’s adventuresome tour of the history of cataloging leading up to the development of FRBR. The last seven chapters each look at different types of resources in relation to FRBR. The introduction describes them as non-traditional library resources: archival materials, art resources, cartographic materials, moving images, music, and serials. I found these chapter interesting, but less satisfying toward meeting the goal of understanding FRBR. The authors of chapters 8-10 all conclude that the FRBR model does not accommodate their resources. Each author displays a slightly different interpretation of the FRBR model. The most interesting chapter from this half of the book is Martha Yee’s essay on FRBR and moving images. Yee definitely has an ax to grind with regard to RDA development and she clearly lays out her position in this essay. One of my criticisms of the Taylor book is not what is there, but what’s missing. There’s no chapter on FRBR and integrated library systems (ILS) or FRBR and digital resources. Covering these two important areas would have made it a more satisfying book overall.

I found both books well worth reading. I think Maxwell’s book in particular will become a standard reference tool in library cataloging and metadata departments. On a personal note, the FRBR model has only recently started to make more sense to me since my work has shifted to digital collections and non-MARC metadata. The fact is, I have to think about data models in my everyday work (finally). So I think that the FRBR model really has legs to grow beyond its 1998 original text. Based on the entity-relationship model, FRBR has some street cred in the IT world. It can function as a bridge beyond libraries to the world of information technology (much the way Dublin Core has done with metadata). It’s a conceptual model that can be used to develop different data models. I think we will see more development of the FRBR model as time goes on and it may be that FRBR and its companion models, FRAD and Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Records (FRSAR), will be the most important data models for future library metadata structures and standards. So, if you want to start thinking about FRBR (thinking being the operative word), these two books are a good first step!

About the Author

Christine Schwartz is Metadata Librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary Libraries and the author of the blog Cataloging Futures. She is a member of the Editorial Committee of The Code4Lib Journal.

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3 Responses to "BOOK REVIEW: Two Books about FRBR, Compared"

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  1. Irvin Flack,

    Thanks for these reviews. On FRBR: I think the model is very useful but is still very much based around the print monograph as the default object of description; understandably, given the history of libraries. The WEMI model can be used on non-textual resources but not without some awkward shoehorning, as Martha Yee and others have pointed out, eg in this great paper on Lubetsky’s Work Principle: . The work concept, which is quite straightforward when applied to a published text, gets complicated when applied to a movie, serial, website, photograph of an art work, recording of a opera performance, etc. As far as RDA goes, it seemed early on that it was adopting a half-hearted approach to FRBR, but now it seems more fully committed to it, which will at least enable the model to be more fully tested.
    -Irvin

  2. Chris Schwartz,

    Hi Irvin,

    I just printed off Martha Yee’s article, “Lubetzky’s Work Principle.” Thanks for recommending it.

    Several of the authors in the Taylor book make the same point as Yee concerning the Procrustean bed of Work-Expression-Manifestation-Item. In fact, a lot of monographs would work better with just Work-Manifestation-Item, IMHO.

  3. Jonathan Rochkind,

    But if some works (monographic and otherwise) work better with the four levels, and many monographs are fine with three of those four–then that to me says four is good. It doesn’t hurt the works that don’t need it.

    On the other hand, perhaps there are some works that could really use five, or six, levels. A model is always just an approximation of reality, but four levels seems a pretty good compromise to me. There are always the ability for other relationships to be drawn other than the ‘level 1′ sets, to specify things further.

    Although the whole model is, for better or for worse, based on a formal abstraction of traditional cataloging practice, that was mostly designed for monographs, with everything else being an ‘edge case’. But I’m not sure what to do that’s better. If there are human catalogers describing the bibliographic/documentary/information universe, we’re a lot better off if they’re all using the same formal model, so we can have all agreed on what the data we’re recording actually means. But maybe there’s a better way to do it? If there is, nobody’s supplying it.

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