Thursday, 24 April 2014

Metadata Update #18 - RDA for Music and thoughts about FRBR

I recently attended a joint ALA/MLA webinar on music cataloguing for RDA. I'm not going to use this blog post to talk about the content of that webinar but I do want to mention an impression that was made upon me.

MARC is a linear, two-dimensional container for metadata. It's worked very well for a very long time and it still works well. However, in our current computing and communications environment we can do better.

In a world of linked data, big data and structured data, our MARC records start to show both their strengths and their limitations. OCLC's project to convert MARC records to linked data shows MARC's strengths. The fact that such an old 20th century standard has stood the test of time to be transformed into a new life in the 21st century is a testament to the technical minds who have developed MARC as a metadata container over the decades. I have spoken to many cataloguers, and I am included in this category, who are frustrated by the fact that OPACs seldom take advantage of the high degree of granularity that the MARC standard supports and is often coded into records. In sum, I think that those who are prone to dismiss MARC don't have a good understanding of it. You can check what I wrote in Update #15 for more on what I think about that:

So, what does this all have to do with RDA for Music cataloguing? Music is one area where the flat, self-contained nature of MARC records starts to get in your face. A piece of music generally has multiple complex relationships such as the relationships between composers, arrangers, conductors, performers, bands and the like; relationships among performances, albums, interpretations and other pieces of music; and, finally, relationships among the various formats on which the music has been captured and the characteristics of those various media. While all of this can be recorded in MARC and everything seems to be fine, once a person knows a little more about FRBR and linked data, it's hard to deny this feeling that there is so much more that we could do but MARC's structure is holding the metadata in a little capsule. The capsule is helpful and we can identify relationships among various parts of various capsules but it seems to be a lot of work. We seem to need something more free-flowing and open while still keeping the good stuff that MARC has.

In working with the RDA music records, it made me think that MARC is like a piano. Pianos are wonderful and complex instruments. It is possible to tune a piano so that the musician can sit down and play it without worrying about tuning while instead putting his or her energy into dynamics, tempo, and the general feel and style of the piece. However, the piano is only really good for playing western music (not country and western but the types of music that those of us in the western world have traditionally listened to). In reflecting upon the "just intonation" that is used in Indian classical music, it occurred to me that a pianist would encounter a lot of difficulties playing ragas or other types of Indian music which require a different approach to tuning and the tone distance between notes. While generally a piano is a beautiful and versatile instrument, there are certain types of music for which it is just too limiting. A solution for a pianist may be to use a synthesiser of some sort which will simulate the general sound of playing the piano while allowing for a more complex system of intonation and automated modulation. While even listening to such music would likely take a bit of getting used-to, it is something that could be done. Technology could be used to overcome the physical limitations of a traditional piano. I'm sure that most musicians would argue that the quality of sound produced by a real instrument can never be truly reproduced digitally, and I would be one to agree with them, technology could potentially allow the sound of a piano to participate in a form of music to which it was otherwise not suitable from a technical point of view. In doing so, this would open up new possibilities and options for creativity and innovation. In so doing, listeners would be both challenged and encouraged to think both about music and the piano in new ways. Like many musical innovations, it may sound terrible to listeners at first but eventually lead to appreciation and growth in popularity.

I think that many cataloguers are skilful pianists. They understand the beauty of their instrument and they seldom think of the work of the piano tuner. A piano is a piano and if a person has the right aptitude, training and practise, he or she can produce beautiful music. The piano does not need to be anything else and the pianist is confused by any suggestion that it should be. I can understand that RDA looks and sounds a bit like introducing digital music and maybe ruining the full rich quality of the traditional instrument. Maybe what FRBR/RDA is teaching us is that pianists still need to be pianists but we also need to be musicians and as musicians we understand and can use a variety of different instruments. We know what instrument or version of an instrument will be suitable for which type of music and the sort of mood or sound we are trying to create. If we think of the larger information environment of today which extends beyond the limit of our library catalogues, I think that we could consider that environment as the whole of world music and all forms of classical music combined. Sometimes the piano will fit but sometimes we might just need to sing along...... Yes, today RDA looks like it's making a mess of a beautiful instrument but it will help us play along in the realm of world music.