To Display or Not to Display: That is the Question. Or Is It?


I think we can all agree that one of the most confounding changes related to Resource Description and Access (RDA) is that affecting those inscrutable 33x fields. We’ve all asked the questions, ranging from “What are they?” and “Why are they there?” to “What do we do with them?” and “So what happens to these GMDs?”

While there are concrete answers to the early rounds of questions like what and why, many libraries are still struggling with reconciling answers to the latter questions. Opinions may be scattered, but as implementation becomes a distant memory and day-to-day reality ensues, librarians are initiating workflows and solutions that balance the needs of public services and technical services staff as well as the needs of the all important end-users.

First, let’s review a little background. Originally, bibliographic records used the General Material Description (GMD) to distinguish between differing types of records, including microform, motion pictures, sound recordings, and music. One field, however, proved itself a problem child as time progressed. Originally called “computer file”, the GMD for “electronic resource” served as a catch all for data, programs that process data for use, and combinations of data and programs, accessed either locally or remotely. But as times changed and the information superhighway grew longer, wider, and more circuitous, this simple description of “electronic resource” no longer proved useful in clearly and concisely identifying resource types for the patron. In this same manner, “motion picture” and “videorecording” also proved to be increasingly limiting as descriptors.

Enter RDA and those inevitably messy 33x fields. The purpose of replacing the single GMD with three fields—content type, media type and carrier type—is an attempt to parse out the pieces that had previously been combined into one GMD, thus providing additional clarity to the description of resources. Current RDA records can distinguish between subtle differences in the mass of records originally clumped together under a single term, with each field serving a specific purpose in breaking down the now diverse elements of resources.

While these 33x fields will inevitably replace the GMD, in the meantime, librarians are left bridging the gap—both in workflows as well as in their integrated library systems. All of us face the same decisions, with a few common questions emerging. Do you display your 33x fields? How do you reconcile your AACR2 records still featuring the GMD with your new RDA records?

Yes, eventually 33x fields will need to be added to all non-RDA records. The Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC) Guidelines on Hybrid Bibliographic Records recommend a period of three years, where catalogers editing non-RDA records are asked to leave GMDs present in records through March of 2016. This allows vendors ample time to implement changes to their discovery systems that will actually make good use of the 33x fields. After that time, GMDs dissolve in to dust. In the meantime, how will your library choose to handle this conundrum?

The first challenge is tackling inconsistent displays in the catalog. Weighing your library’s cataloging resources and staff workloads, you must decide whether to let records live side by side in harmony or to attempt to hybridize your records – either by inserting RDA 33x fields in to AACR2 records or inserting GMDs into RDA records. Unfortunately, this is a time-intensive endeavor, and many libraries simply do not have an excess of valuable, yet ever-diminishing staff resources to make these consistency changes feasible.

Most libraries are in agreement that the GMD is overwhelmingly seen as a visible and understandable field, allowing quick and easy displays to internal and external users when searching for the desired format of particular records. Patrons want and need access to this specific format information in the brief displays in the catalog, and as many ILSs still cannot transpose the 33x fields into something as visible and understandable, it seems as though GMDs are here to stay – for a limited time only, of course. In some instances, libraries are consciously retaining the GMDs in older records for the sole purpose of auto generating 33x fields for these records in the future; after the 33x fields have been inserted, the GMDs will be deleted. If choosing to retain your own GMDs, consult with your vendors; they may offer the option of inserting these fields in to their RDA records prior to delivery, saving valuable technical services staff time for other purposes.

Librarians also generally agree that the 33x fields are overwhelmingly considered incomprehensible to both patrons and staff, as these fields were originally designed to be read by computers, not by living, breathing human beings. As a result, most libraries find displaying values in records that are not interpretable by end-users a bit senseless. RDA is focused on the ease for the user, and as a result has removed the use of standard abbreviations, even those as basic as p. and ill., which makes it almost counter-intuitive that libraries are wrestling with whether to display 33x fields in a traditional manner.

This doesn’t mean libraries aren’t finding ways of using these fields though. The 337, or media type field, appears to be suppressed across the board, as it rarely provides new information to patrons. And often, the terms used can be misleading. Content and carrier type seem to be clearer fields, so the combination of the two can be used to create a description that users can understand. Therefore, libraries may choose to map [338:336] to display where the 245$h currently displays in both their brief and full displays. In these cases, they may choose to suppress the specific [volume:text] combination, as it is neither useful or necessary; libraries may also find various content types too verbose or obscure, choosing more appropriate terms to display instead.

Format labels and generated icons based on fixed fields and coding seem to assist in bridging the gap—allowing some libraries to remove themselves from these issues all together by taking away the need for either the GMD or the 33x fields being displayed. Facets and icons overcome the fact that GMDs are general and lack specificity. However, these fixed field icons may not capture the content and media aspects of complex and hybrid records effectively. Additionally, while icons may be visible to the public, staff members may not be able to view the icons, depending on your ILS.

Options abound at this point, and libraries will continue to respond in creative ways, learning from each other and making decisions based on their own internal and external user needs. The important thing to note is the following: Despite the ways your library chooses to reconcile these fields, do not – and I repeat – DO NOT remove this new RDA data from your records. No one has any idea what systems of the future will offer in terms of capabilities, and this field promises to be an amazing data gold mine in the future.

~Ashley Moye~

 Technical Services Law Librarian (TSLL)  is an official publication of the Technical Services Special Interest Section and the Online Bibliographic Services Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries.  This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue and is reprinted here with permission.

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Filed under CharlotteLaw Library Team Members, Library, Technical Services

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