RDA as a closed standard

Resource Description and Access (RDA), the new bibliographic standard to replace AACR2, was released in 2010 on the web as a closed standard sitting behind a paywall. This really worries me. I strongly believe it should be an open standard.

What do I mean by closed?
By closed I basically mean that you have to pay or subscribe to access it. In many ways, this is not dissimilar to AARC2. For decades, libraries (and individuals) paid for various editions of AACR2, which has always been primarily a print product, as well as for various updates when it changed to looseleaf format. Recently it has also been available on the web via Cataloger’s Desktop. RDA is primarily a web product via the RDA Toolkit, although a concession was eventually made to release it in print as well.

An open standard would be one that, according to Wikipedia, “is publicly available” even if it “has various rights to use associated with it”. This would be one which any cataloguer, librarian, or crucially, non-librarian, could see and benefit from.  A practical definition for the purposes of this post would be a standard I could go and look at right now without subscription. I can if I wish apply the standard without hindrance, I can assess it with ease, and, ideally, build on the standard without restriction. RDA is not open, although to be fair, a part of RDA has been released openly, the element set and vocabularies.

Other open standards
Open (publicly available) standards are quite common. Some well known-examples:

The following are open although I’d have a lawyer to hand if you wanted to do anything with them:

Some closed ones for comparision:

These are of course more subjective lists than they look, but you get the idea. The closed list was actually bigger until upon examination I found that JPG, GIF, and even MS Office standards are publicly readable even if I’m not sure what more you could legally do with them. I’d be happy to add more to the closed list to balance things out a little.

Why is RDA not open?
Money. This is a delicate matter that I don’t want to delve into too much although it is obviously central to the openness of the standard. It’s also hard to talk about without appearing to make wild assertions, and I hope I haven’t been unfair. I’ve heard Alan Danskin of the JSC explaining that they’d thought about releasing RDA openly but that they had to cover costs. I’m not exactly sure what the costs of production were, although presumably included expenses and staff costs, and production of the product itself. The last is I think unfortunate as I would like to have seen a far simpler publication of RDA without all the bells and whistles, login barriers, and the need to learn a new interface as well as a new standard. Compare with the HTML4 standard which is a set of simple HTML documents with normal links. I don’t need to learn how to use that. Or, come to that, the MARC21 site. I wonder how much of the fee goes towards setting up and maintaining the RDA Toolkit platform.

With my tin foil hat on, I also wonder how much the fee is needed to resume revenue to the co-publishers since AACR2 has been in unrevised abeyance. 

Why does it matter?
It matters because RDA (and with it all the high quality traditional cataloguing techniques) will not be widely used without being open. I think you can divide the potential RDA userbase as follows:

  1. Libraries with enough money to switch to RDA
  2. Libraries without enough money to switch to RDA
  3. Non-libraries dealing with metadata

Those in group 1 will buy RDA, but some libraries- Group 2- will not see the benefit for the costs of conversion and training, let alone the costs of subscription. For ‘traditional’ cataloguing to thrive, therefore, we need to involve Group 3. However, those in Group 3 will not be able to even have a look at RDA to see if it meets their needs. I think RDA will be lucky to retain the same user base as AARC2, let alone break into new areas and influence the way other metadata is carried out. Those in the metadata community who, I suspect, have already been put off by AACR2, are unlikely to even try looking at RDA if it involves forking out a subscription.

I recently sat in a room with about 15 or so people mostly involved in metadata for institutional repositories and the like. During some discussions they flagged up two problems they were having: establishing a consistent form of name, and a standard set of data elements. I asked myself, would I recommend RDA to them to help solve these problems? Even if I thought it met their needs, could they even have a look to see if it did? No. They will either come up with their own solution or look elsewhere for it, which is already what they have been doing. I can’t see us taking more people with us, just a proportion of the people already using AACR2.

Openness also matters because haven’t a closed standard doesn’t reflect terrribly well on librarianship in general. I have a friend in IT who Laughed Out Loud* when I said the new library metadata standard was behind a paywall. In the new world of openness where even Microsoft loosely adhere to web standards, traditionally closed governments are leading the charge to release more data, and the world has been transformed by the the open standards of the web, are we to follow The Times behind a paywall? Personally I feel libraries, librarians, and library data should be at the forefront of openness, not grudgingly following behind or not following at all.

What could be done?
This is the nub of the matter. I’m no marketing expert and maybe I’m naive and there is nothing that could be done. However, working on the assumption that all that needs to be done is to break even and pay the costs of production for RDA, I would suggest the following ideas for a start:

  • Make a flashy web product anyway and charge lots more for it. Many more well-off libraries would pay for a product like the Toolkit if it’s good enough.
  • There is a need for a more accessible version or versions of RDA, e.g. just for books or in a more convenient format like, say, the Chan books on LCSH or the green editions of AACR2. The co-publishers could fulfill this need which I imagine would be easily done by re-using the data they already have.
  • Explanatory books. There are a number of these on the market or on the way already. The co-publishers could publish an official companion.
  • Consultancy and training. There is going to be a big demand for this soon in any case.
  • Involve more organisations in the drafting and publishing of RDA to share the costs, e.g. publishers, LMS vendors, commercial metadata suppliers, other metadata initiatives. I think it would be a positive and pragmatic move to have these parties on board anyway. They would be more likely to use the high quality standard produced and we would be more likely to be using metadata that meets all our purposes.

See Also
I notice a post covering some of these issues by carolslib from a few days ago. From the Catalogs of Babes also has a similar post, RDA: why it won’t work, from a few weeks ago which much more succinctly makes some of the same points:

Many librarians are balking at the cost of implementing RDA, I think rightfully so, although not for the same reasons. I’m not bitching about it because it’s unaffordable for smaller libraries, or because it’s a subscription rather than a one-time printed book cost (although I think those are valid points). I’m bitching because putting a dollar amount on something, now matter how low it is, will stop people from using something, especially if there’s a free alternative. In this case, I see the free alternative as ‘ignoring rules altogether and/or making you your own standards.’ Requiring a price makes adhering to standards–a key value-added service of libraries and librarians–inaccessible. Which is pretty ironic, considering that libraries are supposed to be all about access. We’re all proactive about offering access to our patrons, but we can’t extend that same philosophy to ourselves, to help us do a better job??

[Updated 23 November 2012] Terry Reese asks Can we have open library standards, please? Free RDA/AACR2.

*** He literally LOL’d, although no ROFLing took place admittedly.

5 thoughts on “RDA as a closed standard

  1. Interesting. If things do not change, we are going to get left behind in the semantic world, too. We still are not willing to (really) share data or even have an open standard that can be used more broadly. Sigh.

  2. Thank you for the pingback. You’ve nailed it, I would have preferred a truly open standard with less bells & whistles. You’re right, there are many other “money” making opportunities that could have developed from an open standard. Sigh – the paywall may become the Berlin Wall

  3. I agree with alot of what you’ve written. Recently I found it really frustrating that even with cataloguer’s desktop (which we pay for) you hit a paywall when you try to access RDA. We now have a very minimal subscription so I can at least look at it. I had a very long conversation last night with a colleague immersed in the world of institutional repositories and research support systems – I asked if there had been much discussions of RDA as a possible content standard to resolve some of this issues you mentioned in your blog entry. Not really, was the very polite response. These metadata communities are piling on ahead in a world of open standards, creating innovative solutions to their problems – to them RDA is just another acronym floating around in the background.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I admit I felt a genuine sense of disappointment when I first looked RDA as I expected a content standard that metadata people would really welcome. I don’t think it is that anyway, but others can’t even see it to figure that out for themselves. The contrast with the open linked data movement for example, even in the notoriously secretive government sector, is blinding.

    Openness isn’t really a philosophical nicety any more but vital.

Comments are closed.