Monday, 25 March 2013

Little Essays on the Rules (1) Style and Abbreviations

Philip Harvey 
This Sunday is Easter Day. The libraries will be closed. It is also the Day of Implementation of Resource Description & Access (RDA). Some have waited for years for this day, as if for a miracle. What we are sure to get is not a miracle, but something more rational and prosaic. RDA is the successor to the Anglo-American Cataloging (my spell checker still converts that word to ‘Cataloguing’) Rules, which have been the Bible for this kind of work since the 1950s. Every ten years there was an update to AACR2, the last real update being 1998. That is a long time between thinks, and for good reason. The vast and rapid transformation of our information world since the early nineties has made it impossible to maintain the delicate reforms of the Rules that we had become used to.

Many of these changes are not about technology, but style and even intellectual fashion. Ever since RDA changes were first floated for discussion they have been met with caution or feigned hope, with scepticism or even hostility. There has been an online war of words going on between cataloguing boffins about the proposals. Some of us have deliberately avoided this conflict like mad, especially on AutoCat. What is the point of arguing about changes that may happen and which we have no power to veto? Whether in the small details or the big picture, can we expect common sense? Cataloguers everywhere have been waiting for the Day of Reckoning and now here it is. It's interesting to hear that changed headings are already seeping through this week into our catalogues.  Now that change is here we have time to think about it seriously, even if it's all too little too late.

The Americans have led the field in constructing the Rules. They have led by example in keeping most strictly to AAC2, to judge by the thousands of records we have downloaded and edited over the years, especially from the Library of Congress. And the changes we expect to find in RDA records are informed by the same American style. It is a style that can be traced to 19th century Pragmatism and the thinking behind the spelling reforms of Noah Webster, Melvill Dewey and others. Dewey’s first name is a demonstration of his own theories: spell it the way it’s said, so no –le at the end of Melville. Students of etymology and grammar know that this refreshing approach to spelling and sound was promoted without much regard for the complexities of actual English usage through time. They colored the world in their own ways, indifferent to traditional colourings of centuries. They would have their catalogues be catalogs.

This thinking informs RDA’s changes in the example I choose for this Little Essay, those to abbreviations. We are instructed that “some abbreviations will be replaced by spelled-out words, but the words will be different: ‘ca.’ will be replaced with ‘approximately’; “fl.” will be replaced with the word “active”. Some dates for persons that represent the period of time they were active rather than a birth or death date will be labeled more clearly.”

Examples follow:

Under RDA

: Bacon, John, active 17th century


: Bacon, John, 17th cent.

Under RDA

: Backus, Yvonne, approximately 1910-2001


Backus, Yvonne, ca. 1910-2001

Under RDA

: Bukhari, of Johore, active 1603


Bukhari, of Johore, fl. 1603

The removal of ‘circa’ is typical of the wholesale conversion of Latinisms into common English terms being implemented by RDA. Latin abbreviations are out, so classic terms that we anyway treat as English like 'e.g.' (exempli gratia) and 'i.e.' (id est) are replaced by real English words with real solid English meanings. Some of us wait to see what creative variations will start emerging. It is possible that cataloguers will come up with even longer explanations for 'e.g.' and 'i.e.' than RDA has with ‘approximately’ for ‘ca.’. No doubt Autocatters have for years been disputing and deriding this blithe misunderstanding of the purpose of long-established abbreviations, but now that March 31st approaches we can all join in the chorus. Too little, too late.

Sentiment has no place in cataloguing, so one of my favourite shortenings, ‘fl.’ for ‘floruit’ or as we have it in English ‘flourished’, has been replaced by the unpoetic ‘active’. When my colleague Pamela Carswell and I ran Cataloguing at the Dalton McCaughey Library we used to joke about how to employ ‘fl.’, which usually was added to a date when it was the sole year or years when a person could be established as having actually been alive to do something. ‘Active’ serves the same purpose, though Pam would invent other terms to describe the career of a less known author, with ‘growth spurt 1652’, ‘blossomed 1660’, ‘flourished 1661’, ‘wilted 1665’ etc. Even ‘etc.’ is out, I guess, replaced by ‘and so on’ or ‘all the rest of it’ or ‘whatever comes into your head next’.

Happy days are ahead as cataloguers come to terms with the habits of a lifetime, learnt day after day in the pages of AACR2, and through common literary use. No doubt AutoCat and other library lists are going to go ballistic once the changes sink into the collective consciousness. But we will just have to knuckle down and follow the Rules. And so on and so forth and all the rest of it.

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