Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Little Essays on the Rules (9) Scanners and Skimmers

Philip Harvey

Today we received all titles on order in the Princeton series ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’.  This is a wonderful initiative by Princeton University Press in which writers offer ‘biographies’ of very famous, indeed foundational, works. Garry Wills has written a ‘biography’ of Augustine’s Confessions, John Collins has done similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth. The Library intends to order all titles in the series as they appear. One of the early releases is Martin Marty on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and papers from prison. And it was Marty’s book that arrived soon enough in front of the cataloguer.

The downloaded record contained an error, almost a trick of the eye, such that you would miss it if you weren’t watching the details closely. The title of Marty’s book is presented thus in the Library of Congress’s MARC data: ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison : a biography.’ The same layout is found, not surprisingly, in the book’s own CIP on the verso of the title page.

The error is instantly obvious to anyone halfway well-read in theology, who knows that the German theologian had a collection of his writings published posthumously under the title ‘Letters and papers from prison’. The book came out in German in 1951 and in English in 1953. Like all of his main works, it has never been out of print since. So how is it that the people who put together the catalogue record were unaware of this? Or, at least, they seem to be unaware because a standard rule that has crossed over from AACR to RDA is that the title of an individual work has the first letter capitalised when it appears in another title. By so doing the cataloguer distinguishes the work itself and reduces confusion.

Two conclusions can be reached here. The first is that whoever did the checking of this record was not aware that saying ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison’ is not the same as saying ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and papers from prison’.  Martin Marty’s ‘biography’ is not a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison, but a study of the book by that name.

The second conclusion is that no one did any checking at all, that the title page was scanned or copied by a well-meaning scanner or copier, and sent forth into the world as the correct title according to the rules. This is the risk we now live with in a world where bulk loading and scanning are done without attention to the necessary editing of those bulk loaded and scanned records. The assumption that the publisher or cataloguing agent must have got it right the first time is no more than an assumption and the reason why we have cataloguers. Blind faith in the computers and electronics to get it right is only good as long as the words being scanned already fit the library rules, or are intelligible to an English user.

As it is, only the sentient being at her or his non-sentient computer (I refer here to the cataloguer) will know where, when and why a certain word must be capitalised. This is a simple example of why libraries must keep their cataloguers right where they are, at their work places, in order to display and share the natural and grammatical intelligence that we are all blessed with. There are times each day when neither scanning (machine) nor skimming (human) is enough. Curiously, this simple maxim has not changed just because we are now born-digital.

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