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MARC – is it really machine-readable?

On the RDA list there has been a bit of discussion regarding MARC and whether or not it is “machine readable”. 

MARC stands for Machine REadable Catalog. The best way to really understand MARC is to know it was developed in the 1960s and it hasn’t progressed much since then.  Sort of. New code was added, new tags, new subfield codes, and even new versions (MARC for Authority data, MARC for holdings records, etc.) but it never progressed beyond knowing what tag and subfield code to use.  Few if any true WYSIWYG are available. Most ILS vendors create cataloging modules that actually use the tag field and not a text label (except perhaps in the fixed fields). To catalog in OCLC Connexion you still need to know the tags, indicators and subfield codes. Thankfully in OCLC Connexion, if you use an invalid tag or subfield code the system will not allow you to add the information to the record (unless it is a batch load and then all bets are off).

MARC was used by Library of Congress and early OCLC (back when it meant Ohio College Library Consortium) for ease of printing cards and providing tapes of records to libraries (for their own printing).   It is still used today in the vast majority of library catalogs. In fact, in recent years other countries have switched to using MARC format despite the vehement objections to MARC format on several list servs.

During the RDA list discussion it became apparent that the “problems” with MARC are actually problems with consistent use of MARC, AACR2, ISBD, and limitations within the ILS themselves. Additionally cited was the lack of knowledge of the very complex MARC format as well as cataloging rules by the programmers themselves.

Me, I go back and forth with MARC. Some things I read make me see problems within MARC then other times I see it is the best thing we’ve got at the moment. Can MARC be improved? You betcha. Can it be better utilized? Shore nuff. In classes I lament the lack of fixed field data. There are so many potentially useful bits of information just awaitin’ to be filled out. Yes, the “Festschrift” could be put aside (unless you are cataloging older materials) but how handy is “Illustrations” and “Nature of Contents“? Wouldn’t it be lovely if “Target Audience” had more detail (such as Medline age limiters have available). I almost drool with the thought of combining the incredibly detailed and structured Medical librarian world with the rest of the library world – esp. Docline for ILL. But I digress.

To continue with MARC in the future we need to get back to really cataloging materials. Fully exploit the nuances of MARC.  Teach the programmers the language of MARC. Help systems understand the wealth of information available in MARC. And, of course, correctly catalog each item.

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