Since 1996

The complicated world of librarians

By Dave Menendez
Saturday, August 16, 2003, at 2:37 AM

Summary: You probably don’t put much thought into bibliographic entries, but that’s because you probably aren’t a librarian. I’m not either, but I am intrigued by a requirements document for bibliographic information put out by the IFLA. (Being me, I eventually use a certain comedic space serial as an example. Try to guess which one.)

Found at the FOAF scratchpad: A report from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions on the requirements for bibliographic records.

This is a long document, and I won’t claim to have read it all, but gist of it that’s currently interesting to me is the classification of created works (books, films, plays, sculpture, etc.). Essentially, there is a four-tier system of classification:

  1. Works, distinct intellectual or artistic creations (such as Hamlet)
  2. Expressions, intellectual or artistic realizations of works (such as the script to Hamlet)
  3. Manifestations, physical embodiments of expressions of works (such as a printing of the script to Hamlet)
  4. Items, exemplars of manifestations (such as my copy of a printing of the script to Hamlet)

A particular work may be realized by multiple expressions, as in the case of translation or revision. However, once we get to the level of adaptation, we start producing new works. Thus, Baz Lurhmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would be considered a separate work from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, even though it derives from it. (Presumably, Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat would also be considered a derivative work, rather than an expression, as it takes considerable liberties in translation.)

You may well be asking, why is this useful? Well, it does give you a framework for discussing some complex relationships between works. For example, let’s take a hypothetical book My Life, by Joe Example (we’ll call this w1). This work is realized by Mr Example’s original English-language text (e1), and also by Herr Beispiel’s German translation (e2). So far, we have these relationships:

Now, let’s say some errors are detected in Herr Beispiel’s translation and a revised German translation is released (e3). This gives us:

Meanwhile, Mr Example has been making revisions of his own, which results in a second edition of My Life (e4).

This would of course require a third German translation (e5), and so forth. What’s cool about this model is that it allows us to make these distinctions in a sensible way. All five expressions listed above are realizations of the same work, and they also have various connections to each other. A library which had copies of all five could use this system to note that they are all related but different versions of the same work.

But, of course expressions aren’t physical objects either. For example, e1 is embodied by three manifestations: a hard-bound edition (m1), a paperback (m2), and the large-print edition (m3). All three of these are different only in less-essential details like their binding or font choice, but it still is a useful distinction to make. For example, the pagination may be different among the three.

Finally, each manifestation exists as a number of items, including a copy with marginal notes written in crayon by Mr Example’s three-year-old daughter (i1).

If you’re familiar with RDF, you probably looked at those relationships I listed above and though, “Hey, those would be pretty easy to model in RDF.” Well, yeah. That’s why I wrote them that way. I don’t know when or how often this level of detail would be necessary, but it does give a sense of what needs to be considered when cataloging creations on the net.

For example, let’s indulge my tendency to relate everything to myself by examining how this model would describe Starcruiser Anonymous. Since it’s a serial, we would probably consider each episode an independent work which is a component of the larger work.

This allows us to give a distinct publication date for each episode. Now it gets complicated: the first fifteen or so parts of Starcruiser Anonymous exist in four forms:

I suspect this would be modeled as three expressions (one for each set of revisions), one of which has two manifestations (text files on the web and printed material in a fanzine). I suspect the notion of “items” doesn’t work well for electronic documents, but my copy of Hostigos, Winter 1997 is undeniably one. Since Hostigos is a collection, it is another work which contains multiple component works, but this is where I have to start drawing graphs or I’ll get lost. (Or perhaps it’s because it’s too late to be thinking about this stuff. I’ll have to sleep on that….)

In any case, if I do try a detailed description of Starcruiser Anonymous in RDF someday, expect to see some of the ideas described here. If you’re looking for a way to catalogue creative works, it’s always a good idea to see what the librarians are doing.