Cataloguing, with love from Italy

In a conversation in a faculty meeting in a leading South African LIS school in the early 1970s, I ventured the opinion that cataloguing is a central competency of any librarian. This was greeted with of derision. Since then, as a manager and researcher, I have observed the practical consequences of the drift away from all library-related things towards the “harder” and more academically respectable discipline of information science. As an ineducable dinosaur, I remain convinced of the centrality of cataloguing in the information professions. You may not have to, or want to, catalogue, but some understanding of the principles of cataloguing is essential to almost any facet of information service. Cataloguing is not a refuge for shrinking violets, for pernickety, nit-picking, obsessive-compulsive types who become librarians because they don’t like dealing with people. Cataloguing is for connecting people with resources. It is basic to the selection, acquisition/ingestion, storage, retrieval/discovery, and availability of bibliographic resources of all kinds, ancient and modern, physical and virtual.

This came to mind when my friend Mauro Guerrini, a professor in the University of Florence, Italy, sent me an advance copy of his book, Dalla catalogazione alla metadatazione: Tracce di un percorso [From cataloging to metadating: traces of a journey] (Guerrini 2020). 

I have to say at the outset that I’m not qualified to expertly review a book on cataloguing. I was taught cataloguing in the mid-1960s, when the rules were set out in the ALA Cataloging rules for author and title entries of 1949, a revision of the 1908 Cataloguing rules, which had been the result of a collaboration between the American Library Association and the (British) Library Association. This was a slim volume with a brick-red softcover. Roughly when I first started teaching in a library school, the “blue code” was introduced: the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) of 1967, a much thicker volume with a blue softcover. (For correct names and dates of the various editions see Guerrini or Haider (2021).)

We were a small school, faculty members had to be jacks of all trades, and I ended up teaching a senior cataloguing course for which I had to master this new code. That was the extent of my cataloguing experience. AACR2 and all subsequent developments largely passed me by. Not entirely, though. Some years later as the director of a national library which compiled a national bibliograph and a national union catalogue, I found our cataloguers embroiled in passionate debates about MARC formats, USMARC vs. UNIMARC vs. the now forgotten South African variant, SAMARC (Coetzee 1997), and in turf disputes about authority control (which institution had the best cataloguers?)  Cataloguers can be quite stubborn. This does not endear them to library directors.

More to the point: all of these issues had a significant international dimension. During the 1980s and 1990s I was involved in the Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC) and Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) programmes (Bourne 1986; Plassard 1987). Cataloguing, and cataloguing standards featured prominently among the nuts and bolts of these ambitious international schemes for sharing bibliographic records and for document supply. Indeed, my comments on Guerrini’s book are from my background in international and comparative librarianship, for he illustrates how very important the international exchange of ideas and formal international cooperation have been in the development of contemporary cataloguing theory and principles.

The first chapter, entitled Panta rei (referring to the concept “everything flows” of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus), situates cataloguing concepts in the context of two profound changes in information work, first the transition from paper- and card-based information systems in the 1970s, and secondly the impact of the web, which has changed our behaviour as users, especially how we identify, select and obtain information sources. The result is a shift from the management of records to the management of data. He introduces the new concepts and new terminology of cataloguing theory, discusses the impact of the semantic web and linked data, underlines the continuing importance of the catalogue, and asks how catalogues should be modified to be of the web and not merely on the web. The chapter concludes with a definition of metadatazione (a neologism for the creation and management of metadata)[1] as consisting in identifying the entities which characterize resources and connecting entities through relationships.

Chapter 2 deals with bibliographic principles and models. Here the international dimension is prominent, starting with the Paris Principles worked out by the International Conference on Cataloguing Principles, held in Paris in 1961 under the auspices of UNESCO, to the 2009 Statement of International Cataloguing Principles which resulted from a series of five expert meetings on cataloguing (IFLA Meetings of Experts on an International Cataloguing Code, IME-CC) held in various regions of the world between  2003 and 2007. He guides us expertly through a tangle of initialisms: FRBR, FRAD, FRSAD, FRBRoo, and IFLA LRM[2], all the result of intensive international collaboration in which IFLA played a major role. Chapters 3 and 4 set out the terminology relating to the description of resources and access to resources respectively.

The remaining chapters again have a notable international dimension. Chapter 5 deals with the various MARC[3] formats for the international exchange of bibliographic records, and the ISBD[4] family of international standards for bibliographic description. IFLA also played a major role here. Chapter 6 is concerned with tools for metadata and subject cataloguing.  The development of the RDA, Resource Description and Access code, which incorporates the FRBR family, resulted from intensive consultations among dozens of experts from mainly English-speaking countries, but also incorporates inputs solicited from many other countries. Subject cataloguing, however, followed a separate development path. Linguistic and cultural difficulties in subject indexing have led to a degree of fragmentation which has precluded the international collaboration and standardization of indexing principles to the extent that we have seen in descriptive cataloguing. This too provides food for thought for students of international and comparative librarianship. 

There is a substantial bibliography of monographs and articles from many countries, mainly in English, but also in Italian, and a few in German and Spanish, and an index.

Looking back at my own experience, I think that the negative reputation that cataloguing acquired among many LIS students and professionals in the past may be the result of what was taught, and how. We were taught the rules. Notably absent from the syllabus in my time was the conceptual basis of cataloguing – the philosophy and principles underlying the rules. Here is where Mauro Guerrini’s slim (200 page) book offers a concise and lucid introduction. Reading it filled in for me many gaps in my understanding of contemporary cataloguing and how it evolved to where we are today. It is also a very useful contribution to the study of international and comparative librarianship and information work.  It is all the more to be applauded that an English translation is in preparation.


Bourne, Ross. 1986. “The IFLA International Programme for Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC).” IFLA Journal 12 (4): 341–43.

Coetzee, H. S. 1997. “Development of SAMARC: South African Format for the Exchange Ofmachine-Readable Bibliographic Descriptions.” South African Journal of Libraries and Information Science 65 (3).

Guerrini, Mauro. 2020. Dalla Catalogazione Alla Metadatazione: Tracce Di Un Percorso [From Cataloging to Metadata management: Traces of a Journey]. Collana Percorsi AIB 5. Roma: Associazione Italiana Biblioteche.

Haider, Salman. 2021. “Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR, AACR2, AACR2R).” May 29, 2021.

Plassard, Marie-France. 1987. “UAP: A Ten-Year Overview.” IFLA Journal 13 (4): 334–48.


[1] How to translate metadatazione – metadating (which maybe suggests cybersex), metadatation (clumsy), or metadata management? The latter term is found in Wikipedia, which says it “involves managing metadata about other data, whereby this ‘other data’ is generally referred to as content data.” It goes on to state that “the term is used most often in relation to digital media, but older forms of metadata are catalogs, dictionaries, and taxonomies. For example, the Dewey Decimal Classification is a metadata management system…” Short of someone coming up with a better name, that’s what I will use for now.

[2] FRBR = Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records; FRAD = Functional Requirements for Authority Records; FRSAD = Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Data; FRBRoo =FRBR – object orientated. LRM = Library Research Model

[3] MARC = MAchine Readable Cataloging

[4] ISBD = International Standard Bibliographic Description


About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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