Legacy data

Legacy data

Contributed by:  Heather

 I often try to cheer people up by saying, “Look on the bright side – in fifty years we’ll all be dead!” My point is that most of things we worry about really aren’t going to matter at all in the long term.  Services will change, systems will change, libraries (if they continue to exist at all) and their users will change, and in fact they will probably change out of all recognition in twenty years, never mind fifty.

 Looking back from where we are in the present, we can see that most of what we or our predecessors did in the past is now hopelessly out of date. Weekly tape loads! Dial-up access! Microfiche catalogues! All cutting-edge in their time and now all gone the way of the dodo. In the same way, when we look back at records from the past we call them “legacy data”, meaning that they are inferior, defective, no longer fit for purpose. We regard legacy data as a problem we have to cope with as best we can.

 Catalogues are built up over time, as anyone knows who worked on a large card catalogue, compiled over decades, where you can see handwriting change, from immaculate copper-plate script to more modern styles, and you can see that handwritten cards were replaced by typewritten ones, or the product of the spirit duplicator. You can recognise the work of individual cataloguers, even if you will never know their names. What we have lost with the advent of global editing and conversion tools is the ability to see records from different ages sitting side by side.  We have converted card catalogues to online catalogues, 1908 rules to AACR and then AACR2, UKMARC to MARC21, and we have reclassified who knows how many times from one classification scheme to another or from one version of a classification scheme to a later one. And then we say that we have converted, upgraded the catalogue and made it ours, now.

 For sure we change forms and formats. But in most cases we are not changing the actual cataloguing content. We may change a handwritten statement of information on a catalogue card to 245$c in a MARC record. We may change 301.451 to 305.8. What we are not changing is the information that the book is written or edited by this person or that person; or the subject of the book, what it is about. The intellectual work of the cataloguer remains unchanged.

 Twenty or fifty years down the line, the records we create today will not look the same. They will have been converted and mashed in ways we can’t imagine, and any personal mark will have gone. The cataloguer (you and me) will be forgotten and our work will be anonymous. But the information we record today about the book in hand, the decisions we make about its authorship or its physical description or its subject matter, will endure. And that is why it still matters that we get it right. When systems have changed, and services have changed, it is the data that will be our legacy.

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