“Understanding FRBR as a Conceptual Model: FRBR and the Bibliographic Universe”

“Understanding FRBR as a Conceptual Model: FRBR and the Bibliographic Universe,” by Allison Carlyle, offers a refreshingly lucid explanation of the FRBR conceptual model and its historical context in cataloging theory. Carlyle begins with an exploration of the definition and function of models. Although models can be used to represent most anything, they are most often used to make abstractions easier to understand. This is done by operationalizing the abstraction – making it somehow possible to count or measure it. The example Carlyle gives is measuring love by the number of times a couple kisses, a flawed system, but better than nothing. From this she moves to look at the FRBR concepts of work and expression as abstractions which, like love, can be made more understandable by modeling. Although these are sometimes hard to grasp, the concepts nonetheless serve to make a user’s search easier, as a patron generally wants the work (e.g. Heaney’s Beowulf translation) and not necessarily a specific item (the hardcover edition with a bite mark on the right corner). The article continues with an explanation of FRBR as an entity-relationship model (ER), a special structure of conceptual model. ERs can only contain entities, attributes, and relationships. Entities (physical things) can have relationships between them, and both the entities and relationships can have attributes (characteristic qualities). Despite the utility of the model, Carlyle does warn that ER models only reflect the qualities they are concerned with, and do not create a whole picture. This means that an unlimited number of ER models could be made of the same thing. For this reason, a model should not be judged by whether it is “right” or “wrong,” but whether it fulfills the function it was created to do. From this discussion, the article continues with an examination of the historical models from which FRBR has evolved. The simplest and earliest is the One-Entity Model, a simple list of the library’s holdings. Here the only entity recognized is the single item. Slightly more complex is the Two-Entity Model, which recognizes both the item and manifestation levels, and can serve as a finding aid as well as a list of holdings. This developed when libraries began to have more than one copy of a material. Next (naturally) is the Three-Entity Model, which captured the abstract idea of the overarching work, and finally the Four-Entity Model, (of which FRBR is a representative), which includes the concept of an expression. Carlyle provides pictures of catalog searches, illustrating how higher entity models shorten and more neatly combine search results, making for a better search experience. She ends with a discussion of the implementation details facing catalogers beginning to work with FRBR, and a reiterated statement that FRBR is the natural successor to these previous entity models.

Having wandered through a number of acrimonious AACR2 vs. RDA articles, which exude much bitterness and precious little information, I enjoyed Carlyle’s writing a great deal. She proceeds slowly and carefully through complicated issues, explaining them without bias. It is so nice to have an article specifically written for people coming to the subject without the foggiest idea of what is going on.