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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 118-164-E
Division Number: IV
Professional Group: Cataloguing
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 164
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

The birth and re-birth of the ISBDs: process and procedures for creating and revising the International Standard Bibliographic Descriptions

John D. Byrum
Regional and Cooperative Cataloging Division
Library of Congress,
Washington DC, USA


In 1969, IFLA's Committee on Cataloguing sponsored the International Meeting of Cataloguing Experts which produced a resolution calling for establishment of standards to regularize the form and content of bibliographic descriptions. Subsequently, the Section on Cataloguing put into motion work which ultimately provided the means for a considerable increase in the sharing and exchange of bibliographic data. This work resulted in the concept of the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD), which has now endured for nearly 30 years and has proved to be IFLA's most successful effort at promoting the cause of cataloging standardization. Indeed, one might argue that in the history of cataloguing no other standard has enjoyed such a high degree of acceptance as that accorded to the ISBD concept, which is now nearly universally applied.

Published in 1971, the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Monographic Publications (ISBD(M)) was the first of the ISBDs. There followed development of ISBDs for Serials, Non-book material, Cartographic materials, Rare books, Printed Music, and, most recently Electronic resources For article level publications, Guidelines for the Publication of the ISBDs to the description of component parts was issued. To insure that all these separate publications are harmonious in their treatment of data elements and prescribed punctuation, the Section collaborated with the authors of AACR2 to prepare the ISBD(General), which has provided a frame-work to which all ISBDs have conformed.

In the 1980s, existing ISBDs underwent editorial review and revision to incorporate improvements for three general purposes:

  • to harmonize provisions, achieving increased consistency;
  • to improve examples; and
  • to make the provisions more applicable to catalogers working with materials published in non?roman scripts.
In addition, two more particular objectives motivated the overall revision effort:
  • to review the use of the equals sign; and,
  • to consider proposals regarding the ISBD for Non Book Materials emanating from specialist groups such as the International Association of Music Librarians.
To conduct this multi-year project, an ISBD Review Committee was formed. It first met in August 1981 and has been in place to serve as the Cataloguing Section's Maintenance Agency ever since (although for a period of time its name was changed to the ISBD Maintenance Committee for reasons which will be explained later in this presentation). By the end of the decade, the ISBDs had been thoroughly re-visited, and they were re-published in "Revised editions."

One of the major results of this initial overall revision project was to remove the provisions for "machine-readable data files" from ISBD(NBM) and to develop a separate ISBD for this medium, which appeared in 1988 as the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Computer Files (ISBD(CF)). However, because of the rapidly advancements in technology, the need for revision of this ISBD quickly arose, and a Working Group was formed to update and expand coverage of this standard, resulting in 1997 in the appearance of ISBD for Electronic Resources (ISBD(ER)).

The chart which follows is provided to summarize the history and current status of the full range of ISBDs to date.

ISBD(M) 1st ed. 1974
rev. 1978
rev. 1987
ISBD(G) 1st ed. 1977
rev. 1989
ISBD(S) 1st ed. 1977
rev. 1988
under revision
ISBD(NMB) 1st ed. 1977
rev. 1987
ISBD(CM) 1st ed. 1977
rev. 1987
ISBD(ER) 1st ed. 1990
rev. 1997
ISBD(A) 1st ed. 1980
ISBD(PM) 1st ed. 1980
rev. 1989
Components Parts 1st ed 1988

(For fuller citations for these publications, see http://archive.ifla.org/VI/3/nd1/isbdlist.htm/ )

In the early 1990s, the Cataloguing Section appointed the Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR). The immediate consequence of this development was to suspend any revision work on the ISBDs while the FRBR Group pursued its charge to "recommend a basic level of functionality and basic data requirements for records created by national bibliographic agencies." Also dropped pending the outcome of the FRBR study was a project then in progress to identify the components of a "Concise ISBD(M)", that is, the minimal bibliographic features of an acceptable record, because it was expected that FRBR's findings would in effect provide such a base-line. During this period, the ISBD Review Group became the ISBD Maintenance Group, a change of name reflecting its decision to deal only with ISBD problems that needed attention prior to issuance of the FRBR recommendations.

In 1998, theFRBR Study Group did publish its Final Report after its recommendations were approved by the IFLA Section on Cataloguing's Standing Committee (available at: http://archive.ifla.org/VII/s13/frbr/frbr.htm/ ). At that time the ISBD Review Group was reconstituted to resume its traditional work. Cataloguing's Standing Committee agreed that the ISBD Review Group should initiate a full-scale review of IFLA's "family of ISBDs" to ensure conformity between the provisions of the ISBDs and those of FRBR - in particular, to achieve consistency with FRBR's data requirements for the "basic level national bibliographic record."

In the ISBDs, national bibliographic agencies are requested to "prepare the definitive description containing all the mandatory elements set out in the relevant ISBD insofar as the information is applicable to the publication being described." To facilitate implementation of this principle, the ISBDs designate as "optional" those data elements which are not mandatory when applicable; in the case of particular ISBDs, see the Outline (0.3) to ascertain which data elements are optional. Therefore, the main task in reconciling the requirements of the existing ISBDs with the FRBR recommendations for the "basic level national bibliographic record" has entailed a review of the ISBD data elements which are mandatory to make optional any which are optional in FRBR. (In no case is a data element mandatory in FRBR but optional in the ISBDs.)

The ISBD Review Group concluded its review of the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Monographic Publications (ISBD(M)), last revised in 1987. The changes which the Review Group proposed to make in the next iteration of this standard were posted on IFLANET at http://archive.ifla.org/VII/s13/frbr/isbd?chg.htm/. The availability of the proposal was widely announced on appropriate electronic discussion lists, and those with comments were asked to reply by July 15th.

The ISBD for Serials and the ISBD for Cartographic Materials are currently in progress of revision, largely for the purpose of incorporating provisions to deal with electronic versions of publications within the scope of these ISBDs. As a result, the Review Group has provided an indication of changes these ISBDs will need to incorporate for conformity to FRBR. The Review Group will pursue revision of the other ISBDs this year and next. Procedures are essential in all standardization work in order to ensure that the steps by which a document becomes a new or revised standard are well known and meticulously accomplished. The ISBDs are no exception to this rule. As a result, at the 1989 IFLA Conference, the Section on Cataloguing agreed to the schedule and procedures set out below for development and distribution of documents.

Normally, initiation or revision of an ISBD will result from work accomplished by a Working Group appointed by the Section on Cataloguing's Standing Committee either singly or in conjunction with other IFLA sections. Indeed, in view of recent developments, it is well to stress here that it is the Section on Cataloguing which enjoys "ownership" of the ISBD program. Other Sections or groups which would like to propose new or changed ISBDs are not free to undertake such ventures on their own: they need to begin the process by communicating recommendations to Cataloguing.

The chair of the Working Group bears primary responsibility for generally conforming with the overall schedule for the preparation, review, and publication of documents, as follows:

  1. Development of draft text (12?24 months)*
  2. Duplication and distribution for worldwide review (6 weeks),
  3. Worldwide review and comment (6 months)
  4. Revision of draft text (6?12 months)*
  5. Review by ISBD Review Committee (2?3 months)
  6. Final revision (1?2 months)
  7. Duplication and distribution for voting (6 weeks)
  8. Voting by Standing Committee(s) (2 months)
  9. Final editing of manuscript for publication (2?3 months) (*The time required to develop and revise the text will vary according to the complexity of issues to be resolved, and the time-line is therefore suggestive and not required. On the other hand, the nine steps in the process are mandatory.)
The documentation in which these procedures are set forth provides considerable detail covering the means by which each phase is accomplished. It is not possible here to repeat the detailed information, but some matters are worth highlighting. First, any appointed Working Group is expected to work closely with the Director of the UBCIM Programme. For example, when a draft text is ready for worldwide review and comment, the chairperson of the Working Group delivers it to the to the UBCIM Programme Director, who arranges for document distribution, although in some cases Working Group chairs have themselves handled such distribution using mailing labels provided by the UBCIM office. Second, the Working Group is expected to keep the Cataloguing Section and any other participating section well informed regarding the progress of their ISBD project. The membership of the standing committees for sponsoring and participating sections participate in the world-wide review. In addition, entitled to participate in the review are all association, institutional honorary and affiliate members of the Section on Cataloguing, and of any other sponsoring Section as well as members of the ISBD Review Committee.

Following the conclusion of a world-wide review, the chairperson of the Working Group, in consultation with the other members of the Working Group, are instructed to consider the comments received and to revise the draft text accordingly, although the Working Group as a whole retains authority for deciding on the disposition of comments and on the contents of the resulting text.

Once the Working Group is satisfied with the draft it is forwarded to the chairperson of the ISBD Review Committee which reviews the text for general conformance to the overarching ISBD principles and particular conformance to the provisions of ISBD(G). The chairperson of the Working Group will prepare a final text, incorporating, as required, revisions identified by the ISBD Review Committee. At that point the new or revised ISBD is ready for balloting. When a final text is ready for voting the chairperson of the Working Group will send an original master copy of the document together with a brief description (for incorporation in the covering letter) to the UBCIM Programme officer. The UBCIM Programme Director is responsible for arranging for distribution of copies to all regular members (i.e. excluding corresponding and honorary member) of the Standing Committee of the Section on Cataloguing and of the Standing Committee(s) of any other sponsoring Section(s), unless as sometime happens this task is handled by the Working Group chair under the Programme Director's supervision. If the majority vote is affirmative, the Programme Director will proceed to establish arrangements for publication. If the majority vote is negative, the chairperson of the Section will consult with the Standing Committee to determine what course of action to pursue.

As mentioned, the procedures just described have been in place for more than a decade and antedate the advent of electronic communications which are now possible for conducting business on the Internet. Today, as is well known, it is easy to dispatch even long documents almost instantaneously to colleagues throughout much of the world and to exchange correspondence without the considerable delays often encountered when using postal systems for international mailing. It is also routine to mount a document on a web site and to conduct professional exchanges as members of electronic discussion networks, often called "listservs". Because of the economy which the Internet provides, both in relation to postage saved and in terms of time saved in distributing documentation, the ISBD Review Group has become interested in modifying its procedures. As already pointed out, the Group decided on an experimental effort to handle the recent revision of ISBD(M) to incorporate the FRBR recommendations using the web as the primary vehicle for conducting the world-wide review. The proposed changes were posted prominently on IFLANET and their availability for study and comment was announced on IFLANET and several other electronic lists. Since the proposed changes were considered likely not to be controversial the Group decided to set the review period at four months. No doubt a longer comment period will be needed for new ISBDs and for major revisions, and perhaps the UBCIM office will need to help the Group establish which individuals and groups entitled to participate in a review might not have Internet access. These and any other concerns will be further explored, and we would be glad to have input on these efforts to modernize the distribution and approval processes.

IFLA needs to accept its responsibilities to maximize the opportunities which today's technology offers by way of improving the interchange of information and views in its cataloguing standardization work. Not only will projects benefit from more timely development but also the technology will save considerable costs in terms of reproducing draft texts and purchasing their delivery. Beyond these considerations, improved procedures are needed to enable IFLA to maintain its cataloguing leadership. Such standards as the ISBDs have guided the work of national cataloguing committees in updating their codes to foster internationally accepted practices. Today's publications patterns are changing, largely as a result of the electronic environment in which we increasingly function. Not only are there new bibliographic situations to consider, but not every bibliographic practice already in place continues to be as useful now as it was formerly. As a result, AACR and RAK, to name but two of the world's most prominent cataloguing codes, are engaged on major revision projects. The challenge to IFLA is to be sure that these code revision projects continue to recognize the need and importance of international harmonization and do not unfold in isolation. The ISBD Review Group must assist the Cataloguing Section at least in the area of bibliographic description by initiating communications with groups revising national cataloguing rules to seek their input and cooperation in maintaining an internationally acceptable framework. No doubt the national code revision projects will have many suggestions by way of improving the ISBDs, and IFLA should welcome this possibility as a means of ensuring the vitality of its own standards. Therefore, it is necessary for IFLA to recognize the need to resume leadership in coordinating these projects with its own standardization efforts and to rekindle commitments of national libraries and national cataloguing committees to cooperation in maintaining bibliographic practices that will enable exchange of cataloguing data in the cost-effective manner which will benefit users throughout the world. Modern procedures for standards development and review will play a major role in enabling the Cataloguing Section and its Review Group to meet this challenge. Your comments on these thoughts would be most welcome as planning and re-tooling continue to advance.


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