RDA-as-Service Only

At the ALA Annual Conference exhibit floor I got my first chance to see the RDA Toolkit. RDA is “Resource Description and Access” — the new standard for bibliographic description of content. So this was the first time I really got to look at the RDA Toolkit. (By the way, you can look at it, too, during an open trial access period that runs through the end of August by signing up for it.) What really struck in me the demonstration, though, was that the site is as much a subscription to access the content of the RDA standard as it is a subscription to a delivery service with functions and features that go beyond the text of the standard itself. The text of the standard will be available in printed form, but one cannot get an electronic copy of the standard itself. This strikes me as sort of weird, so this blog post talks through that weirdness feeling.

I’m trying to think of another example of a standard that inseparable from a delivery system for the standard, and I can’t think of any. Now granted, that the RDA Toolkit website has some very nice features for interlinking between documents, for creating local “workflows” and “mappings” for local activities, and creating group subscription-specific links to local documents. But this decision to only allow electronic access to the standard through this subscription service that requires an annual fee feels uncomfortable. Like I don’t really have access to the standard. Like it was a decision to limit competition for other delivery mechanisms to make sure a rather lucrative ongoing income through the RDA Toolkit website.

Also weird is the answer to the question “How does the site calculate the number of concurrent users?“. The notion of “concurrent users” is pretty hard in the web space because in the normal mode of operation there isn’t an ongoing connection between a user’s browser and the content server. There is a connection to deliver the HTML, associated graphics and other page content when a user initially asks for the page. But while the user is reading the page there is no ongoing connection between browser and server. I would expect to see mention in this section of “a concurrent user is counted for five minutes from when the browser last accesses the server” but that isn’t there.

Has anyone else thought about this, or is it getting discussed elsewhere? I may write more here as I have a chance to think about it and talk with others about it.

Update: Monday, June 28th


CC:DA Meeting with Ron Murray's FRBR Paper Tool documents spread out on the floor

As it happens, I was at the CC:DA meeting on Monday morning to see Ron Murray’s talk on network structures of FRBR entities, and right afterwards was an update on the RDA Toolkit site by Don Chatham, Associate Executive Director at ALA Publishing Services. I got to ask the question about electronic access to the standard, and it seems to be something they are considering. He said they designed the interface to be optimized for the ruleset, but they might consider an e-book format. I pressed about getting access to the raw document to create other derivatives. The canonical file is in XML format with a very complicated structure, and they use that to create the derivatives (the preprints that have been released over the past year or so, RDA Toolkit site, and the planned print version). They have been so busy getting the RDA Toolkit site up that they have not considered other modes of distribution (including the newly announced print version) until recently. It also isn’t clear what the licensing terms would be for the electronic version.

Some other interesting facts. There have been 2,200 requests for trial access. (I wish they wouldn’t call it “open access” because that phrase has other connotations, but what can you do…) About 2/3rds of the trial access requests were for institutional accounts. 53% came from the United States; 11% from Australia; 10% from Canada; 4% from the U.K. Creating these trial access accounts has been a manual process, and there is a backlog at the moment. (I signed up for trial access on Saturday and I haven’t heard back yet — probably because all the people who would act on that request are here at ALA.)

There was discussion about the update process for the standard. They are taking a very deliberate approach to start with — thinking that even minor typographical changes might have major conceptual impacts — so they won’t make any changes without JSC approval. On the service side, there are plans to enhance the site with multiple translations and more user configurable options. There is also the print version, but no date or pricing information has been set. (The cost of the print version will probably be in the $150 range.) They are also preparing help guides and mechanisms for deep linking into the RDA Toolkit site and for advanced searching.

(This post was updated on 10-Sep-2011.)