This blog posting contains: 1) questions/statements about MARC and posted by graduate library school students taking an online XML class I’m teaching this semester, and 2) my replies. Considering my previously published blog posting, you might say this posting is “re-MARCable”.

I’m having some trouble accessing the file named data.marc for the third question in this week’s assignment. It keeps opening in word and all I get is completely unreadable. Is there another way of going about finding the answer for that particular question?

Okay. I have to admit. I’ve been a bit obtuse about the MARC file format.

MARC is/was designed to contain ASCII characters, and therefore it ought to be human-readable. MARC does not contain binary characters and therefore ought to be readable in text editors. DO NOT open the .marc file in your word processor. Use your text editor to open it up. If you have line wrap turned off, then you ought to see one very long line of ugly text. If you turn on line wrap, then you will see many lines of… ugly text. Attached (hopefully) is a screen shot of many MARC records loaded into my text editor. And I rhetorically ask, “How many records are displayed, and how do you know?”


I’m trying to get y’all to answer a non-rhetorical question asked against yourself, “Considering the state of today’s computer technology, how viable is MARC? What are the advantages and disadvantages of MARC?”

I am taking Basic Cataloging and Classification this semester, but we did not discuss octets or have to look at an actual MARC file. Since this is supposed to be read by a machine, I don’t think this file format is for human consumption which is why it looks scary.

[Student], you continue to be a resource for the entire class. Thank you.

Everybody, yes, you will need to open the .marc file in your text editor. All of the files we are creating in this class ought to be readable in your text editor. True and really useful data files ought to be text files so they can be transferred from application to application. Binary files are sometimes more efficient, but not long-lasting. Here in Library Land we are in it for the long haul. Text files are where it is at. PDF is bad enough. Knowing how to manipulate things in a text editor is imperative when it comes to really using a computer. Imperative!!! Everything on the Web is in plain text.

In any event, open the .marc file in your text editor. On a Macintosh that is Text Edit. On Windows it is NotePad or WordPad. Granted all of these particular text editors are rather brain-dead, but they all function necessarily. A better text editor for Macintosh is Text Wrangler, and for Windows is NotePad++. When you open the .marc file, it will look ugly. It will seem unreadable, but that is not the case at all. Instead, a person needs to know the “secret codes” of cataloging, as well as a bit of an obtuse data structure in order to make sense of the whole thing.

Okay. Octets. Such are 8-bit characters, as opposed to the 7-bit characters of ASCII enclosing. The use of 8-bit characters enabled Library Land to integrate characters such as ñ, é, or å into its data. And while Library Land was ahead of the game in this regard, it did not embrace Unicode when it came along:

Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems. Developed in conjunction with the Universal Character Set standard and published as The Unicode Standard, the latest version of Unicode contains a repertoire of more than 120,000 characters covering 129 modern and historic scripts, as well as multiple symbol sets. [1]

Nor did Library Land update its data when changes happened. Consequently, not only do folks outside Library Land need to know how to read and write MARC records (which they can’t), they also need to know and understand the weird characters encodings which we use. In short, the data of Library Land is not very easily readable by the wider community, let alone very many people within our own community. Now that is irony. Don’t you think so!? Our data is literally and figuratively stuck in 1965, and we continue to put it there.

Professor, is this data.marc file suppose to be read only by a machine as [a fellow classmate] suggested?

Only readable by a computer? The answer is both no and yes.

Any data file intended to be shared between systems (sets of applications) ought to be saved as plain text in order to facilitate transparency and eliminate application monopolies/tyrannies. Considering the time when MARC was designed, it fulfilled these requirements. The characters were 7-bits long (ASCII), the MARC codes were few and far between, and its sequential nature allowed it to be shipped back and forth on things like tape or even a modem. (“Remember modems?”) Without the use of an intermediary computer program, is is entirely possible to read and write a MARC records with a decent text editor. So, the answer is “No, MARC is not only readable by a machine.”

On the other hand, considering how much extra data (“information”) the profession has stuffed into MARC data structure, it is really really hard to edit MARC records with a text editor. Library Land has mixed three things into a single whole: data, presentation, and data structure. This is really bad when it comes to computing. For example, a thing may have been published in 1542, but the cataloger is not certain of this date. Consequently, they will enter a data value of [1542]. Well, that is not a date (a number), but rather a string (a word). To make matters worse, the cataloger may think the date (year) of publication is within a particular decade but not exactly sure, and the date may be entered like as [154?]. Ack! Then let’s get tricky and add a copyright notation to a more recent but uncertain date — [c1986]. Does it never end? Then lets’ talk about the names of people. The venerable Fred Kilgour — founder of OCLC — is denoted in cataloging rules as Kilgour, Fred. Well, I don’t think Kilgour, Fred ever backwards talked so make sure his ideas sortable. Given the complexity of cataloging rules, which never simplify, it is really not feasible to read and write MARC records without an intermediate computer program. So, on the other hand, “Yes, an intermediary computer is necessary.” But if this is true, then why don’t catalogers know to read and write MARC records? The answer lies in what I said above. We have mixed three things into a single whole, and that is a really bad idea. We can’t expect catalogers to be computer programmers too.

The bottom line is this. Library Land automated its processes but it never really went to the next level and used computers to enhance library collections and services. All Library Land has done is used computers to facilitate library practice; Library Land has not embraced the true functionality of computers such as its ability to evaluate data/information. We have simply done the same thing. We wrote catalog cards by hand. We then typed catalog cards. We then used a computer to create them.

One more thing, Library Land simply does not have enough computer programmer types. Libraries build collections. Cool. Libraries provide services against the collections. Wonderful. This worked well (more or less) when libraries were physical entities in a localized environment. Now-a-days, when libraries are a part of a global network, libraries need to speak the global language, and that global language is spoken through computers. Computers use relational databases to organize information. Computers use indexes to make the information findable. Computers use well-structured Unicode files (such XML, JSON, and SQL files) to transmit information from one computer to another. In order to function, people who work in libraries (librarians) need to know these sorts of technologies in order to work on a global scale, but realistically speaking, what percentage of librarians, now how to do these thing, let alone know what they are? Probably less than 10%. It needs to be closer to 33%. Where 33% of the people build collections, 33% of the people provide services, and 33% of the people glue the work of the first 66% into a coherent whole. What to do with the remaining 1%? Call them “administrators”.

[1] Unicode –

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large

2 thoughts on “Re-MARCable”

  1. While it’s true that MARC did not incorporate Unicode as early as it could have, it’s not entirely the case that Libraryland ignored Unicode. In fact, RLG was a charter member of the Unicode Consortium and some RLG staff were involved in Unicode throughout its development.

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