MARC fields 655 and 755

From Mon Feb 5 13:26:13 1996
Date: Wed, 15 Mar 1995 14:09:56 -0500
From: "Jackie M. Dooley" <>
Reply to:
To: Multiple recipients of list <>
Subject: MARC fields 655 and 755 (fwd)

Comments from Laura Stalker of the Huntington Library on the proposed merger of fields 655 and 755, forwarded with permission----

Jackie M. Dooley, Head of Special Collections and University Archives

Main Library, P.O. Box 19557, Univ. of California, Irvine, CA


Internet: Phone: 714/824-4935 Fax: 714/824-2472

---------- Forwarded message ----------

Date: Tue, 14 Mar 1995 15:17:34 -0700
To: Multiple recipients of list EXLIBRIS <EXLIBRIS@RUTVM1.BITNET>
Subject: MARC fields 655 and 755

About a month ago there was some discussion on this list about the proposed elimination of MARC field 755 and the conflation of genre, form and physical characteristics data in one field, the 655. As immediate past chair of the RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee and co-chair of the Working Group on Form and Genre Vocabularies I would like to explain and defend the Committee's decision to request this change to the MARC format.

While at first glance the distinction between intellectual and physical character appears to be quite straightforward, cataloguers who have used the two fields and editors who have worked on the various thesauri have noticed ambiguities in their application. My own introduction to the problem was an article written by Jackie Dooley and Helena Zinkham entitled "The Object as 'Subject': Providing Access to Genres, Forms of Material, and Physical Characteristics" (in Beyond the Book: Extending MARC for Subject Access, Boston: GK Hall, 1990). In this paper the authors distinguish access by "object characteristics" (i.e. genre, form, and physical characteristics) from traditional subject or topical access, and discuss the ways in which the relatively new MARC fields 655 and 755 are used to provide it. They point out that although the original 655 and 755 proposals emerged from the rare book community, their applicability to other special materials, such as graphic images and film, soon became apparent. I believe that as these fields were applied to a broader range of materials than envisioned in the IRLA proposals more and more difficult cases and gray areas emerged to erode the distinction between them.

When I was working on the second edition of the RBMS hesaurus 'Genre Terms', I noticed that while most of the terms fell comfortably within my own notion of "genre", there were a few that were uncomfortably "physical", "three deckers", "viewbooks", "chapbooks", "posters", "sample books", "type specimens" and so on. As I became more familiar with the other RBMS thesauri (all of which are intended for use in the 755) I noticed more arbitrary assignments to one field or the other. "Block books", "miniature books", and "dummies" (Printing and Publishing Evidence) seemed to approach "form"-ness. "Binders' receipts" and "binders' tickets" (Binding Terms) are surely just particular types of commercial ephemera, while "Publishers' bindings" (also in Binding Terms) are by definition not copy-specific.

By 1992 or so, at least two groups were struggling to nderstand the distinction. The Working Group on Form and Genre Vocabularies was formed to resolve inconsistencies that had arisen among the various thesauri that are authorized for use in the two fields. One of the problems that we had identified in our first proposal was the fact that certain terms are authorized for the 655 in one thesaurus and for the 755 in another. A good example is "Dust jackets". In the world of the RBMS thesauri, "dust jackets" is a physical characteristic. The term appears in 'Binding Terms' and is to be used in the 755. This makes perfect sense-most of us rare book cataloguers think of (and catalogue) dust jackets as aspects or parts of the books they cover. But in 'Descriptive Terms for Graphic Materials: Genre and Physical Characteristics Headings' (Library of Congress, 1986) "dust jackets" is a form term, and thus assigned to the 655. In this world the dust jacket is the object, not an aspect or characteristic. There is nothing internal to the catalogue record by which to predict which it will be; it depends on the context in which the record was created. (I once thought I had found a consistent way of predicting: 655 terms are identical, or coterminous, with the item being catalogued; while 755 terms are not. Then I thought of "Association copies" (Provenance Evidence) and "Tall copies" (Binding Terms), and there went that one.)

The resulting confusion, for the cataloguer and the user, is obvious. If the 655 and the 755 are indexed separately in an online catalogue or bibliographic utility certain terms will have to be searched twice, once in each index, in order to retrieve all instances. And if they are never indexed separately, maintaining two fields becomes pointless. Furthermore, in the uber-thesaurus of the future (which, with the creation of MARC authority records for form and genre terms, is beginning to look more and more like the LC online authority file) the separate worlds represented by separate thesauri will inevitably run together. Trying to maintain the distinction adds another layer of complexity to building and using an authority file in which it will be necessary to distinguish between "dust jackets" as a topic (as in a book about dust jackets) and as a form.

The second group grappling with the problem was the ALA Subject Analysis Committee's Subcommittee on the Nature and Use of Form Data. This group was a spin-off of the 1991 Airlie House Conference on Subject Subdivisions. Part of the Subcommittee's charge was to come up with a satisfactory definition of "form" (655) that would allow it to be unambiguously distinguished from "topic" (650). Once the subcommittee had achieved this goal they went on to look for a workable distinction between "form" (655) and "physical characteristic" (755), and were no more successful than the Working Group had been. The Subcommittee, the Working Group, and the RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee had been in communication all along (and in fact, overlapped somewhat in their membership) and arrived at a common consensus that there it was not possible to arrive at a definition of the two fields that would hold up in all circumstances, much less be easily understood by catalogue users. In the end, the Subcommittee's recommendation to SAC was to conflate the two fields, and for expediency's sake, the Bibliographic Standards Committee assumed the task of preparing a MARBI discussion paper.

In MARBI Discussion Paper No. 82 this fundamental logical problem is explained, and supporting arguments are added. I am aware of only one online catalogue in which the 655 and the 755 are separately indexed. In some systems they are merged to form a single form/genre/physical characteristics index, in some they are lumped together with the subject headings, and in others the 655 is indexed and the 755 is not. It is notoriously difficult to negotiate a 755 index with systems managers; it looks and acts too much like a subject string, and not at all like the rest of the 7XX fields. It is in fact the belief of the Bibliographic Standards Committee that the simplification that would result from conflating the two fields may encourage more libraries to implement all of the thesauri, instead of just 'Genre Terms', which is the most commonly used.

I hope this account serves to clarify rather than obscure how MARBI Discussion Paper No. 82 came to be. I do not see it as a criticism or rebuttal of the original IRLA proposals, but as a refinement, based on a decade of cumulative experience working with the devices first proposed in that remarkably prescient document.

Laura Stalker
Associate Director for Technical Services
Huntington Library

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