Archive for November, 2013

BIBFRAME Through The Looking Glass

A strong indication that something may be  amiss in BIBFRAME is that the picture drawn by its  model of the bibliographic universe  does not include books, and  as Oxford logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson observed, “What use is a picture without books?”.

What, If Anything, Is a bf:Holding?

Rather than modelling a specific copy of a book, a BIBFRAME Holding models someone saying things that appear to be about a specific copy of a book. Surprisingly, there is nothing in BIBFRAME’s ontology that corresponds to any copy of a book that the statement might be about.

We cannot ask how many copies of books we know about (unless we are satisfied with the trivial answer “none”). We can only count how many times we have been told about copies of books.   If we have a BIBFRAME Holding from OCLC saying that UNC has a copy of a certain book, and another from UNC saying the same thing, we have two different Holdings.

From this behavior, it seems that a BIBFRAME Holding corresponds to a MARC Holdings Records, rather than a physical book, or FRBR Item.

Do BIBFRAME Annotations  Support Provenance for Holding?

One of the reasons given for  BIBFRAME Annotations is that they carry information about who asserted a statement (via the bf:annotationAssertedBy property).

Despite the  conflation  of Epistemic  and Ontological concerns that we see in bf:Holding, we cannot rely on  the annotationAssertedBy property to support provenance.  If we have one data source that gives one value for  bf:annotationAssertedBy, and a different data source that gives another, conflicting value, we  have no principled way to choose between them, unless we have other provenance information to support our decision.

The problem is readily apparent in the example used for the Holdings Annotation.

    a bf:Holding ;
    bf:annotationAssertedBy <> ;
    bf:dateOfAssertion "20130807" ;

The URI for the Holdings Annotation is in the namespace “”.   The host from which the document was   retrieved is in the domain.

There is a statement claiming that the Holdings Annotation was asserted by .

There is no a priori reason to prefer this assertion  over a claim, in an equally unrelated graph, that

     bf:annotationAssertedBy <> ;

The value of a provenance mechanism that cannot be used without an additional  provenance mechanism is questionable.

Are Annotations Consistently Used For Opinions?

Section 2.1 of the Annotations document states that “Annotations are asserted in order to: [...] express opinions about a resource”.

However, this principle does not seem to be widely applied.  To take the most obvious example, “subject” is treated as a property, despite  Patrick Wilson’s generally accepted arguments that “the subject of a work” is indeterminate.

It is hard to understand the theoretical motivation for  treating subjects as objective, yet regarding cover images regarded as subjective.

Is Provenance Information Needed For All Assertions?

Since  information about a resource is only obtainable empirically, filtered through perception and mind, and  recorded empirically through misperception and typos, without recorded provenance information  we have  weak justification for any bibliographic knowledge we may claim.

The more independent sources for a statement about a sensible property, the more strongly we may be justified in  believing it.

The more trust we have in the expertize of a source with regards to a particular topic, the more we may trust their opinions that a work is or is not about a subject within that topic; however we might simultaneously accept as equally valid the opinion of a specialist in a different field that the work is about a subject in that  field.

If the goal of BIBFRAME is to support the fusion  of  descriptions from multiple different sources, then  provenance  must be supported for all assertions.  If the goal of BIBFRAME is to provide another syntax for storing monolithic records, then the overhead of decomposing these records into individual assertions would seem to require additional justification.

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In these prolegomena I will be examining how a lack of shared understanding of these issues may have lead to certain choices that have resulted in unintended consequences in the current proposed BIBFRAME. I will show that these choices and consequences are not intrinsic to all linked data or semantic approaches to bibliographic and other metadata, and that alternatives approaches may have advantages.

I will attempt to give general explanations of some of the terms and  concepts that may not be obvious to those outside the communities in which they involved.   By attempting to bridge the gaps in understanding separating the different communities needed to make any future metadata framework, I hope to make the case that such a framework is both possible and desirable, and to allow more people to make positive contributions to the creation and deployment of such a framework.

In this introduction I give an outline of the remaining prolegomena, and look at the types of knowledge and skills that are needed to build a future Bibliographic Framework .

An outline of the prolegomena

Part II.  What is a Holding that cannot be held?

In the second prolegomenon, I use the Holdings Annotation as presented in the current incarnation of the bibframe proposal as an example some of the problematic features of the current BIBFRAME model.

Part III.  Only Connect: Why a Framework Based on Linked Data and Semantic Technologies Is Worth Pursuing.

In the third prolegomenon I discuss the how using Linked Data and Semantic Technologies can improve the quality and accuracy of existing cataloging practice, and look at some new architectures and applications that a  framework designed for networked use can enable.

Part IV.  IMEW: The Opposite of FRBR is FRBR.

I examine some properties of  FRBR-like data models.  Taking a bottom-up approach, starting with  Items, I relate the main entities in the FRBR WEMI model to concepts found in common  version  control systems used in software development.  I discuss some issues involved in inferring  properties of an Item based on it’s corresponding  Manifestation, Expression, and Work,  raise some questions as to possible identity criteria, and look at some other possible entities that may be implicit in the model .

Part V. On What The…? Ontology and Linked Data for BIBFRAME

Part IV briefly covers some concepts in linked data and ontologies, makes the point that owl and RDF are not the only targets, and that it is more important to accurately capture the semantics of what is being modeled than it is to think about what something might look like in XML. I argue for the use of a more expressive form of modeling and for the use of controlled natural language to specify the model. CNL makes it much easier for people to contribute, and makes it much easier to review.

Part VI:  Implementation: A Simple Matter Of Programming

Part V looks at some of the technical solutions available, some areas of computational complexity, and areas where work is needed. In particular, I describe a possible approach to applying Provenance information to Named Graphs that is compatible with the forthcoming RDF/1.1 recommendations.

Who Knows?  The Location of Knowledge For A New Bibliographic Framework.

The development of the BIBFRAME model of the Bibliographic Universe, and the representation of that model as linked data, using some combination of semantic technologies  has been the occasion of much discussion, and much confusion. The cause  of much of this confusion may perhaps be found in the interwoven, interdisciplinary sources of the basic concepts needed to design and implement a new framework for bibliographic description.

Many words that are precise terms of art in a discipline are used in BIBFRAME to carry very different meanings.  Sometimes this is because the terms has a different meaning in  a different discipline.  In other cases the use of a term appears to have arisen within BIBFRAME.

The blind men and the metaphor

We find ourselves in the familiar situation of  blind men and elephants- arguing fruitlessly amongst ourselves as  dread beasts thunder towards us from  directions unknown  shaking the very earth with each stride. Ontologists and Linked Data specialists; catalogers and cataloging theorists; programmers and data modellers- each hold different pieces of the puzzle, but until the lid of the box is scraped off the  elephant’s foot, we can’t tell how  all the pieces fit together, or which pieces might be missing.

What The Cataloger Knows

As cataloging has evolved over the course of the past few centuries it’s practice has accrued  many rules and conventions, and has been the subject of Great and lesser debates.  As with any evolved system, some of these rules have evolved in response to conditions that no longer reply.

Some practices may be overcomplicated  and purely vestigial – for example,  rules dealing with the works attributed to Spirit Authors.

Other practices may be oversimplified due to the limitations of available technology  to economically produce or make use of more specific technologies. Punctuation that could be generated automatically may be recorded in data elements; information may be recorded only as plain text, whence only natural or artificial intelligence approaches can recover it.

The cataloger knows that all records are wrong.  The cataloger knows that some records are useful.

 Unless we understand basic principles of cataloging, we cannot consider “is this rule necessary?”; we cannot even reach the question   “is this even a rule?”

What The Network Expert Knows

Without a general understanding of how the Internet and the World Wide Web work, we cannot talk about how to design a system that will work at the scale.  We should  understand how replication and caching can be used to provide reliability and performance.

We should understand the dangers of building systems around single, authoritative points of failure; we should appreciate the freedoms that real-time, distributed  designs can allow.

We should understand the security requirements that a framework requires; we should understand what frameworks security technologies enable.

The Bibliographic Network must work in harmony with the ‘Net. 

What The Linked Data and Semantics Expert Knows

Without an understanding of  linked data, ontologies, and semantic technologies in general, it is can be hard to see the benefits that using these technologies can provide.

If we miss the distinctions and purposes of between  different types of languages and systems, it is easy to confuse an ontology language like OWL with a markup description language like XML Schema.

If we confuse the capabilities and  limitations of RDF  and OWL  with  the capabilities and limitations of  all ontology languages and technologies we may lose the opportunity  to capture the knowledge that the Subject Matter Experts are trying to convey.   It is easy to generate  a simplified model in a less expressive language from a more precise model. It is easy to generate simplified models in multiple less expressive languages.

Without knowing what kinds of knowledge can be captured, how that knowledge can be used, and what the costs of using that knowledge in different ways might be,  we cannot decide what level of detail is necessary.

Knowledge that is captured need not be used;  knowledge  not captured  cannot be used.    

What The Philosopher “Knows”

Without a grasp of the outline of some basic concepts from Metaphysics, it is easy to get caught up in trying to find the “one true answer” to questions which have many equally valid solutions. Conversely, one may not be aware of possible solutions that may be well particularly well to suited to a particular problem, or of how some sets of choices may be incompatible.

It is easy to accidentally conflate questions of  Ontology (what there is), and Epistemology (what we know, and how we know it).

⚠ Important Safety Information ⚠

  • Questions that have resisted a definitive answer for thousands of years are seldom resolvable even with video teleconferencing and Powerpoint.
  • Metaphysics is an intrinsically dangerous tool.
  • Always follow safe handling procedures. Never allow the muzzle to cover anything that doesn’t exist.
  • When in doubt, leave the room and  consult a doctor of philosophy.
  • When not in doubt, leave the room, and consult two doctors of philosophy.


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