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How good/bad is MARC data? The case of place-of-publication

I complain a lot about the MARC format, the way people put data in MARC records, the actual data themselves I find in MARC records, the inexplicably complex syntax for identifiers and, ironically, attempts to replace MARC with something else.

One nice little beacon of hope was when I found that only roughly 0.26% of the ISBNs in the UMich catalog have invalid checksums. That’s not bad at all, and it’s worth digging into other things about which I might be likely to complain before I make a fool of myself.

[Note: there will be some complaining at the end. I promise.]

One of my recent charges was to try to put in place a better place-of-publication filter in the catalog. Place of Publication is most formally dictated by the (poorly-named, since it includes states/provinces) Country of Publication code in the 008 fixed field. This one-, two- or three-letter code that is then translated into a place name via a mapping provided by the LoC. Like most important pieces of data, the place of publication can appear in a few different places in a valid MARC record — because the searching is half the fun! — but we decided to just stick with the 008 for the catalog search.

Of course, the name of a place of publication may have changed since the actual publication. Historically speaking, borders have been remakably consistent over the last half of a century or so, but there are still changes (fall of the Soviet Union), splits (the former Czechoslovakia) and merges (Germany).

Focus on validity

So, there are roughly a bazillion ways one could try to slice and dice the data to figure out what the most accurate textual representation of a place name should be for a given record. More cut-and-dry is a simple question: how many of the 008s have a valid (current or obsolete) place-of-publication code in them?

I ran an analysis of all the 008s in all the records in the University of Michigan catalog, which helpfully includes all the HathiTrust holdings as well, so we’re getting a nice cross-section of institutional records.

Here’s what I found, in round numbers

Total Pct. of Total
All records 12M 100%
Invalid 008 1900 0.15%
Valid code 11.6M 96.6%
Unknown place-of-pub 381k 3.1%
Invalid code 27k 0.2%

[“No place-of-pub” includes both records with no data in the 008 and those with the code ‘ x’ which explicitly indicates “Unknown”]

Results: pretty good!

Given much of the data I’ve worked with over the years, this strikes me a stunningly good. Of course, in the case of a place as big as UMich, that means we’ve still got about 408k items about which we have no good place-of-publication information, but as a percentage, it’s small enough that I’m happy to live with it.

I was, admittedly, a little put out by the fact that we have records in which the 008 fixed field — which is pretty important, as these things go — was just plain invalid (including 176 just plain missing). You’d think that the ILS software would reject things like that, but, as in almost all cases when you think the ILS should do something smart, you’d be wrong.

And now, the complaints

Of course, all we know is that the codes are (or were) valid — not whether or not they’re accurate.

There are two obvious problems:

  • Some rocket scientists at some point decided that the code ‘ai’, which had been used to represent Anguilla, should now be used to represent the Republic of Armenia. As if that weren’t enough to make you slam your head into a brick wall, the change is based on the date of cataloging, not the date of publication, so there’s no way for me to know which country is supposed to be indicated. It looks like this was to try to keep the first two letters of codes from the old Soviet Union the same one it fell apart, but c’mon, people! (Note that Anguilla is now ‘am’, because of the …ummmm….”m” in it’s…er…nevermind.) We don’t have many records with that code, but this is the sort of blatent disregard for simple data integrity that drives me crazy.
  • A presumably different set of rocket scientists (once NASA downsized, those folks were everywhere) at various points in time and at various locations decided that the place of publication on a reproduction (say, a microfilm) should be the place the reproduction was created. So, a microfilm of The New York Times that happened to be created in Ann Arbor, MI is coded as ‘miu’, for Michigan.

The latter, of course, is designed to serve those people studying where microfilms were created at the expense of people who want to, you know, find things actually published in a particular location. I’m sure all three of the people in the country who want to know the former are forever grateful.