Establishing MARC 21 Coding for Digital Files

This activity is now closed. The information on this page is provided for historical purposes only.

At the beginning of 1997 RLG appointed a Working Group on Preservation and Reformatting Information that drew on preservation and cataloging experts within and beyond our membership. This group focused its efforts on effectively describing digitally reformatted materials in the MARC 21 format.

The MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) formats are standards for the representation and communication of bibliographic and related information in machine-readable form, used in systems and online catalogs around the world. In 1997 the USMARC and CAN/MARC (Canadian MARC) formats were "harmonized" into MARC 21.

In early 1999 the working group's proposal of a set of values for control field 007—Electronic Resource—was adopted into the MARC 21 Concise Format for Bibliographic Data maintained by the Library of Congress. This update to MARC 21 accommodates better identification, retrieval, and management of digitally reformatted materials. It helps guide decisions in digitizing materials for preservation purposes.

This use of the 007 field spread to libraries in Europe and beyond through changes in UNIMARC that were instigated by the European Register of Microform Masters—a long-time contributor to the RLG Union Catalog of microfilming preservation information.


As part of RLG's early work on brittle materials microfilming preservation, our RLIN® cataloging system has enabled users to record, share, and support preservation-driven reformatting and retention decisions. Through arrangements with OCLC, the European Register of Microform Masters (EROMM), and others, we have received additional records for the RLG Union Catalog that provide information about preservation planned and accomplished.

This preservation support rests on agreed-on conventions and protocols for how to use and interpret information conveyed primarily via MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging) communication formats, defined MARC data elements, and RLIN functionality. In 1996 we were concerned to ensure that RLG efforts and the RLIN system support the internationalization of preservation decision making, the approaching harmonization of US/CAN/UKMARC formats, and the particular requirements of digital preservation.

The RLG Working Group on Preservation and Reformtting Information was specifically composed of experts in collections conservation and preservation, reformatting issues, and bibliographic control and technical processing:

Nancy Elkington
Paul R. Green
University of Leeds
Edmund King
British Library
Barbara Lilley
New York State Library
Jan Lyall
National Library of Australia
Ralph W. Manning
National Library of Canada
Debra McKern
Library of Congress
Hans Rutimann
Commission on Preservation & Access
Werner Schwartz
Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen (representing the European Register of Microform Masters)
Karen Smith-Yoshimura
Karen Turko
University of Toronto
Robert Wolven
Columbia University

The original scope anticipated for this group was extremely wide-ranging. They were expected to look at current practice within the international preservation community to describe actions and decisions taken in support of preservation, conservation, and even retention policies. They were instructed to "analyze and specify preservation and reformatting requirements (current and near-term future) for an effective and resource-efficient system of support mechanisms and protocols." They were to identify how best RLG efforts and RLIN design changes could contribute to such a reconceptualized system.

As work progressed it became clear that, with the time and resources available, it was not feasible to tackle and combine such general preservation descriptive requirements with specific support for digitally reformatted computer files. Instead, the group successfully refocused on the changes in cataloging rules necessary to enable the MARC Computer Files 007 field to carry information about digitally reformatted items.

RLG's RLIN Database Advisory Group [now the RLG Union Catalog Advisory Group]—representatives from Cornell, Emory, Harvard, New York, Princeton, and Yale Universities, Getty Information Institute, and University of Cambridge—reviewed and advised on earlier drafts of the working group's successful proposal. (For more see What Went Into RLG's Proposal to MARBI.)

Spectrum of issues in the original working group charge

[This statement, excerpted from the 1996 charge originally posed to the RLG Working Group on Preservation and Reformatting Information, paints the landscape of the time.]

The RLG preservation information environment has been in place for a number of years. Much has changed in practice and theory during those years:

  • Growing use of digitization as a reformatting technique;
  • Growing consideration of digitization as a preservation technique;
  • Desire among UK and Australian institutions to develop national methods to record and share long-term retention decisions;
  • Changing nature of record exchange between local and national bibliographic databases;
  • Evolution of USMARC holdings format and its use;
  • Modification of USMARC, UKMARC, CANMARC, and UNIMARC to accommodate new kinds of information about preservation, reformatting, and retention decisions;
  • Increased use of record linking and consideration of the role of metadata in information delivery worldwide;
  • Championing by some of the multiple-version technique for presenting information in online catalogs;
  • Recent recommendations on use of USMARC field 583 submitted to the American Library Association's Preservation and Reformatting Section's Intellectual Control Committee;
  • Recent work by preservation specialists in the UK to define minimal data elements in UKMARC to facilitate sharing of preservation decisions;
  • Recent work by the National Library of Australia's National Preservation Office to explore use of the Conspectus as a means of sharing collection-level information about preserved, reformatted, and retained materials.

Charge to the group

1. Analyze and specify preservation and reformatting requirements (current and near-term future) for an effective and resource-efficient system of support mechanisms and protocols.

2. Recommend steps RLG and its members can take to optimize the system; these may be internal or may involve influencing national or international standards.

3. Recommend changes to the RLIN® system accommodating an environment in which use of USMARC holdings and the multiple-versions technique are growing, not ubiquitous, and evolving.

4. Address the status of digitizing as a preservation and/or reformatting mechanism, recommending RLG actions and RLIN support mechanisms that address current practice, but anticipate near-future developments.

5. Recommend further action by RLG, the PRESERV community, and the RLIN Database Advisory Group to maximize synergy among standards development, practices, support mechanisms, and programmatic activities.