Life beyond MARC and Z39.50

Building a catalogue with SCIS APIs

Rachel Elliott

In 2017, the Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS) announced the release of SCIS RESTful APIs as part of a major infrastructure upgrade. For those who are part of the SCIS community, you would have lived through the upgrade, as outlined here and here. This work was driven by our commitment to improving user experience, and preparing SCIS for a library world that is changing rapidly. SCIS APIs are at the forefront of this evolution.

API stands for Application Programming Interface. In very simple terms, APIs allow different applications to send and receive data in order to communicate with each other. (This video neatly and swiftly explains the concept.) APIs are a common and integral part of your online activity. To understand why SCIS has implemented APIs, let’s start with a brief look at some global library standards.

For over fifty years, the library industry has used MARC (Machine Readable Cataloguing) for encoding data, with the Z39.50 protocol used for delivering it. These standards are widespread, reliable and consistent.

However, these standards also pre-date modern web technology, making it difficult for library systems to interact with other systems in the school environment. MARC is a custom data format delivered via a custom Z39.50 protocol, used in a world that is increasingly reliant on interoperability.

SCIS has been using MARC to encode data since our inception in 1984, and we will continue to do so. Yet, the days of delivering catalogue data in one bespoke format are behind us. SCIS APIs allow school libraries to move to a modern web-based standard to upload catalogue records.

Technical benefits of the SCIS APIs include:

  • Modern communication: APIs use the familiar HTTP(S) instead of the custom Z39.50 communications protocol to transfer data. Applications that use Z39.50 protocol need to use special software, and it is not always permitted nor easy to set up within the school environment. As many of our school users are not able to utilise Z39.50 within their school, APIs provide a new means of accessing catalogue records securely and efficiently.
  • Data formats: SCIS APIs provide the ability to search and retrieve records in multiple formats (MARC, JSON and MODS XML). This can make it simpler for catalogue data to be used in modern systems, through providing a more common and familiar data format for software developers to work with.
    For the curious amongst our audience, MODS stands for Metadata Object Description Schema: a contemporary standard maintained by the Library of Congress. Use of MODS has the added benefit of allowing for enriched SCIS content to be included in the catalogue record – see “New vocabularies” below.
  • Integration opportunities: SCIS are working closely with several publishers to explore further possibilities for data integration between our APIs and digital content providers.

There are some extra content benefits, too:

  • New vocabularies: Using the MODS data format allows for download of extra vocabularies that are not available in MARC. Depending on the title, this data will include audience level, learning area, resource type, and fiction vs non-fiction status. There’s been some pretty complex work done to map curricula and content sources to existing catalogue records. We believe that including the educational use and purpose of resources further enriches the value of library catalogues for students and educators, and we will continue to develop this feature of our database.
  • Customised download: APIs can make it simpler for users to customise their download preferences, including the option to include or exclude the ScOT vocabulary, solving one of our most common help desk queries.
  • Digital content: The rich and light-weight API search service makes it ideally suited to adding SCIS as a source for federated searches of relevant, curated online content such as websites and apps. Including digital content greatly enhances the search experience and access to resources for students and educators.
SCIS catalogue record
A SCIS record supplied via MODS XML includes additional vocabularies such as learning area and resource type. Users can also customise import of full or abridged Dewey and subject headings.

So why is all of this so important? Making resources manageable and discoverable is what we do. We want SCIS data to be modern, useful and interoperable. We want to make our users life easier and we want to make it simpler for vendors to support this. Libraries have consistently led the way in best practice information management, and we’re pleased to contribute one more step in the revolution.

The SCIS team would like to thank library management system vendors and other catalogue providers who have worked so closely with us over the last few years to advise, test and implement the APIs. Together we’re part of a dynamic library industry: making complex information simple, searchable and beautiful.

SCIS is a business unit of Education Services Australia, a not-for-profit government-owned developer of educational technology solutions. For further information, please visit www.scisdata.com.

References and further reading:

Chadwick, B. and Elliott, R. (2018). Is there life beyond MARC? – SCIS. [online] Scis.edublogs.org. Available at: https://scis.edublogs.org/2018/03/13/is-there-life-beyond-marc/

Elliott, R. (2017). Where SCIS becomes much more … muchier – SCIS. [online] Scis.edublogs.org. Available at: http://scis.edublogs.org/2017/05/16/where-scis-becomes-much-more-muchier/

Elliott, R. (2017). SCIS system launch – SCIS. [online] Scis.edublogs.org. Available at: http://scis.edublogs.org/2017/10/03/scis-system-launch/

Kneebone, L. (2015). The relationship between SCIS Subject Headings and ScOT – SCIS. [online] Scisdata.com. Available at: https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-95/the-relationship-between-scis-subject-headings-and-scot

Mulesoft (2015). What is an API? video Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7wmiS2mSXY

Loc.gov. (2019). Metadata Object Description Schema: MODS (Library of Congress Standards). [online] Available at: http://www.loc.gov/standards/mods/

SCIS Publisher Survey

 

Thank you to everyone who recently completed our SCIS Publisher Survey. We received an incredibly impressive 1,162 responses – so we now have plenty of rich data to analyse, and a lovely list of publishing house suggestions.

Below are some key themes that emerged from the results.

The SCIS hit rate

Your feedback (and our hit rate) indicates we are doing well with our coverage of ‘major’ publishing houses. Our team will continue to focus on improving our hit rate for the smaller ones. We had plenty of comments about including more American and religious texts, though pleasingly many respondents observed that the hit rate had markedly improved in the last two years. In fact, 81% of respondents estimated your hit rate to be between 81–100%. (Yay!)

When a SCIS record is missing

We asked respondents, ‘If you purchase books from a publisher and there are no matching SCIS records, what do you do next?’ Forty-seven per cent of users catalogue the titles yourself (some referring to a ‘similar’ SCIS record or other library sources to help guide you), and 32 per cent put the books aside and check a week or two later to see if SCIS records become available.

While there are few surprises in these results, interestingly, only three out of 1,162 respondents contact their local publisher/bookseller or sales rep if SCIS records are not available for their recently purchased books. And only 33 of you contact SCIS directly to let us know if a publisher’s titles are missing.

As a cataloguing community, we rely on feedback to keep our hit rate high. So if you ever have an opportunity to mention SCIS to your local bookseller, or let us know directly, everyone will benefit.

Please take a moment to look at the amazing publishers who already support us.

Where to go for help

Not everyone is aware that we have online help articles that you can find by clicking the help icon on the SCIS website.  We also have a friendly customer service team, Sarah and Helen, who can help you troubleshoot issues and streamline downloading.

We also have cataloguers (Renate and the team) across Australia and New Zealand on hand for cataloguing queries.

Please check out our website, or email help@scisdata.com with any queries you have.

Next steps for SCIS

  1. We have a lovely list of new publishing houses to contact.
  2. Any feedback about catalogue records has been passed to our quality assurance manager.
  3. We will continue to work with publishers, distributors and library staff to keep our hit rate as high as possible for as many people as possible.

And below is one of our favourite quotes from the survey feedback. It’s all anonymous so we don’t know who you are, but you made our day.

‘I love SCIS. This is the best thing that happened to my cataloguing life.’

Thank you, and happy cataloguing!

SCIS system launch

The SCIS team is pleased to announce the launch of the new SCIS system, found at www.scisdata.com.

For a quick overview, you can watch our short video.

Key features include:

  • richer search capabilities
  • new vocabularies to enrich discovery
  • online cataloguing requests
  • ease of download for print and digital content
  • online invoicing and payments.

Continue reading SCIS system launch

Where SCIS becomes much more … muchier

For anyone who may follow us on social media, or has chatted to the team recently, you may be aware that SCIS keeps talking about our ‘big infrastructure upgrade’. This is the result of three years of quantitative and qualitative market research – thank you once again to everyone who has provided feedback along the way.

So here’s a little more detail about what a SCIS infrastructure upgrade means, and why we’re so excited.

Continue reading Where SCIS becomes much more … muchier

Fare thee well, GMD

Since early 2014, SCIS has been working through its RDA implementation plan. For those who are not familiar with RDA, it stands for Resource Description and Access, the cataloguing standard introduced to replace Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AARC2).

SCIS is very pleased to announce the next major step in that plan. From April 2017, SCIS will cease use of the GMD (General Material Designation), a set of deprecated terms used to describe the ‘Type’ of resource.

SCIS will now use the RDA cataloguing standard of ‘Content, media and carrier type’ to describe the resource. This comes after consultation with, and preparation by, the library management systems who distribute SCIS metadata. While use of RDA for type was adopted as a SCIS cataloguing standard in 2013, GMD was maintained in order to support older systems, a move which is no longer necessary.

Continue reading Fare thee well, GMD

Subject Authority: avoiding the unknown unknown

We recently had a query from a user who asked us to explain the value of SCIS Subject Headings and the ScOT vocabulary — and the rather tricky subject of authority control. This query often comes up in our inbox, at conferences and at professional learning sessions, so now feels like a good time for a blog post on the matter.

SCIS vs ScOT — which to choose?
Firstly, we do not consider this an either/or scenario; nor do 100% of our users. SCIS Subject Headings have been developed and refined to support best-practice for resource management in education. SCIS records provide the foundation of consistent, best-quality metadata, to which ScOT headings can be a valuable supplement.

The SCIS Subject Headings vocabulary dates back to the early 1980s and is a pre-coordinated subject headings list. It is intended as an educationally-focused alternative to the Library of Congress Subject Headings. SCIS subscribers can choose to supplement SCIS Subject Headings with ScOT, a post-coordinated vocabulary of topical headings.

Continue reading Subject Authority: avoiding the unknown unknown