On Romanization (Pt. 2)

I mentioned in the previous post that current standards allow for the inclusion of only certain vernacular scripts. Most of these are scripts that do not have an easy 1-to-1 mapping to Latin script.

In the case of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, this is because these writing systems employ Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean). The Chinese writing system is logographic, which means that a word or a part of a word is represented by a single character. Over time, these characters have lost much of their relationship to pronunciation, and there exist many characters that sound the same but which express different ideas. For example, 烔, 罿, and 硐 are all pronounced tóng, but mean “heated”, “bird net” and “grind”, respectively. This presented a problem for catalogers because there was no way to work backward for a Romanized version of Chinese to the original. Korean has largely dropped the use of hanja, which simplifies matters somewhat as Korean uses an alphabet that is arranged into syllabic blocks. Japanese is even more complicated because they still employ kanji, but also use syllabiaries called katakana and hiragana, meaning that a single sentence or title could potentially have three different alphabets in it. Therefore, there is no way to map between Romanized titles (or names) and the vernacular in these languages.

Other scripts that have presented a problem are Hebrew and the Perso-Arabic scripts. Neither writing system requires the writing of vowels. Although there are optional vowel symbols, there are typically not written except in children’s books and language-learning materials. For example, תל־אביב is Tel Aviv, yet the e in Tel is not written. Likewise المغرب‎ is al-maġhrib “Morocco”, yet the a and i are not written. Again, this prohibits the existence of a 1-to-1 relation between the Romanized and vernacular versions.

To remedy this, in 1979 the Library of Congress worked with a few other library groups to implement the JACKPHY initiative (Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Hebrew, Yiddish). In practice, this expanded to include all languages using any of these scripts (Urdu, Kurdish, various Jewish languages, pre-French Vietnamese). The result of this was that cataloging for materials in these languages would include not only a romanized version, but also a vernacular version.

Later, the Library of Congress added Greek and Cyrillic (Russian, Bulgarian, Kyrgyz, etc.) to its list of approved languages, likely due to the large number of materials available in the West that were published in languages using these scripts.

In practice, this looks like this:

In this image, there are linkages between the romanized and vernacular versions of this title, which is taken from the OCLC cataloging software Connexion. This catalog entry is in MARC format.

While this looks like a good solution, look what happens when we look at how library software actually translates this:

The vernacular has been shifted down to a series of 880 fields called “Alternate Graphic Representation”. This is because pure MARC doesn’t allow for the kind of linking seen in OCLC; instead it uses a complex series of codes to link the fields.

The result of all of this is that romanized versions of data are prioritized, whereas the vernacular is an afterthought. There is, in fact, no mandate for the inclusion of the vernacular.

Here’s where standards come into play. PCC, the Project for Cooperative Cataloging, sets cataloging standards in the US. Under its purview are four sub-groups that specify standards for other materials.

  • BIBCO: monographic records (books and other one-time publications)
  • CONSER: continuing resource records (serials, journals, etc.)
  • NACO: name authority records
  • SACO: subject authority records

Of these four groups, only BIBCO allows for the inclusion of (potentially) any script in a catalog record. The rest require that any record use only characters from MARC-8 character sets. This has a chilling effect on BIBCO, as the vast majority of records do not take advantage of the fact that non-JACKPHY+ scripts may be used.

For most libraries there is no requirement that they follow PCC guidelines; they could potentially enter data in whatever script they want. However, most libraries also do not have catalogers dedicated to foreign languages. Because catalog records are shared, and because PCC libraries are overwhelmingly well-funded and influential, most library records are produced by, or standardized by, libraries following PCC standards.

As a result, tons of languages with rich literary traditions do not see their vernaculars represented in library catalogs. Most of these are from South Asia (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil) and Southeast Asia (Thai, Lao, Khmer). We also lose out on Armenian, Cherokee, Georgian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Berber, Inuktitut, and many other languages with non-supported writing systems.

All of the languages I have mentioned are fully supported by UNICODE, yet the library world’s dependence on MARC-8 means that they can’t be represented. Granted, BIBCO records could (and sometimes do!) have vernacular representation of these languages, yet is far too rare.

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