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Functional Requirements of Bibliographic Records (FRBR, usually pronounced "fir-burr") is a broadly defined approach to cataloging which takes into account the interrelationships among different entities.

Entities, as defined by FRBR, are:

  1. Group 1
    1. Work - a creative piece
    2. Expression - the realization of a work
    3. Manifestation - the embodiment of work
    4. Item - a single exemplar of a manifestation
  2. Group 2
    1. Person
    2. Corporate Body
  3. Group 3
    1. Work
    2. Expression
    3. Manifestation
    4. Item
    5. Person
    6. Corporate body
    7. Concept
    8. Object
    9. Event
    10. Place

This bibliographic model, which would most likely utilize metadata standards rather than MARC, holds great promise for helping users searching for different copies (such as editions or formats) of a particular item, or just exploring the relationships of the entities listed above.

Setting the Context for FRBR[edit]

"Almost forty years ago the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) initiated a fundamental re-examination of cataloguing theory and practice on an international level. The first important outcome of that effort was a set of cataloguing principles agreed to at an international conference held in Paris in 1961 that have subsequently come to be known as the Paris Principles. A second key undertaking was initiated at the International Meeting of Cataloguing Experts held in Copenhagen in 1969 with the adoption of a resolution to establish international standards for the form and content of bibliographic descriptions. The first of the standards developed under that resolution, the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Monographic Publications, was published in 1971. In the years that have followed those initial undertakings the Paris Principles and the ISBDs have served as the bibliographic foundation for a variety of new and revised national and international cataloguing codes." (1)

What was the impetus for FRBR?[edit]

"Despite several centuries of practice, the profession is still beginning to understand what it means, or perhaps can mean, to catalog a document." (3)

This simple concept of continued learning and adaptation has always informed the cataloging world. In the last few decades, however, rapidly developing technology - both its capabilities and its requirements - have made accommodating and even instigating change a necessity. Also, five key factors prompted the development of FRBR: (1)

1. Introduction and development of automated systems for the creation and processing of automated data.

2. The growth of shared cataloging has been spurred not only by the technological capability now available but also by the need to cut costs by reducing duplicate cataloging efforts.

3. Increasing costs have forced libraries to take a pragmatic view of cataloging and look for a ‘minimal level’ of cataloging to keep up with increasing publishing output.

4. There has been an increasing need to adapt cataloging codes and practices to accommodate change resulting from the emergence of new forms of electronic publishing, and the advent of networked access to information resources.

5. Today’s seekers of information have more sophisticated expectations and needs and cataloging systems must be able to meet them to remain viable and competitive.

With these factors in mind, the IFLA Universal Bibliographic Control and International MARC (UBCIM) Programme and the IFLA Division of Bibliographic Control sponsored 1990 Stockholm Seminar on Bibliographic Records which had nine resolutions. One of them was to commission a study to develop the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records.

What is FRBR?[edit]

FRBR is a conceptual model that defines four different entities in an attempt to alter the ways in which catalogers catalog items so that they can be more uniform, more trimmed down, and more accessible by users. Its most pertinent components are succinctly described below.

FRBR conceptualizes three groups of entities:

 Group 1 consists of the products of intellectual or artistic endeavor (e.g., publications).

 Group 2 comprises those entities responsible for intellectual or artistic content (a person or corporate body).

 Group 3 includes the entities that serve as subjects of intellectual or artistic endeavor (concept, object, event, and place).

The internal subdivision of Group One entities is important as well. FRBR specifies that intellectual or artistic products include the following types of entities:

 the work, a distinct intellectual or artistic creation

 the expression, the intellectual or artistic realization of a work

 the manifestation, the physical embodiment of an expression of a work

 the item, a single exemplar of a manifestation.

FRBR also specifies particular relationships between classes of Group One entities:

 a work is realized through one or more expressions

o each of which is embodied in one or more manifestations

o each of which is exemplified by one or more items.

These are the most pertinent elements of FRBR. In fact, the Group 1 designations are by far the most discussed, specifically the Work and Expression designations.

How Does it Relate (or not) to RDA, AACR2, XML and MARC21?[edit]

FRBR is not a data format like MARC 21, nor a rule set like AACR2, nor a mark-up language like XML. It is a set of structured ideas about what bibliographic records must contain to meet user needs. As for its relationship to Resource Description and Access (RDA), Allyson Carlyle says it best:

"The Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules has stated that the next revision of the rules, to be called Rules for Description and Access (RDA), will incorporate aspects of the FRBR model.(5) This new set of rules, incorporating FRBR entities, should make the process of identifying the particular entities that comprise a document much clearer for catalogers than it is now. This clarification also will make understanding why we do what we do easier, placing cataloger taste and judgment on a solid foundation." (3)

How Does It Work? ... OR.... What Will it Look Like?[edit]

If you read more than a few paragraphs about FRBR, you will run into the admonition that it is ONLY A CONCEPTUAL MODEL. By their very nature, conceptual models aren't easy to grasp in a concrete way. FRBR is best grasped through several examples of different outputs - say, what a traditional OPAC screen would give you and what a catalog system based on FRBR principles would show for the same search query. There are many to be found in the Sources and Further Resources sections below but what follows is one such example.

It shows what a search response in an FRBR based cataloging system might look like if you entered, "A Christmas Carol" in a search box. In this instance, FRBR is used to interpret the movie version as a separate work. The book is said to have three expressions because each of the first two have different illustrators, which change the expression of the work and the third is in Braille. A change of language (which, in this case, FRBR interprets Braille as) is also a different expression of the work. The second expression has two manifestations because two different publishers created the physical representations of the expression. There are five copies (or items) of the first manifestation and three copies of the second manifestation. The movie version work is treated in much the same way.

A Christmas Carol / Charles Dickens [14 copies] WORK 1

1 English: C.E. Brock, illustrator [4 copies] Expression 1

2 English: Roberto Innocenti, illustrator [8 copies] Expression 2

3 New York: Steward, Tabori & Chang, 1990 [5 copies] Manifestation 1

4 Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1990 [3 copies] Manifestation 2

5 Braille, DBPH, 1965 [2 copies] Expression 3

A Christmas Carol [motion picture, 1951] WORK 2

1 B & W / English [4 copies] Expression 1

2 B & W / Spanish (dubbed) [9 copies] Expression 2

3 Salon Mexico, 1988 [5 copies] Manifestation 1

4 Cabezahueca Producciones Independientes, 2001 [4 copies] Manifestation 2 (3)

Again, Ms. Carlyle puts it well: "As a cataloger, what I see and hold in my hands is an item, but when I see or hold an item, I am also seeing and holding a particular manifestation of a particular expression of a particular work. To create a cataloging record, I determine a main entry (work) citation, usually consisting of a creator’s name and a title or uniform title or a title or uniform title by itself—attributes describing the work. I also transcribe information about translators of texts, scales of maps, playing times of CDs—attributes describing expressions. I transcribe places of publication, publisher names, and dates of publication—attributes describing manifestations. I create call numbers and add holdings information— attributes describing items. In creating a cataloging record, I encounter and describe each entity, because the item represents each entity simultaneously." (3)

What are the Problems With FRBR?[edit]

Cataloger’s Discretion[edit]

Most of the controversy surrounds implementation. Again, FRBR is a CONCEPTUAL MODEL. It was never meant to provide concrete rules for every eventuality a cataloger will face. Yet there have been experiments to try and evaluate its usefulness as a tool to do that very thing. These experiments have raised the inevitable questions FRBR leaves unanswered.

In the previous example, the movie version of A Christmas Carol could have been treated as a fourth expression of the book. This has not been how movies based on books have been traditionally cataloged, so they will most likely be treated as separate works in FRBR systems, too. But there is no rule that says they need be. FRBR leaves that to the cataloger’s discretion. (3)

Similarly, there is some debate over whether Braille is to be considered another language – as it was in the above example – or if it should be treated simply as a manifestation of an expression. Again, FRBR leaves that to the interpretation of the cataloger. (3)

FRBR Runs Cross-wise to Organic Cataloging[edit]

FRBR has been used as an underlying principle in the organization of the new cataloging code, Resource Description and Access. While experiments may have been conducted under ideal conditions – cataloging all manifestations of a work at once – the real world is more complicated. Catalogers would normally obtain only one manifestation at a time. It would be impossible – or prohibitively difficult – to definitively know all the work and expression information at that time, and prohibitively expensive to go back and edit existing records every time a new manifestation is received that gives more expression or work information.

In other words, FRBR would have to be implemented in the reverse order that cataloging naturally occurs in. The Report from the Joint Steering Committee expresses it thus:

"FRBR is organized in such a way that the entities of work, expression, manifestation and item each derive logically from the entry that precedes it, in a progression from the abstract to the concrete. This is the reverse of the way that cataloging is actually carried out. Where actual day-to-day cataloging is concerned, manifestation and item-level information are essential to the use of the material, and work and expression level information should derive logically from it, rather than the other way around." (6)

How Will It Help a User?[edit]

"Imagine that you have a patron who needs a copy of Heaney's translation of Beowulf. She doesn't care who published it or when, only that it's Heaney's translation. What if you (or your patron) could place an interlibrary loan call on that expression, instead of looking through multiple bibliographic records (as of March, OCLC's WorldCat had nine regular print editions) for multiple manifestations and then judging which record is the best bet on which to place a request? Combine that with functionality that lets you specify 'not Braille, not large print,' and it could save you time. Now imagine a patron in want of a copy, any copy, in English, of Romeo and Juliet." (2)

Put simply, a User will be able to find what he or she wants more quickly, often without help, and hopefully without frustration. This User is more satisfied and serviced by the library, making it much more likely that he or she will return to seek more information.

Further Study[edit]

Much more research and study is being put into this concept. As mentioned above, the Joint Steering Committee for the Development of RDA has stated that the next revision of the rules, to be called Resource Description and Access (RDA), will incorporate aspects of the FRBR model.(5) This new set of rules, incorporating FRBR entities, should make the process of identifying the particular entities that comprise a document much clearer for catalogers than it is now.

The Working Group on Functional Requirements and Numbering of Authority Records (FRANAR) was established in April 1999 by the IFLA Division of Bibliographic Control and the IFLA Universal Bibliographic Control and International MARC Programme (UBCIM). (8) Their aim is to further define and study the FRBR entities and their relationships as well as to study the feasibility of an International Standard Authority Data Number (ISADN), to define possible use and users, to determine for what types of authority records such an ISADN is necessary, and to examine the possible structure of the number and the type of management that would be necessary of them.(8)

There are several national experiments with FRBRization, as well. Linda Gonzalez gives an informative review from the Library Journal:

"The larger the bibliographic database, the greater the effect of 'FRBR-like' design in reducing the appearance of duplicate records. L.C, RLG, and OCLC, all influenced by FRBR, are experimenting with the redesign of their databases. LC's Network Development and MARC Standards Office has posted at its web site the results of some of its investigations into FRBR and MARC, including possible display options for bibliographic information. The design of RLG's public catalog, RedLightGreen, has been described as 'FRBR-ish' by Merrilee Proffitt, RLG's program officer. If you try a search for a prolific author or much published title in RedLightGreen, you'll probably find that the display of search results is much different than what you would expect. OCLC Research has developed a prototype 'frbrized' database for fiction, OCLC FictionFinder. Try a title search for a classic title like Romeo and Juliet and observe that OCLC includes, in the initial display of results (described as 'works'), a graphic indicator (stars, ranging from one to five). These show in rough terms how many libraries own the work—Romeo and Juliet clearly gets a five. Indicators like this are something resource sharing staff can consider an 'ILL quality rating.'"(2)


1. [1] – IFLA's website section on FRBR - accessed October 8 – 22, 2007.

2. Gonzalez, Linda. “What Is FRBR?” Library Journal 130 [Spring 2005 NetConnect]: 12 – 14.

3. Carlyle, Allyson. “Understanding FRBR as a Conceptual Model: FRBR and the Bibliographic Universe.” Library Resources and Technical Services 50, no. 4 [Oct 2006]: 264 – 273.

4. Buckland, Michael. “Information As Thing.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 [1991]: 355.

5. Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Prospectus for RDA: Resource Description and Access (Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2005), [2] (accessed Nov. 8, 2005).

6. Joint Steering Committee for Revision of AACR. Format Variation Working Group, Interim Report #1, Oct. 8, 2001. Accessed Aug. 19, 2004, [3], 8.

7. Bowen, Jennifer. “FRBR: Coming Soon to Your Library?” Library Resources and Technical Services 49, no. 3 [July 2005]: 175 – 188.

8. [4] - IFLA's website section on FRANAR - accessed Oct 8 – 22, 2007.

External Links[edit]

  • FRBR and Fundamental Cataloguing Rules
  • Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records
  • OCLC Research Activities and IFLA's Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records
  • What is FRBR?: A Conceptual Model for the Bibliographic Universe

Further Resources[edit]

[5] - a concise review of this material in TechEssence which includes a bit more information on additional aspects of FRBR such as user tasks.

[6] - OCLC Research Activities and IFLA's Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records

[7] - OCLC’s FictionFinder

[8] - AustLit Gateway

[9] - RLG’s RedLightGreen, now closed. But this is the archived version.

[10] - Indiana University’s Variations2

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See also the Wikipedia article on:
Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records