Ranganathan once wrote, of Charles Ammi Cutter's Rules for a Dictionary Catalog: "Rdc is indeed a classic. It is immortal. Its influence has been overpowering. It inhibits free-thinking even today." (Headings and Canons)
Ranganathan saw something in Cutter's rules that I think most people don't even see today: that we're still going in the same directions we've been going since Cutter wrote his rules, and we're not somehow coming to a new dawn of cataloging when we talk about FRBR or RDA. Now, lots of cataloging scholars also see this (William Denton's chapter in Understanding FRBR is a great example of this--his whole chapter is about how FRBR developed out of the past).
But I feel as though a lot of OTHER people just aren't seeing this relationship to the past. Many librarians are very worried about RDA, just as FRBR worried them 10 years ago. Why are they worried about RDA? Because it's being touted as this new, groundbreaking initiative that will change everything about cataloging as we know it.
Except that it won't.
Ranganathan's words still ring true. Cutter's rules, lo those many years ago, set us up for using card catalogs, author and subject indexing, and helping the user to find what they need. LC based most of their standards on Cutter's work, and the ALA based most of its work on LC standards, and let's face it, Cutter wouldn't find very much to be shocked about in the AACRII.
RDA likely won't be THAT shocking, either. I mean, to look at it from an outsider's perspective (say, the serials cataloging community), it's just more of the same, wrapped up in new terminology. Will the new terminology help us to catalog various formats better? I have no idea, although from looking at the vocabularies list that came out recently, I suspect it will not. They have a separate term for music publisher numbers. No term for other kinds of publisher numbers, though. Where is the overarching idealism in something like that?
I frequently worry that the library community has been stuck in a classification rut for over a hundred years, but that the reason no one is truly willing to step out on a limb and create something totally new is because it's just easier to do everything like we've been doing it**. As the amount of information increases, and we become more and more invested in one system, it gets harder and harder to scrap the concepts. When I even think about conceiving a new classification system, I usually end up (mentally) drawing away from the idea. Dr. Miksa once bemoaned the lack of true theoretical learning in the cataloging world, telling us that one big reason we would never change our systems is because we're no longer training anyone to do it. We're just training everyone in the same traditions, and letting everyone go along thinking that this is the only way to organize information. He mused that when someday a new format comes along that everyone wants and it doesn't fit into any of our organizational schemas, there will be no one to make the leap and conceive of a new system. We've been very resourceful so far, fitting the new formats into our old ways of doing things, by renaming or expanding or just tweaking the same concepts over and over. But it may not always be enough. And I feel as if I (and others, of course) have been led to believe that RDA is supposed to lead to some new, more open era of cataloging. But the more I think about it, the less I believe it.
**(this is not a new idea, by the way...somebody very recently was saying that the reason people don't want RDA is because it will lead to a change in our system requirements, and that change will cost money that people don't want to spend)