We can't deny the idea of work
- opera, oeuvre - as a cultural product, a meaningful bit of human-created stuff. The concept exists, the word exists. I question, however that we will ever have, or that we should ever have, precision in how works are bounded; that we'll ever be able to say clearly that the film version of Pride and Prejudice
is or is not the same work as the book. I'm not even sure that we can say that the text of Pride and Prejudice
is a single work. Is it the same work when read today that it was when first published? Is it the same work each time that one re-reads it? The reading experience varies based on so many different factors - the cultural context of the reader; the person's understanding of the author's language; the age and life experience of the reader.
The notion of work
encompasses all of the complications of human communication and its consequent meaning. The work
is a mystery, a range of possibilities and of possible disappointments. It has emotional and, at its best, transformational value. It exists in time and in space. Time is the more canny element here because it means that works intersect our lives and live on in our memories, yet as such they are but mere ghosts of themselves.
Take a book, say, Moby Dick
; hundreds of pages, hundreds of thousands of words. We read each word, but we do not remember the words -- we remember the book as inner thoughts that we had while reading. Those could be sights and smells, feelings of fear, love, excitement, disgust. The words, external, and the thoughts, internal, are transformations of each other; from the author's ideas to words, and from the words to the reader's thoughts. How much is lost or gained during this process is unknown. All that we do know is that, for some people at least, the experience is vivid one. The story takes on some meaning in the mind of the reader, if one can even invoke the vague concept of mind without torpedoing the argument altogether.
Brain scientists work to find the place in the maze of neuronic connections that can register the idea of "red" or "cold" while outside of the laboratory we subject that same organ to the White Whale, or the Prince of Denmark, or the ever elusive Molly Bloom. We task that organ to taste Proust's madeleine; to feel the rage of Ahab's loss; to become a neighbor in one of Borges' villages. If what scientists know about thought is likened to a simple plastic ping-pong ball, plain, round, regular, white, then a work is akin to a rainforest of diversity and discovery, never fully mastered, almost unrecognizable from one moment to the next.
As we move from textual works to musical ones, or on to the visual arts, the transformation from the work
to the experience of the work becomes even more mysterious. Who hasn't passed quickly by an unappealing painting hanging on the wall of a museum before which stands another person rapt with attention. If the painting doesn't speak to us, then we have no possible way of understanding what it is saying to someone else.
Libraries are struggling to define the work
as an abstract but well-bounded, nameable thing within the mass of the resources of the library. But a definition of work
would have to be as rich and complex as the work itself. It would have to include the unknown and unknowable effect that the work will have on those who encounter it; who transform it into their own thoughts and experiences. This is obviously impractical. It would also be unbelievably arrogant (as well as impossible) for libraries to claim to have some concrete measure of "workness" for now and for all time. One has to be reductionist to the point of absurdity to claim to define the boundaries between one work and another, unless they are so far apart in their meaning that there could be no shared messages or ideas or cultural markers between them. You would have to have a way to quantify all of the thoughts and impressions and meanings therein and show that they are not the same, when "same" is a target that moves with every second that passes, every synapse that is fired.
Does this mean that we should not try to surface workness for our users? Hardly. It means that it is too complex and too rich to be given a one-dimensional existence within the current library system. This is, indeed, one of the great challenges that libraries present to their users: a universe of knowledge organized by a single principle as if that is the beginning and end of the story. If the library universe and the library user's universe find few or no points of connection, then communication between them fails. At best, like the user of a badly designed computer interface, if any communication will take place it is the user who must adapt. This in itself should be taken the evidence of superior intelligence on the part of the user as compared to the inflexibility of the mechanistic library system.
Those of us in knowledge organization are obsessed with neatness, although few as much as the man who nearly single-handled defined our profession in the late 19th century; the man who kept diaries in which he entered the menu of every meal he ate; whose wedding vows included a mutual promise never to waste a minute; the man enthralled with the idea that every library be ordered by the simple mathematical concept of the decimal.
To give Dewey
due credit, he did realize that his Decimal Classification had to bend reality to practicality. As the editions grew, choices had to be made on where to locate particular concepts in relation to others, and in early editions, as the Decimal Classification was used in more libraries and as subject experts weighed in, topics were relocated after sometimes heated debate. He was not seeking a platonic ideal or even a bibliographic ideal; his goal was closer to the late 19th century concept of efficiency. It was a place for everything, and everything in its place, for the least time and money.
Dewey's constraints of an analog catalog, physical books on physical shelves, and a classification and index printed in book form forced the limited solution of just one place in the universe of knowledge for each book. Such a solution can hardly be expected to do justice to the complexity of the Works on those shelves. Today we have available to us technology that can analyze complex patterns, can find connections in datasets that are of a size way beyond human scale for analysis, and can provide visualizations of the findings.
Now that we have the technological means, we should give up the idea that there is an immutable thing that is the work for every creative expression. The solution then is to see work
as a piece of information about a resource, a quality, and to allow a resource to be described with as many qualities of work as might be useful. Any resource can have the quality of the work as basic content, a story, a theme. It can be a work of fiction, a triumphal work, a romantic work. It can be always or sometimes part of a larger work, it can complement a work, or refute it. It can represent the philosophical thoughts of someone, or a scientific discovery. In FRBR, the work has authorship and intellectual content. That is precisely what I have described here. But what I have described is not based on a single set of rules, but is an open-ended description that can grow and change as time changes the emotional and informational context as the work is experienced.
I write this because we risk the petrification of the library if we embrace what I have heard called the "FRBR fundamentalist" view. In that view, there is only one definition of work
(and of each other FRBR entity). Such a choice might have been necessary 50 or even 30 years ago. It definitely would have been necessary in Dewey's time. Today we can allow ourselves greater flexibility because the technology exists that can give us different views of the same data. Using the same data elements we can present as many interpretations of Work as we find useful. As we have seen recently with analyses of audio-visual materials, we cannot define work
for non-book materials identically to that of books or other texts.   Some types of materials, such as works of art, defy any separation between the abstraction and the item. Just where the line will fall between Work and everything else, as well as between Works themselves, is not something that we can pre-determine. Actually, we can, I suppose, and some would like to "make that so", but I defy such thinkers to explain just how such an uncreative approach will further new knowledge.
 Kara Van Malssen. BIBFRAME A-V modeling study
 Kelley McGrath. FRBR and Moving Images