Top of page

Digital Pioneer: Rebecca Guenther

Share this post:

When Rebecca Guenther retires from the Library of Congress in August 2011, 35 years of institutional knowledge about bibliographic information will go with her. The Library of Congress loses – among other things – the world’s leading authority on PREMIS metadata for digital preservation.

Rebecca Guenther
Rebecca Guenther

Guenther has nurtured conversations among international library stakeholders, conversations that led to the development of MODS, MADS and the enhancement of MARC. She helped build a solid foundation for discovery metadata. Simply put, she has almost single-handedly made it easier for the world to find things online.

Her path to becoming Senior Networking and Standards Specialist at the Library of Congress meandered a bit, as career paths often do, but Guenther has always had a focused, low-key drive. (She is a life-long marathon runner and now a triathlete.)

In high school she participated in a summer exchange program in Austria, where she learned to speak German and developed in interest in history. After high school, she went to Beloit College where she got her first library job, a study semester at the Newberry Library in Chicago. “I had at some point decided I wanted to be an academic,” said Guenther. Beloit sponsored a year abroad, so Guenther got an internship processing materials in a teacher training college library in England, her second library job. The following semester she travelled to Heidelberg, Germany to study German language and history and to ramble around Europe.

“That’s all I wanted to do was be in Europe,” said Guenther. Eventually she returned to Heidelberg after college, intent on getting a PhD in history — specializing in the history of Germany between the wars — from a German university.

Instead she followed her then-boyfriend to Stockholm, where she learned Swedish. but eventually moved back to the US and settled in Boston to be near family and pursue a career that didn’t require a work permit.

By then, Guenther’s only work experience was in libraries – they were just jobs to her – so she worked in a public library in Newton, Massachusetts. Guenther realized that getting a PhD in History wasn’t practical and that she actually enjoyed working in libraries, so she studied at the Simmons College of Library Science and got her MLS degree.

Now married, Guenther and her husband moved to Washington, DC, so he could attend George Washington University and she found a job that appealed to her language skills, her library degree and her interest in cataloging (she said her cataloging teacher at Simmons made it fun): a cataloger in Swedish and German at the National Library of Medicine. She worked there until 1980, when she came to the Library of Congress as a cataloger in the German Language Section of the Shared Cataloging Division.

She enjoyed the job. She got to work with other German speakers and there was always a new book to discover. But the work became tedious and she wanted to pursue new challenges. “Everything was done by hand then,” Guenther said. “We’d prepare records typed on cards and then give them to a special unit for inputting into the system.”

Guenther participated in an experiment where catalogers could input their own records directly into the online catalog system. She said, “I had to learn the MARC format to know what field a title was and that sort of thing.” That exposure to MARC opened the door to bigger opportunities for her later in the decade.

She switched to a supervisory position in the Cataloging Management and Publication Division, the people who compiled the National Union Catalog, and in 1989 she moved to the office she’s currently in, the Network Development on MARC Standards office.

“As soon as I got to the office, I was assigned to develop a format for classification data, which I knew nothing about,” said Guenther. “We ended up developing the MARC classification format and holdings.” Guenther – driven as well as focused – rose to the challenge.

Developing the MARC classification format in the early 1990s was a long process, spanning several years, and it also involved implementing a system to use classification data—which became what is now Classification Web. National libraries gradually abandoned their national formats for what was later called the MARC 21 format and they participated in its development. An advisory committee oversaw any proposed format changes and Guenther’s office prepared the proposals.

Guenther helped coordinate the input from diverse communities and countries and her office quickly realized that they needed a better way to communicate among participants. She was aware of listservs and understood their potential, so — after a Herculean bureaucratic effort — she implemented the Library of Congress’s first listserv in 1992. She said, “Listservs had archives, messages and ways to put files up. That’s how we started sharing MARC system proposals through the listserv archives; we started making them available online.”

Her online expertise grew with the commercial Internet. “I was involved in the early 90s when OCLC convened a group to talk about how we were going to work in this new online environment,” Guenther said. “And that led to the first Dublin Core Metadata Initiative meeting in 1995 around recognizing the need for discovery metadata.” She attended every Dublin Core meeting through 2004 and chaired a number of working groups.

In the 90s, Guenther got involved with NISO and ISO language codes, producing the widely used standard for three-character language codes, ISO 639-2 (such as ENG for English, ITA for Italian, etc.). Again she took on the task of working with international constituents, deftly managing the project while remaining culturally sensitive. Guenther admitted to the perks, too. She said, “I got lots of good travel out of that…and Dublin Core too. I went to places I never would have gone to if I weren’t involved in these things.”

PREMIS (originally Preservation Metadata: Implementation Strategies) is Guenther’s outstanding legacy project. She said, “I became increasingly involved in digital data, particularly through the work of Dublin core and how the MARC format starting to define places in the format where you could link to digital data.” In her opinion, no system prior to PREMIS went far enough in including the data needed about digital objects in order to preserve them. This fact was recognized in the early 2000s by OCLC and the then-Research Libraries Group, who set up a working group to explore developing a data dictionary for preservation metadata, which Guenther co-chaired. In 2005, they came out with their first version of the PREMIS Data Dictionary for Preservation Metadata, the controlled data that told you what information you need to know to preserve digital objects.

There was nothing in the world to compare to it. Guenther said, “It was international and the working group is international in scope. There was representation from different kinds of institutions, not only libraries and archives, but even the commercial sector, vendors and museums. Guenther’s group formed an editorial committee to consider changes in the future, maintain the data dictionary and coordinate events. They won awards, including the 2005 Digital Preservation Award, given as part of the UK Conservation Awards, and gave presentations and tutorials. “And it really has been very rewarding because it’s been implemented worldwide,” said Guenther. “It seems to have been accepted as the standard for preservation metadata. Some countries like Spain actually mandate its use in cultural heritage institutions.”

Guenther may be retiring from the Library of Congress but she isn’t breaking her intellectual stride. She will maintain her association with the Library and will continue her professional career. Her interest and expertise still burns strong and she’s on a mission. “I’d like to raise the awareness in institutions outside of the traditional libraries that have a need for digital preservation metadata, institutions such as publishers, companies and media industries,” Guenther said. “Are they doing it in a standard way so that it will be sustainable and useful to others? I will be looking for opportunities where I can use the knowledge I’ve gained here to take digital preservation metadata forward a little bit more.”

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.