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Strategic Research

FRBR and RDA: Advances in Resource Description for Multiple Format Resources

3. FRBR: the conceptual model

3.1 Origins and impact of FRBR

The FRBR conceptual model has its origin in the report of a study group appointed by IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. While the Anglo-American cataloguing community was in the process of identifying problem areas that needed urgent attention, the international cataloguing community was also in the midst of grappling with the nature of bibliographic data and bibliographic records. There were two main factors that were prompting the need to analyze the nature of bibliographic data: the increasing cost of cataloguing and the accelerating growth of published materials, both traditional and electronic. In face of these challenges, there were calls both to increase shared cataloguing and to move away from full bibliographic records. A seminar was held in Stockholm in 1990, prior to the IFLA annual conference. Olivia Madison summarized the question facing the participants at the Stockholm seminar and their conclusions:

Can cataloguing be considerably simplified?... The seminar concluded with consensus that the international cataloguing community needed to establish broad-based international agreement on the primary functions of the bibliographic record in response to user needs and to enhance international sharing of bibliographic data ... To accomplish this, the participants agreed ... that an international study focused on the functional requirements of bibliographic records should be undertaken.39

In the early 1990s, the IFLA Division of Bibliographic Control appointed a study group to examine the functional requirements of bibliographic records. By 1991, the first members of the study group were appointed and the group grew and adjusted its membership between 1991 and 1993. By 1992, there were formal terms of reference. The study was extensive, and carried out over several years, including a period for world-wide review. In 1997, the final report was approved by IFLA's Standing Committee on Cataloguing and the report was published the subsequent year: Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records: Final Report.40

The final report of the IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records contains the description of the entity-relationship model that the Group used to analyze bibliographic records and make their recommendations.

The study has two primary objectives. The first is to provide a clearly defined, structured framework for relating the data that are recorded in bibliographic records to the needs of the users of those records. The second objective is to recommend a basic level of functionality for records created by national bibliographic agencies. (FRBR 2.1)

While development of a framework or model was one of two objectives, it is the model that has continued to be discussed, applied, and developed. The model has led to a major change in the way bibliographic data is understood.

The innovative impact of the model is such as to challenge the cataloguing ideology implicit in current cataloguing codes, in the international descriptive standards, the various ISBDs...41

Pat Riva, the current Chair of the FRBR Review Group, summarizes how the model has made its mark:

Since the release of FRBR in 1998, there has been a growing reflection in the bibliographic community around the ideas it represents. FRBR has provided a unifying framework and a common terminology for discussion... Since FRBR, most theoretical studies and applications have been using FRBR terminology, and this makes it easier for one study to build on another. ... As more and more people internalized the richness of the model, its potential in providing principles to guide cataloging rule revision was felt.42

Evidence of the explanatory power of the model can be seen, for example, in the volume of writing about FRBR, and the number of projects that take FRBR as their framework, as documented in the FRBR bibliography.43 The bibliography shows how the FRBR model has been received around the world with great interest, and used as the starting point for new applications and new research. FRBR models bibliographic data, and is not tied to the cataloguing tradition of any one country.

FRBR's enduring strength is its neutrality as to bibliographic conventions and its theoretical approach that focuses on the user, the object and function – all of which has enabled its timelessness to application.44

With the broad, international recognition of the validity of the model, IFLA decided to appoint new groups to extend the FRBR model to include authority data (FRAD), and subject authority data (Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Records, FRSAR). It also decided to establish the FRBR Review Group to review, maintain and encourage the application of FRBR. FRBR has also become a key part of the foundation for the International Cataloguing Principles. From the introduction in the final version of the Statement of International Cataloguing Principles:

This statement builds on the great cataloguing traditions of the world, and also on the conceptual model in the IFLA Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR).45

With the FRBR model as the theoretical framework underpinning shared international cataloguing principles, there can be little doubt about the model's impact, and the model's explanatory power.

3.2 User tasks

The FRBR model is an entity relationship model. There are three components in the model: entities, attributes of the entities and relationships between the entities. The entities are the objects of interest to users of bibliographic data, such as the products of intellectual or artistic creation, the persons or corporate bodies responsible for creating those products and the subjects of those products of intellectual and artistic creation. In describing the methodology for the study, the Study Group gives an overview of the modelling technique:

The entity-relationship structure derived from the analysis of entities, attributes, and relationships has been used in this study as the framework for assessing the relevance of each attribute and relationship to the tasks performed by users of bibliographic data. Each attribute and relationship is mapped to the four generic user tasks defined for the study, and relative values are assigned to each attribute and relationship with specific reference to the task performed and the entity that is the object of the user's interest. (FRBR 2.3)

The original study had two objectives, one of which was to relate "the data that are recorded in bibliographic records to the needs of the users of those records." Thus, the starting point for the model is the definition of the needs of the users and these needs are summarized in the four user tasks: find, identify, select and obtain.

The Study Group defined the four generic user tasks:

  • to find entities that correspond to the user's stated search criteria (i.e., to locate either a single entity or a set of entities in a file or database as the result of a search using an attribute or relationship of the entity);
  • to identify an entity (i.e., to confirm that the entity described corresponds to the entity sought, or to distinguish between two or more entities with similar characteristics);
  • to select an entity that is appropriate to the user's needs (i.e., to choose an entity that meets the user's requirements with respect to content, physical format, etc., or to reject an entity as being inappropriate to the user's needs);
  • to acquire or obtain access to the entity described (i.e., to acquire an entity through purchase, loan, etc., or to access an entity electronically through an online connection to a remote computer). (FRBR 6.1)

These are the four tasks that users perform using the bibliographic data that libraries record and store, whether using a book catalogue, a card catalogue or an online database. Other tasks have been mentioned, such as "navigate", "manage", and however valid they may be, they are not included as one of the original four user tasks. The "navigate" task can be seen as part of the "find' task because FRBR does not look at the bibliographic record in isolation, but at the record within the context of a large catalogue or database.

With the FRBR model, the data that is analyzed is data that is of interest to the user because it allows the users to accomplish these four basic tasks. The model promotes a view of the bibliographic universe where the focus is on what is important to the user. Cataloguing principles and cataloguing codes have always aimed to serve the needs of the user, sometimes explicitly stating this goal, sometimes implying it. For example, Charles A. Cutter, in 1876, did explicitly state, in his Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog, that the objective of the catalogue was to help the user: "to enable a person to find a book... to show what the library has... and to assist in the choice of a book..." 46 S.R. Ranganathan, with his five laws of library science, first published in 1931, also underlined the basic principle that we organize information for the benefit of the user: "books are for use; every person his or her book; every book its reader; save the time of the reader; a library is a growing organism." 47 The FRBR model continues in the tradition of focusing on the user, but it goes further by providing a detailed view of the way in which each attribute and relationship recorded in the bibliographic record is relevant and important to the user.

3.3 Brief outline of the entity-relationship model

The IFLA Study Group decided to use an entity-relationship model for their analysis of the functional requirements for bibliographic records. The first step is to identify the entities:

The first step in the entity analysis technique is to isolate the key objects that are of interest to users of information in a particular domain... the analysis first focuses attention not on individual data but on the "things" the data describe. Each of the entities defined for the model, therefore, serves as the focal point for a cluster of data. (FRBR 2.3)

The FRBR model defines three groups of entities:

Group 1 entities:

products of intellectual or artistic endeavour
entities: work, expression, manifestation item

Group 2 entities:

those responsible for the intellectual or artistic content, the physical production and dissemination, or the custodianship of the entities in the first group
entities: persons, corporate bodies

Group 3 entities:

entities: concept, object, event, place + all the entities in groups 1 and 2

The group 2 and 3 entities are fairly self-explanatory. The four group 1 entities are an important key to unravelling confusion in content versus carrier issues, as will be seen below. Thus, it is important to have a clear understanding of the FRBR group 1 entities to understand the impact of FRBR on the content versus carrier issue. At first glance, the group 1 entities are both straightforward and puzzling. We are used to the words "work", "manifestation" and "item". The FRBR model uses these familiar terms, with strict definitions of what these terms mean. The model also defines the entity "expression", an abstract entity that helps to clarify the bibliographic universe with an important layer between work and manifestation.

The FRBR definitions of these four entities reveal their inter-relatedness. The entities do not stand alone, but are aspects that correspond to a user's interests in the products of intellectual and artistic creation (FRBR 3.1.1).


a single exemplar of a manifestation


the physical embodiment of an expression of a work


the intellectual or artistic realization of a work in the form of alpha-numeric, musical, or choreographic notation, sound, image, object, movement, etc., or any combination of such forms


a distinct intellectual or artistic creation

The definitions of the group 1 entities demonstrate the primary relationships that exist between these four entities. The diagram from section 3.1.1 of the FRBR report demonstrates these relationships:


is realized through


is embodied in


is exemplified by


Figure 1. Diagram illustrating the definitions and relationships between the Group 1 entities.

When I pick up the copy of Robinson Crusoe that I am reading, I am holding an item, but, at the same time, it is also the exemplar of a particular manifestation, it embodies a particular expression, and it is the realization of the work. The item in my hand has all four aspects: item, manifestation, expression and work.


w = idea for the Robinson Crusoe story (in Defoe's head)

is realized through


e = original English text as Defoe wrote it

is embodied in


m = Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007

is exemplified by


i = copy owned by McGill University

Figure 2. Diagram illustrating the definitions and relationships between the Group 1 entities, using Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as an example.

Barbara Tillett, in What is FRBR?, explains these different aspects from the point of view of the user, who may have different types of needs and interests when looking for a book:

For example, when we say "book" to describe a physical object that has paper pages and a binding and can sometimes be used to prop open a door or hold up a table leg, FRBR calls this an "item."

When we say "book" we also may mean a "publication" as when we go to a bookstore to purchase a book. We may know its ISBN but the particular copy does not matter as long as it’s in good condition and not missing pages. FRBR calls this a "manifestation."

When we say "book" as in ‘who translated that book,’ we may have a particular text in mind and a specific language. FRBR calls this an "expression."

When we say "book" as in ‘who wrote that book,’ we could mean a higher level of abstraction, the conceptual content that underlies all of the linguistic versions, the story being told in the book, the ideas in a person's head for the book. FRBR calls this a "work."48

The group 2 entities, persons and corporate bodies, are defined in terms of their relationship to the group 1 entities. The group 2 entities can be responsible for the creation of a work, for the realization of an expression, for the production of a manifestation (or the embodiment of an expression into a manifestation), and may have relationships to an item, such as owning an item. FRBR focuses on the relationship of the group 2 entities to the group 1 entities. The FRAD model, Functional Requirements for Authority Data, builds on the FRBR model and extends the entities to cover those entities that are important for users of authority data. Thus, FRAD looks at the relationships between the group 2 entities. FRAD's starting point is the set of entities defined in the FRBR model. FRAD expands the group 2 entities to include family as well. Descriptions of the FRBR model now often assume the FRAD definition of group 2: person, family and corporate body. 49

The group 3 entities are the subjects of the group 1 entities. This group includes four entities that are specific to this group: concept, object, event and place. It also includes all the group 1 entities and all the group 2 entities because these too can be the subjects of works. The IFLA Working Group on Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Records (FRSAR) is working on extending the FRBR model to cover subject authority data.

Each entity has a set of characteristics or attributes, and these attributes can be inherent or externally imputed. Inherent attributes are attributes that can be discovered by examining the item, such as the extent, statements on title pages, type of content, date of publication, etc. An example of an externally imputed attribute would be an assigned identifier, such as thematic catalog numbers used for a musical composition (FRBR 4.1). Barcode numbers, provenance, inscriptions are examples of attributes of the item. Publisher, date of publication, form of carrier and extent are examples of attributes of the manifestation. The form and language of the expression, the type of score, and the scale of a cartographic image are examples of attributes of the expression. The form or genre of the work, the medium of performance of a musical work, the coordinates of a cartographic work are examples of attributes of the work. Some attributes have widespread applicability, such as "title" and "date". Other attributes only apply to certain types of resources, such as "scale" and "projection" for cartographic resources.

The FRBR model identifies attributes for all the entities. Examples of the attributes for the group 2 entity, person, are names, dates, title (i.e., title as a term of address). The group 3 entities each have the attribute "term", such as "economics' for concept, "ships" for object, "Battle of Hastings" for event, "Ottawa" for place.

After analyzing the bibliographic entities and their attributes, the FRBR model maps out the relationships between the entities, and identifies the different types of relationships. The relationships between the entities play a very important role in assisting the user to complete the tasks of finding, identifying, selecting and obtaining and are the key to navigating through the bibliographic universe. As with entities and attributes, these bibliographic relationships are familiar to anyone working with bibliographic data. What is new is the way in which the model underlines the importance of these relationships with its explicit identification and classification of relationships. The relationships explain the nature of the links that exist between the entities.

The FRBR model looks at the relationships between the groups of entities. A person creates a work. A family owns an item. A corporate body publishes a manifestation A person realizes an expression, e.g. a person performs a work or a person translates a work. These are examples of relationships between group 2 entities and group 1 entities. There are also the relationships between group 3 entities and group 1 entities, the subject relationships, such as a concept is the subject of a work, etc.

The FRBR model also focuses attention on the relationships between the entities in the same group, especially the relationships between the group 1 entities. The primary relationships between the four group 1 entities were already evident in the definition of the group 1 entities: an item is the exemplar of a manifestation, which is the embodiment of an expression, which is the realization of a work.

Taking the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and looking at a few expressions and manifestations, one can map out the primary relationships between the work, several expressions, several manifestations of different expressions, and several exemplars of manifestations. In the table below, only one or two attributes of each entity are used:





title of work

language of expression
form of expression

place of publication
date of publication

location of copies
(owned by X library)


# original English
alpha-numeric notation

(1) London, 1603

Rare Books Dept.



(2) New York, 1998 Humanities Library

Humanities Library


# French translation
alpha-numeric notation

Paris, 1946

c1 Humanities Library
c2 Special Collections


# French translation
alpha-numeric notation

Neuchatel, 1949

Music Library


# German translation
alpha-numeric notation

Hamburg, 1834

Special Collections


# French translation
spoken word

Paris, 1983

Audio-Visual Dept.

Figure 3. Relationships between a few expressions and manifestations of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Likewise, this same work, Hamlet, also has relationships to other works.

Hamlet is subject of:
 Modern Hamlets & their soliloquies
  Critical responses to Hamlet, 1600-1900

Hamlet is imitated:
 Hamlet travestie

Hamlet is transformed into an opera:
 Hamlet : opéra en cinq actes
  musique de Ambroise Thomas; paroles de Michel Carré et Jules Barbier

Hamlet is adapted for a juvenile reader:
 Hamlet: the young reader's Shakespeare:
  a retelling / by Adam McKeown

Figure 4. Types of work to work relationships, between Shakespeare's Hamlet and related works.

The model maps out the relationships and organizes them into types. The model categorizes the full range of relationships between works, between expressions of the same work, between expressions of different works, between manifestations, between manifestations and expressions, between items, between items and manifestations, etc. These bibliographic relationships are not new. The level of information recorded about bibliographic relationships and about the exact nature of the relationship has varied over time and in different cataloguing contexts. By focusing attention on bibliographic relationships, and relating each bibliographic relationship to the user tasks, FRBR underlines the role that bibliographic relationships play when a user navigates a large catalogue or database. The FRBR model looks at the bibliographic record not as a record to be dissected in isolation, but to be analyzed within the context of large databases of bibliographic data. Clarifying bibliographic relationships is key to enabling a user to achieve the user tasks.

3.4 Impact of the FRBR model on the content versus carrier issue

As mentioned above, the cataloguing community around the world quickly recognized the usefulness and validity of the FRBR model, and began applying it in different studies, analyses, and applications involving bibliographic data. Jennifer Bowen gives a good summary of FRBR's impact:

FRBR is thus not something new and foreign, but a fresh, more rigorous way of thinking about what libraries already do that provides a basis for designing new ways to improve users' access to library resources.50

An important aspect of FRBR's impact is the reinforcement of the importance of collocation. Barbara Tillett summarized FRBR's role in achieving the collocation objective of the catalogue:

One of the beauties of FRBR is that it reminds us of the basic objectives to enable finding and collocating bibliographic records in a catalog. FRBR describes the model to facilitate the collocation of related entities in the vast bibliographic universe. This model requires basic attributes of the hierarchically related entities to be present in national bibliographic records. Additional relationships are also recommended for aggregates and components, for whole-part, and other relationships, so displays can be created to show the families of works and related works, as well as their expressions and various manifestations in multiple physical formats, even down to specific distinctive items and where they are located or accessible. 51

The FRBR model clarifies issues related to the primacy of content or carrier, and on the level of relatedness between versions of the same work. In order to see the impact of the FRBR model, it is useful to look further at those relationships that are most relevant, the relationships between the entities of the same work.

The identification of four entities within group 1, the products of intellectual and artistic creation, gives an important insight into the relationships between resources that deliver the same content, but in different formats. Within the family of relationships for the same work, the distinction between expressions and manifestations clarifies the level of difference and similarity between resources. Looking at the attributes of expression, a key attribute is the "form of expression". As defined in FRBR, the form of expression:

is the means by which the work is realized (e.g., through alpha-numeric notation, musical notation, spoken word, musical sound, cartographic image, photographic image, sculpture, dance, mime, etc.)" (FRBR 4.3.2).

Looking at the attributes of manifestations, a key attribute is the form of carrier. The definition of the form of carrier is:

the specific class of material to which the physical carrier of the manifestation belongs (e.g., sound cassette, videodisc, microfilm cartridge, transparency, etc.). The carrier for a manifestation comprising multiple physical components may include more than one form (e.g., a filmstrip with an accompanying booklet, a separate sound disc carrying the sound track for a film, etc.) (FRBR 4.4.9).

Thus, the audiobook version of the work is a different expression than the text version of the work, even if the exact same words are used in both. The fact that the work is realized in spoken word instead of using alpha-numeric notation is an important distinction and it is a different type of distinction than the difference between regular print and large print of the same alpha-numeric expression of the work, or between the CD and cassette versions of the same spoken word expression.

The FRBR models maps out relationships between expressions of the same work, and these relationships are different types of relationships from those between manifestations of the same expression:

Relationships between expressions of the same work (Table 5.3) occur when one expression has been derived from another. In these types of relationships, one expression is seen to be a modification of the other. The modification may be a literal translation, in which the intent is to render the intellectual content of the previous expression as accurately as possible (note that free translations are treated in the model as new works); a revision, in which the intent is to alter or update the content of the prior expression, but without changing the content so much that it becomes a new work; an abridgement, in which some content of the previous expression is removed, but the result does not alter the content to the extent that it becomes a new work; or an arrangement of a musical composition. (FRBR 5.3)

If the audiobook is an adaptation or a paraphrase of the original work, then there is a relationship between the works, a derivative relationship of transformation. But each is a different work. Likewise, if the original work was a novel, and the audiobook was a dramatization of the novel, they would be two separate works, but linked through the relationship of transformation.

When the audiobook delivers the same content as the original expression, but delivers it in a new form of expression, then it is a new expression of the same work. A translation of a work is also a new expression of the same work. Taking the Hamlet example, the French translation of Hamlet in alpha-numeric notation is a different expression from the original English text. The same French translation in spoken word is a different expression from the French translation in text; it is also a different expression from the English text or the English spoken word. The French spoken-word expression differs from the original in two expression-level attributes: language and form of expression.

If the audiobook is an abridgement of the original work, it can be considered an expression of the same work if the abridgment is not so extensive that it effectively changes the content: "an abridgment, in which some of the content of the previous expression is removed, but the result does not alter the content to the extent that it becomes a new work." (FRBR 5.3). In this case, the abridgment remains in the same work family, but it is a different expression from an expression that has the complete content. In cases such as this, the differences between expressions of the same work can come close to becoming differences between works.

Looking at resources for the visually-impaired, identical content delivered in braille notation would be considered a different expression from the alpha-numeric notation of the same work. It is a notation, but it is a tactile notation rather than an alpha-numeric notation and requires the use of a different sense. It is a different expression because it has a different form of expression.

Looking at the manifestation to manifestation relationships, the FRBR model identifies two main categories of relationships: reproduction and alternate. In terms of the reproduction relationship, the FRBR model uses an understanding of reproduction that "may involve varying degrees of fidelity to a previous manifestation. It puts more stress on the content: what is important is that the same intellectual or artistic content is represented in the subsequent manifestation; replicating the look and feel of the previous manifestation is not the intent" ( FRBR 5.7).

If two audiobooks are the same expression, but one is a CD and another is an audio-cassette, the difference is a manifestation-level difference. If one audiobook is a CD, and the other is delivered as an online resource, again, the carriers differ, but they are two manifestations of the same expression.

If one looks at the relationship between large print and regular print versions of the same content, they are both delivered on the same form of carrier, but they have different type sizes. Type size is a manifestation level attribute. Other manifestation level attributes would probably also be different, such as the extent of the carrier, publisher, identifier, etc. Thus the relationship between the two would be two different manifestations of the same expression.

When one looks at the question of alternative formats, it is important to distinguish whether the difference is at the level of expression or manifestation. In some cases, a user may find manifestation-level attributes as important or more important than expression-level attributes. But what is crucial is clarifying the nature of the similarities and differences between resources, and recording this information in a way that it can be used to guide the user to the appropriate resource. The difference between expression and manifestation relationships plays an important role in sorting out the nature of the relationships so that the user can be led to the appropriate resource or can be shown a data display that makes clear the nature of the relationships between different resources in the retrieval set.

39. Olivia Madison. "The Origins of the IFLA Study on Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records." Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 39, no. 3/4 (2005): 18.

40. IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. (Munich: K. G. Saur, 1998)

41. Teresa Grimaldi. "The Object of Cataloguing." In Seminar FRBR: Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, Florence 27-28 January 2000: Proceedings. (Rome: Associazione italiana biblioteche, 2000): 68.

42. Pat Riva, "Introducing the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records and Related IFLA Developments." Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 33, no. 6 (2007):

43. FRBR Review Group. FRBR Bibliography.

44. Olivia Madison. "Utilizing the FRBR Framework in Designing User-Focused Digital Content and Access Systems." Library Resources & Technical Services 50, no. 1 (2006): 15.

45. IFLA Meetings of Experts on an International Cataloguing Code (IME-ICC). Statement of International Cataloguing Principles. February 2009.

46. Charles A. Cutter. Rules for a printed dictionary catalog. 4th ed. (Washington : Government Printing Office, 1904):12. Digitized by University of North Texas Digital Collections.

47. S.R. Ranganathan. The Five Laws of Library Science. (Madras: Madras Library Association, 1931). Digtized by DLIST, Digital Library of Information Science and Technology.

48. Barbara Tillett. What is FRBR? A Conceptual Model for the Bibliographic Universe. (Washington: Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress, 2004):

49. Barbara Tillett. "The Influence of FRBR on RDA." Presentation for the 2008 ALA annual conference for the session "Getting ready for RDA."

50. Jennifer Bowen. "FRBR: Coming Soon to Your Library?" Library Resources & Technical Services 49, no. 3 (2005): 186.

51. Barbara Tillett. "FRBR and Cataloging for the Future." Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 39, no. 3/4 (2005): 200.

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