10 Years of the RISM Online Catalog

Klaus Keil

Monday, June 22, 2020

Ten years ago this month, the RISM online catalog was first released free of charge. Not only has the amount of data significantly increased since then, but the catalog’s software is regularly updated and improved.

The amount of data has increased from an initial 700,000 records with descriptions of music manuscripts to today’s 1,215,413 records with descriptions of printed and manuscript sources, as well as an additional 138,639 personal names and 60,970 institutions from the authority files.

The software uses the library program TouchPoint from OCLC. The search and presentation of RISM records has been upgraded several times since it was set up. Recently the catalog was adapted for use with mobile devices and tablets, the authority files were integrated into the database, and a special presentation for printed editions was enabled, including separate entries for pieces in anthologies. A favorite feature is linking to digital resources, through which one can directly consult a reproduction of the source. Over the next few years, many smaller improvements are planned, including linking the records through musical works.

All of this is possible thanks to RISM’s partnership with the two major German libraries, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. The Bavarian State Library leads the initiative for software development, which is possible thanks to financial support through the Specialised Information Services Programme of the German Research Foundation.

The publication of the RISM data has a longer history.

In 1984 and 1986, the RISM Central Office (at the time still in Kassel) published microfiche (remember those?) in cooperation with the GID (Gesellschaft für Information und Datenverarbeitung, Darmstadt). The fiche only contained an extract from the data: composer, title, instrumentation, key, opus number, library siglum, and shelfmark. The first edition could fit on a single microfiche, but already for the second the data had to be split up onto two fiche. For the third microfiche edition, we had planned on incorporating the music incipits as images as well as an index of the incipits if possible. Thanks to a development by Norbert Böker-Heil, we could create graphics from the Plaine & Easie code and print them out with a plotter, but it was not possible to include these on the fiche. The suggestion was then made to print them on paper and film that instead, but this would have involved an immense effort with more than 20 microfiche and it would have been difficult to use. Ultimately, this option was not affordable and had to be abandoned.

These experiments took a lot of time, until a solution was found in the mid-1990s and the first CD-ROM appeared in 1995. At the time, the RISM data were not yet in a standard library format and standard software basically could not display the diacritics. But displaying the music incipits was not possible, to say nothing of an incipit search. The development was preceded by an agreement with the publisher Saur, which bore a large part of the costs. It was realized by expanding PIKaDO, which was used as the cataloging program at the time, by turning it into a passive version that could be used for searching and displaying the data on the CD-ROM. It worked quite well and the index of music incipits was a special feature that we do not have today. For 15 years, RISM published a new CD-ROM annually. We kept the CD-ROM even when the data had to be compressed due to size. As a side note, the CD-ROM would have run out of space if the music incipits had been saved as images. Instead, the program generated them dynamically. That still happens to this day in the RISM online catalog with the help of the program Verovio.

A separate development was an internet database from Harvard University. At the request of the director of the RISM US working group, John Howard, the university made a server available. John asked to publish the RISM records on it at no charge and the RISM Board granted him permission to do so. The database only ran for a few years before the university no longer wanted to bear the costs. But since RISM wanted to have an online presence, the company NISC in Baltimore was recommended; the high costs associated with transferring our PIKaDo data to an online product were such that working with a company was the only solution. For this reason, the NISC product, which appeared in 2002, was no longer free of charge. At the time, NISC also had the databases of RILM, RIPM, and later the Index to Printed Music in their program. All three were then sold to EBSCO, where they remain to this day. Since they are subscription products, they are not as known outside of specialist circles.

The free RISM database is the central reference point for the publication of the data. The endeavor to incorporate the publications that appeared as printed books has resulted in transferring entries from series A/I (14 volumes) and B/I to the database and revising many of those records. It would also be desirable to transfer the data from B/II and B/VI: Écrits imprimés concernant la musique.

Over the next few years, a completely new access point to the records will be made possible through musical works. The starting point will be authority files for works, which are already used in some libraries. The Central Office has used VIAF as a guide in its initial attempts but is now intensively looking into opportunities with the Integrated Authority File of the German National Library.

Klaus Keil June 2020

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