Learning MARC for Absolute Beginners

Why MARC? Why now? (Credit: @GarfieldScreens)

I often see information science students and library workers who are new to the field asking how they can learn to catalog MARC records. It’s a valid question but one that, when asked on social media and listservs, often gets derailed by opinionated and theoretical discussions. MARC (machine-readable cataloging) was developed in the 1960s by Henriette Avram and the Library of Congress (LOC) as a way to electronically describe and share library records. Yes, the world has changed a lot since then. Or has it? After all, the LOC has been working on BIBFRAME, a replacement for MARC, since 2011. But I’m not here to wade into the murky waters of that debate. Despite claims of MARC becoming obsolete, the fact remains that it is still being used by library workers everyday. It’s also a part of many library job postings, so folks are right to feel like it’s something that they should at least have a working knowledge of before they even apply for jobs. If any of this rings true for you, the good news is that you can learn quite a bit about MARC on your own and for free! Below is a basic roadmap that will guide you through gaining some practical experience with MARC.


An oldie but a goodie, the LOC’s Understanding MARC Bibliographic: Machine-Readable Cataloging is still a great place to start to get acquainted with MARC. Here you’ll learn all about things like tags, indicators, subfields, and more. Soon what initially seemed like an indecipherable language will start to make a little more sense.

From there, check out OCLC’s Bibliographic Formats and Standards for links to more detailed information about MARC fields and the specific input standards associated with each one.

I also recommend reading a little about the development of Resource Description and Access (RDA) so you’ll have some familiarity with the cataloging code that governs what goes where and why in a MARC record.


Now that you know more about what you’re working with, it’s time to download some free MARC records (scroll down to the old record sets). But if you give a librarian some MARC records, they’re going to need something to open them with.

So go ahead and download MarcEdit. It’s an amazing piece of free software that’s used daily by librarians around the world! If you’re a student, gaining experience with MarcEdit will be invaluable to you in job searches, too.


Watch the webinar below to learn how to use the basic functions of MarcEdit.

Terry Reese, the creator of MarcEdit, also provides more webinars and tutorials on his website.


You now have all the tools at your fingertips to start exploring MARC! Open up some records in MarcEdit, and go to town editing and playing around. Don’t worry too much about accuracy yet. Did I just say that? Yes. I did. You’re still new to MARC, and this process is most definitely not a means to an end. It’s just the beginning to get you comfortable learning and working with MARC data. So have fun! You won’t break anything, I promise.

Claire is an academic librarian in Houston, Texas. She has also worked at a public library and with special collections and archives.