The ‘Machine Readable’ part of the MARC acronym is a lie

The most recent Code4Lib Journal issue has an excellent article that should be mandatory reading for anyone working or with a library.
The article is “Interpreting MARC: Where’s the Bibliographic Data?” by Jason Thomale. In it, he explains in extremely clear terms exactly what MARC is not. He begins by explaining that MARC pre-dated relational databases. That means everything we think about for computers, digital processing, data structures, and logic doesn’t apply for MARC.
The title of this blog post is from one of the article’s notes:

There is also the statement about working with MARC data purportedly made by Google engineer Leonid Taycher that “the first thing he had to learn was that the ‘Machine Readable’ part of the MARC acronym was a lie” (from

This quote illustrates the core thrust and value of the entire article which is: MARC is presented as being functional for machines/computers and it is not. I didn’t understand what MARC was for over a year after I was working in a digital library center and working with MARC. I couldn’t fathom that any method could ever and certainly not still be in operation where data was treated or handled in the way that MARC operates.
I still don’t understand how library catalogs actually work. I understand computers and I understand punch cards, but MARC isn’t either. I understand how it works at an individual record level, but I don’t see how it could work at a system level. Thomale’s article explains his process of unlearning basic world assumptions in order to deal with MARC. The comments on the article show that there are many people who have undergone the same process to learn “that the ‘Machine Readable’ part of the MARC acronym is a lie.”