Paint by MARC (numbers)

Matt Miller
2 min readApr 4, 2016

Thinking about anthropomorphizing data and wanting to get more weird with it, my thoughts turned to generative art. I started thinking how I could apply it to library metadata, to have something like a MARC library catalog record create something visual. If you don’t hang out with library folks you probably never heard of MARC but all you need to know is that it is a fairly old standard that is the current defacto for describing bibliographic data that pretty much everyone hates.


The basics behind MARC is that a record is composed of a number of fields, these fields are of course numbered and start with “000” up to the theoretical “999” field. This numbering system made me realize that the perfect artistic expression for a MARC record would be a paint by numbers drawing. It fits perfectly, MARC is pretty boring and laborious and paint by numbers is equally uninspiring yet structured.

It also works out that these MARC numbered fields “600” for example (Subject Added Entry — Personal Name) if converted to a Hex number can represent a color as well. So 600 as the color #600 is a dark reddish color. You could can also combine multiple fields in the same range to form a new color. For example if a record had a 600, 650 and 690 you can average them into a new color (646) that represents the 6xx fields in that record. So now each MARC record has its own palette to fill in a paint by numbers, depending on what fields are present.

Now we only need a canvas for these records to express their creativity. I found a site that had a few available nothing really spoke to me until I saw the Hamburger, because, why not. Although I choose to believe it is a veggie burger. I spent forever splitting out each cell into an SVG (you’re welcome) so the MARC record could programmatically color it in. I loaded in a few examples, like Moby Dick, an Archival Collection and Photography collection as examples from NYPL’s catalog. The script assigns each cell color (there are 8 in this one) to a MARC field color range and fills it in.

The results? “Meh.” It seems the 000–999 hex palette is pretty dark, making for some somber hamburgers. It might be that a different canvas, a nice landscape for example, would be better for MARC to express its inner palette, or might just be better off sticking to describing books and being cursed by librarians.