This past week I attended a lecture at Dalhousie University entitled “Spoiler Alert!: The rhetoric of the bibliographic record for works of fiction”, presented by Elisabeth Davies, the researcher-in-residence and part-time instructor at the School of Information Management.
To be completely honest, I did not agree with what Ms. Davies had to say, so in writing this post, please remember this. However, I do believe that she presents a position that is not hers alone and therefore, should be shared with the rest of the library community and, in particular, cataloguers. Her points are worthy of discussion, whether or not I agree.
Here is the abstract that accompanied the presentation:
“Bibliographic or catalogue records contain descriptions of individual items in a physical or digital library. Works of fiction are treated similarly to works of non-fiction in terms of description and subject access. But what is happening when description becomes exposition and significant plot developments or surprise endings are given away by the records? This research is about the messages conveyed by bibliographic records and the symbolic power of the librarians who create these records.”
Ms. Davies started out her presentation by saying that, when she picks up a book she’s been anticipating, if she makes the mistake of reading LC’s subject headings or the SH’s in our catalogues, her experience is ruined because we give away the entire story. As a result there is no reason to now read the book.
Do our subject headings ruin the story for readers? Yes, according to Ms. Davies, they do. And we should be asking ourselves, as cataloguers, why we are evaluating and analyzing rather than describing when we choose our subject headings.
She looked at several public libraries and examined their bib records. I’ve chosen two of the libraries that she examined and have provided the records for subject analysis below. I’m using her example of the book Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier.
Halifax Public Libraries (Nova Scotia)
London Public Library (Ontario)
While Halifax Public Libraries’ record doesn’t indicate “murder” in the subject headings, London’s does. According to Ms. Davies, that subject heading ruins the story and experience for the reader. With the enticing description in the 520 field often provided by publishers, the cataloguers ruin the suspense by giving away the story through their subject headings. In fact, she indicates that we “undo” what the publisher has done in tempting the reader to pick up the book.
One of the comments from the audience was, “how do we know who was murdered?”. That’s right – unless you’ve read the book, you don’t know. Of course, assumptions can be made, but how did the murder come about? What were the events that led to the murder and the resulting impact?
From an RA perspective is the “experience” that a reader has while reading the book ruined because of the subject headings? To that end, will the eventual addition of appeals terminology and user tags also ruin the reading and discovery experience?
There are a couple of other issues that need to be addressed by Ms. Davies’ theory:
1. If we are giving away the story through use of our headings, which headings can stay? For one reader, the mention of love stories as a genre in can give away the added surprise that this suspenseful story also has romance. Or, turn a reader off from reading the book. To another, the mention of murder ruins the plot. Do we remove all of our subject headings?
2. With the increasing amount of remote users, how do they find similar reads or books with elements that they enjoy without the use of subject headings? For example, if a reader liked Rebecca, they can use our subject headings to link to other materials that have the same headings, or combine them for additional exploration and discovery.
3. Do users of the catalogue really analyze the subject headings to the extent that it ruins the reading experience?
4. With the growth in popularity of user-generated information, including reviews and tags, are readers turning away from books because of “spoilers” included in our catalogues?
There is a solution, of course. We can remove all of our subject headings for fiction, and take a step back in time, to the way fiction used to be catalogued. We all remember stubby records that gave nothing away – a catalogue that enabled known item searching only. When Ms. Davies was asked how the removal of these headings would impact readers’ advisors and their ability to find similar reads, she indicated that librarians have resources outside of the catalogue to accomplish this task.
As an advocate for social catalogues and the increasing need to provide quick, easy and enhanced remote access, I fail to see how this is a step in the right direction. Remove access points and layers of discovery from the catalogue? Take the ability to search and discover like or related items away from users? Aren’t we turning the catalogue back into an inventory list? With the popularity of fiction in public libraries, will the only exploring in the catalogue be done in collections other than fiction?
Ms. Davies’ conclusion was that “Bibliographic records for works of fiction employ rhetoric to persuade catalogue users NOT [emphasis added] to read the works that records purport to represent”.
What do you think?