Something to Ponder: Subject Headings Ruin the Reader’s Experience

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?



Filed under Access Issues, Subject Headings, The Library Catalogue

14 responses to “Something to Ponder: Subject Headings Ruin the Reader’s Experience

  1. Melanie

    Since, to me, the most important part of what makes a book good is not just the story but also how well it is told, then I think her comments are, to be blunt, wrong.

    Speaking as one who hasn’t read Rebecca, nothing about the subject headings “gives away” anything that would make me pick up or not pick up the book.

  2. Louise Spiteri

    I would promote the importance of access in this matter. I’m not convinced that the presence of subject headings in the form of “spoilers” will deter me from reading a book. Think about all the movie trailer we see; they reveal far more about the plot than do subject headings, yet many of us would still watch the film if we were intrigued by the trailer.

    If I include the “murder” heading for Rebecca, am I simply describing a plot component of the story, or providing an evaluation? I would argue that any level of description involves analysis and evaluation, since I choose what the item is about, as well as determine which of the plot points to highlight and which to omit. Subject analysis is, by its very nature, an evaluative process, not merely descriptive.

    I am not a fan of treating fiction and non-fiction differently. Why should works of fiction not be given the same level of access as works of non-fiction; by doing so, do we not run the risk of implying that non-fiction is “more worthy”?

    Lastly, with social catalogues, which I support strongly, will we disallow clients from posting tags or reviews for fear that they may include spoilers? I, for one, would be uncomfortable with this level of imposed control.

  3. I would like to chime in with this short question:

    How many users of the catalogues (read: library patrons) actually read and examine the subject headings?

    (I would say not too terribly many – the key access points would seem to be title, author, character, and series information for fiction works.)

  4. Lynne LeGrow

    As the principal fiction cataloguer for a large public library system, I have to STRONGLY disagree with the sentiments expressed by Elisabeth Davies.

    As a cataloguer I DO NOT have the time to read every book I catalogue. Therefore how could I possibly give away the plot? I quickly scan the publisher’s blurb from the inside jacket or back cover and from that I take three or four key elements that I think will promote access to the title. I try to incorporate the setting, the protagonist, and one or two headings about the plot to give the remote users something to go on. For instance I might add the subject headings: Women teachers, New England, & Time travel. Knowing these key elements would NOT in any way ruin my enjoyment of the novel.

    Many readers tend to favour a specific setting in the novels they read and want to be able to find other books with the same setting. Readers who enjoy time travel novels would be delighted to see that subject heading. Mystery readers would not be at all put off by knowing that a murder occured…

    I wonder, on what evidence (besides her own questionable opinion) has she based her lecture?

  5. Dodie Gaudet

    Some (many? most?) fiction readers read the publisher’s blurb on the flyleaves before reading the novel. That gives much more information about the story than a few subject headings. I disagree with Ms. Davies.

  6. arkham

    I agree with the other posters here.

    Ms. Davies’ is wrong.

    I’ve NEVER had the experience of reading fiction “ruined” by subject headings.

    I suspect that if I ran across a similar situation to the “Rebecca” record – I’d be MORE interested in reading the book based on the “murder” subject, because I’m a lot more interested in murder mysteries than love stories.

    It sounds to me like Ms. Davies has a personal ax to grind rather than basing this presentation on actual research, such as interviewing OTHER readers of fiction.

    I for one, do not have any intention of limiting the subject headings I add to fiction based on her “findings”.

  7. I think it’s completely up to the patron to decide whether or not plot spoiling would negatively impact their reading choices. I almost never decide to check out fiction based on what’s displayed in the catalog, so I don’t even look at the annotations or subject headings for this type of material. I tend not to read film blurbs and actively force myself to not scan the subject headings on t. p. versos for the very reason of potential spoilage. I also try never to reveal important plot details when I review books, which can be quite tricky at times! Thanks for the great post.

  8. Ivy

    Not only do I agree with the comments consensus and strongly disgree with Ms. Davies, I’d like to add that
    “And we should be asking ourselves, as cataloguers, why we are evaluating and analyzing rather than describing when we choose our subject headings. ”
    I think we should be evaluating and analyzing *more,* not less. As we work harder and harder to establish the current and future value of libraries & librarians and catalogers & cataloging, this is one area where we have always shined. We create annotated bibliogrpahies and pathfinders, We not only offer resources to patrons, but we help steer them toward which ones are reliable and useful for their needs. Traditionally this has been more on the reference side of things, but I’ve a theory that we should stop dividing ourselves into technical vs. public services and work together to coordinate these effoert. If you ask me, catalogs should include more of this type of information, not less. Annotations, reliability ratings, reviews and simialr works for fiction–all these things enhance our catalogs.

    And you know, it’s not like we don’t have the technology–if a particular patron perfers not to see LCSH (or any other part of the record) why not allow them to set that under some sort of user account login preferences? That seems like the best solution for all involved.

  9. Leah in Edmonton!

    It is my strong opinion that our attention to metadata and description is stronger than ever.

    I am glad that I am able to influence the project descriptions policies of the digital policies I deal with because I constantly make the case for description.

    Simply: people want description. Shit, why don’t we remove the inside cover? How about the back cover? How about ‘about the author’ too. I mean we wouldn’t want anyone to evaluate things as an adult.

    Who decides when a book has been ‘ruined’ for a reader, anyway? What metric? I want a study. This assertion will be refuted.

    You can look at a book and know it is the kind of book that is sold at an airport and what that means about its ease of digestibility if you’re a damn bookworm like me.

    Oh guess what! I read non-fiction. Therefore I already know how the story ends. Please describe my non fiction well. I don’t know…if you stop describing fiction, when do you stop? Gonna stop describing music, in case people judge it by your analysis? Then books on tape, then graphic novels, then children’s books, then non-fiction that doesn’t support your political views, then all non-fiction, THEN F’inG CHAOS. No! No! No!

    I sure hope the bibliographic society of canada accepts my paper proposal about metadata and crowdsourcing.

    Who knew there was a cataloguer in here?

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  11. If this person thinks that subject headings are spoilers, she must become apoplectic when dealing with blurbs on book jackets. (At least she can remove book jackets. What about paperbacks where the blurbs are printed right on the book cover?)

    Most fiction did not have subject tracings back in the days when catalog cards were produced in-house (speaking from my experience in small- and medium-sized public libraries). The convenience of MARC and then online catalogs is that it’s easy to add subject tracings. When a patron asks for “stories about pioneers” having those subjects helps locate items. I agree that few patrons actually read the subject headings in a MARC record — the convenience is for the library staff.

  12. Pretty much any book about a murder is going to say exactly that — in as exciting language as possible — on the jacket cover. No possible subject headings could ever spoil a book so much as a publisher’s own promotional materials. And most casual readers of fiction wouldn’t be investigating the Subject Headings in any case.

  13. Laurel Tarulli

    Thank you all for you comments! I’ve enjoyed reading the variety of reasons why all of you agree with this post – and the points you make about publishers’ information (book jackets, cover art and titles). I think all of your points are valid and true. Also, I keep thinking about the popularity of tagging among users – and the types of information these tags contain. And, of course, from an RA perspective, the valuable addition of appeals language in the catalogue. Appeals language likely gives away more about the reading experience than any subject heading, and yet they are a very desirable addition to cataloguing metadata.

    A colleague of mine, who is a frontline librarian and very talented readers’ advisor also attended this lecture. She pointed out that from a frontline perspective, Ms. Davies made some good points. I have encouraged her to post her thoughts – or share them with me so that I can post them. I respect her immensely and I’m really interested in hearing her perspective on the talk.

  14. Sara Gillis

    I am joining in on this conversation quite late, but what an interesting topic!

    One interesting thing I, and others, noticed is that in the London Public Library catalogue image above, the author/title information is followed by the location/status information, and then the “more details” section is below, which includes the subject headings and so on.

    I would say the majority of customers most of the time are mainly interested in “is the books on the shelf?” so in a way it makes sense to make the location/status information more prominent (jsut below title/author). Does placing the item details (subjects, ISBN, etc, etc) below the location information not only aid in highlighting the location information (what the customer wants), but also prevent accidental viewing of spoilers, if there are people who worry about that?

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