Category Archives: Subject Headings

What’s in a name? Descriptions, Titles, Influence and Perceptions

Even before completing by undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school. My intent, however, was not to become a librarian, but a museologist. A what? Even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word. A degree is museology, or museum studies, would have allowed me to work in any type of museum, designing and organizing collections. Even after I received my MLIS, I still toyed with the idea. I’ve heard of cataloguers who travel with the exhibits, cataloguing the condition of the items as they travel, in addition to many other details. What a dream job!

But why did I have such a passion to be a museum curator? Or, perhaps, why, then, did cataloguing suit me so well?

In my last year of undergraduate studies, one of our required reading texts in my museum studies class was Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals: Inside public art museums.

The buildings and structures in which we house collections combined with our use of classifications, exhibition layouts, themes and accompanying descriptions to objects all work together to create an experience to visitors. Indeed, a curator’s clever description of a work of art can influence the thoughts and feelings of the observer more powerfully than the title of the work or its original intent. The idea that museums have always influenced their visitors, or had the power to change perceptions or ideas through a variety of methods intrigues me. In some cases, it can be as simple as adding prominence to one painting over another. In other cases, it’s the structures ability to add a level of spirituality or reverence to an otherwise unremarkable exhibit.

When I decided to obtain an MLIS, I remained fascinated by this idea of buildings and descriptions playing a role in patron perception, attitudes and behaviours. In fact, I revisited Duncan’s book several more times during these years, and added to the mix Hope Olson’s The Power to Name and Exhibiting Cultures: the poetics and politics on museum display by Steven D. Lavine.

When I chose to pursue a career in cataloguing, it took a while to realize that cataloguing had chosen me years before, when I first reader Carol Duncan’s book.

While we cataloguers try to remain unbiased in our efforts to classify, we know that our own experiences, range of interests, knowledge and interest shape how we describe the item we catalogue. Many of us are also aware, although we don’t consciously think about it on a daily basis, that our choice of subject headings and bibliographic content also influences our patrons’ perceptions. Do we ever think about how the publisher’s information, including the title, text size, font and cover have influenced our cataloguing decisions and perceptions of the item we’re cataloguing?

I suppose that, given the weather in Nova Scotia today (rain) and the fact that I’m writing this while the power is out at my house, I am in a reflective mood. But, it’s always interesting to think about how descriptions and titles change our perceptions of the items we view or have in our hands. I think about my own experiences with professional articles. How text heavy is it? Does the title lack that catching “something” or ….(fill in the blank)? And, when we draw our conclusions about items, such as what articles to read, which ones we like or find useful and so on, what factors influence those conclusions or perceptions? Have we ever questioned them?

After reading Carol’s Duncan’s book (and having had the chance to meet her and hear her speak), I have always viewed museums, galleries and yes, even libraries differently. I question the exhibits, the exhibits’ names and even the layouts. What am I supposed to think and feel? If I didn’t have these “signals” presented to me, would my experience be different?

Carol Duncan’s book had a profound influence on me. It continues to influence my work as a cataloguer, and as an enjoyer of public institutions. While you may not all enjoy her work, it is a quick read and I encourage all of you, if you have a chance, to read it. While it is devoted to museums, there is significant application to cataloguers and librarians.


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Filed under Access Issues, Our Profession, Subject Headings, The Cataloguer

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

Cataloguing Potpourri

A couple of interesting items for discussion have come across various listservs lately. So, while many of you may have seen the following items, I thought I’d post them for those who haven’t.

Article of Interest
After losing users in catalogs, libraries find better search software
This is an article by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of High Education.
Here’s a sampling of what’s discussed:

The problem is that traditional online library catalogs don’t tend to order search results by ranked relevance, and they can befuddle users with clunky interfaces…

…That’s changing because of two technology trends. First, a growing number of universities are shelling out serious money for sophisticated software that makes exploring their collections more like the easy-to-filter experience you might find in an online Sears catalog.

Second, Virginia and several other colleges, including Villanova University and the University of Rochester, are producing free open-source programs that tackle the same problems with no licensing fees.

A key feature of this software genre is that it helps you make sense of data through “faceted” searching, common when you shop online for a new jacket or a stereo system. Say you type in “Susan B. Anthony.” The new system will ask if you want books by her or about her, said Susan L. Gibbons, vice provost and dean of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries. Users can also sort by media type, language, and date.

Discussion Paper addressing the subject access treatment for cooking and cookbooks
This came across several listservs, but as they are asking for feedback, I’m reposting the announcement in its entirety.

In response to a long-standing and generally recognized need to modernize the subject headings treatment for cooking and cookbooks, the ABA Policy and Standards Division (PSD) of the Library of Congress is in the initial planning stages of a project to revise the headings used in this area. A discussion paper has been posted. Tentative decisions have been made about some aspects of the project; for other aspects, various options are under consideration and no decisions have yet been made. PSD invites public comment on the plans described in the discussion paper.

In recognition of public interest in this topic and of the enormous number of subject heading revisions involved, as well as the volume of materials affected by this policy decision, comment is encouraged. Interested parties are invited to send comments on these plans to Libby Dechman at The deadline for comment is December 1, 2009.

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Filed under Access Issues, Authority Work, Social catalogue, Subject Headings, The Library Catalogue

Aboriginal Peoples in Canada – LAC’s Canadian Subject Headings Announcement

August 2009 – Announcement from Library and Archives Canada (LAC)

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) initiated a review in 2007 of the terminology used in Canadian Subject Headings (CSH) to identify Aboriginal peoples in Canada. A LAC proposal to change these headings was posted on several discussion lists for comment. To recap, the proposal was to change the existing headings “Indians of North America” to “First Nations”, “Native peoples” to “Aboriginal peoples” and headings for individual peoples such as “Sarcee Indians” to simply “Sarcee”.

The feedback we have received since then from some 35 institutions or individuals indicates a recognition of the inadequacies and outdatedness of many of the existing headings. However, some users of CSH expressed concern about systems difficulties for them when Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and CSH terms differ for the same concepts, as they would if LAC were to go ahead with the proposed changes. There was also some concern raised about the choice of the proposed new headings, and a lack of consensus on better terminology.

LAC has studied the feedback to the proposal thoroughly, and also consulted with the editors of LCSH and RVM as to future directions in those lists, considering that terminology differs in Canada and the United States. Based on these factors, LAC has decided not to go ahead for now with the changes as proposed. We will instead make a start by considering changing headings for specific Aboriginal peoples on a case by case basis, to see what we can do to improve access. We would be pleased to hear specific suggestions for terminology changes in line with this direction.

Since the overall problems with subject headings for Aboriginal peoples remain, LAC is not closing the file on this question. However, we believe the modest approach outlined above will serve to make a start at improving access in the short run.

This anouncement, released by David Farris of LAC, made the rounds on the listservs early last week. If you belong to AUTOCAT, in particular, there was quite a bit of discussion on this post.

I was disappointed with LAC’s statement, hoping that all of Canada would have the national library to look to for direction. But I’m hopeful for the future. In the meantime, our own library has taken this project on and, to our way of thinking, improved access to our First Nation/Aboriginal Peoples collections. This is the content from my post on AUTOCAT with respect to LAC’s announcement:

Several years ago, we changed our SH’s to reflect the needs of our local community, and, in general, the Canadian public. When we proposed our changes, I sent the information to LAC and while they were very interested, they weren’t ready at that time to take any steps. I believe going ahead with these changes may have labeled us “Radical Cataloguers” but we had to decide whether it was better to continue using inaccurate terms created by the US, or Canadian terms that more appropriately represent our unique culture and Peoples.

As with any heading, I think labeling is tricky as self-identifying terms change over time. However, we felt that if our national library was not in a position to make the change, we are. We’re the first library in Canada to do this. Crazy? Maybe, but better to take a step in the right direction, make mistakes and learn from them. At least our communities see that we are trying and are very appreciative.

If you want to take a look at the terms we have now implemented and are using (and my thoughts on the topic),check out these posts:
Native Peoples v. Indigenous Peoples v. Aboriginals…are any of the terms really any good?

Indigenous Peopls v. Native Peoples Cataloguing Guidelines
**As a follow-up to this article, we have now implemented the use of First Nations in our catalogue

Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples Resources

And, if you want to see the use of these terms in action, you can search Halifax Public Libraries’ catalogue.


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Graphic Novels: Cataloguing Issues

It seems that no matter how many times we revisit our rules for cataloguing graphic novels (and when I say graphic novels, I include graphic non-fiction), a new issue always seems to creep up.

Lynne LeGrow, in her new blog Cataloguing Aids, brings up the issue of main entry access points.   Given that graphic novels consist mainly of illustrations, should the main entry be the illustrator, or the author?  Lynne writes:

My personal opinion is that when dealing with graphic novels one should be consistent and always use the artist as the main entry, providing an added entry for the author of the text.  Anyone searching for copy lately will realize that there seems to be no consistency whatsoever.  Some give the main entry to the author, some to the artist.  To my horror, I have found copy that names only the author and the artist is not even given an added entry.  This practice is in direct violation of AACR2 rule 21.30K2.

To further muddy the argument, we must remember Rule 21.24 Collaboration between Artist and Writer.  Rule 21.24 states that ‘collaboration’ in this case means that the artist and the author have worked to produce the work.  The rule states that if collaboration exists then the main entry is entered under the person named first on the title page, with an added entry provided for the second named person.  A further obstacle to consistent cataloguing is that many graphic novels do not have title pages, and often the publisher gets very creative with the cover.

Lynne and I are colleagues, so I understand her point of view. In fact, we’ve discussed it and I’m in agreement.  However, that doesn’t mean that our records necessary reflect this!

In the case of graphic novels, our existing records or rules don’t address the unique difficulty in cataloguing them.  Another of the cataloguers in my department has indicated that an access point with a geographic subdivision is also important.  These subvisions would indicate if the graphic novel is out of Japan, the United States and so on.  Since graphic novels vary in “flavour” depending on their country of origin, avid readers of Manga or graphic novels from Japan may have no interest in graphic novels from the United States.

The same can be said about the main entry.  Are readers looking for the writer of the story, or are they more interested in the artist?

While there is significant literature available discussing which Dewey number should be assigned to graphic novels and where they should be shelved, little is written about access points specific to graphic novels or content that enhances our bibliographic records.

While we are muddling through, our collections are growing.  I anticipate a very significant graphic novel project in the future at Halifax Public Libraries – where Lynne and I, as well as several other colleagues, will take a serious look at what interests readers and how we can provide them with the best and most useful information within our bibliographic records.

In the meantime, here are some additional resources to check out:

Graphic Novels, University of Urbana-Champaign

Cataloguing Resources –  The MinervaCats blog, out of Maine, includes a nice list of graphic novel resources about halfway through the resource list.

Cataloguing Graphic Novels and Graphic Non-fiction, Part I

Cataloguing Graphic Novels and Graphic Non-fiction, Part II

Cataloguing Resources – Lewis & Clark Library System


Filed under Access Issues, Subject Headings

Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples Resources

Many of you have read about my Indigenous Peoples subject heading project or my post  Native Peoples v. Indigenous Peoples v. Aboriginals…are any of the terms really any good? I am thrilled to finally let you know that this project is nearing its completion and the changes and creation of authorities have been implemented.   At least, the completion as it stands today (terminology is alawys changing and evolving).  Throughout this project, we questioned our knowledge on these subjects and went to various resources to assist us in our decision making.  Many of you also played a role by providing me with feedback and your own opinion.

There has been some resistance regarding the fact that I made the decision to deviate from accepted or proper authorities.  But, my question was, proper to whom?  Do the First Nations of Canada really want to be called “Indians of North America — Canada”?  Do the Mi’kmaq really want to be represented by the term Micmac?  We feel very good about what we’ve accomplished in our catalogue and that we’ve moved one step closer to properly representing a culturally diverse and thriving Peoples in Canada. 

So, for many of you who are also looking into resources to help out with projects in your own library, I’d like to recommend the AILA’s Subject Access and Classification Committee’s wiki.

Also, a blog that recently came to my attention is Loriene Roy’s From All Directions.


Filed under Access Issues, Authority Work, Subject Headings

Cataloguing Potpourri

While I’ve been on holiday, there have been some interesting cataloguing posts and information made available. Here’s a sampling:

Beyond the Dewey Decimal System – Washington Times, June 23, 2008

EBSCO and ATLA to Create Digital Archives for Purchase

Karen Calhoun’s New Blog

LC’s Task Force on Competencies and Education for a Career in Cataloging – Minutes
Not only are the minutes from ALA’s mid-winter meeting up, but the Task Force is now moving ahead on their projects. More to come on this as we gather information and start pulling together our resources. This is a first for me, so I’m excited to let you know about my own experiences on this task force.

LSCH on the Web

PALINET presentations

RAPI: Another open-source OPAC

Why do we Dewey? PLA 2008 session handout

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Filed under future of cataloguing, Our Profession, Subject Headings