Critical Analysis of Library of Congress Subject Headings

- Tsering Wangyal Shawa

The ideas of Library of Congress Subject Headings came shortly after the Library of Congress was moved from the Capitol Hill to the present building in 1897. When the collections were to be moved to new location, question of how there were going to be organized was the major issue. With the growing collection and pressure to organized the materials in a systematic manner led to the development of what is now called Library of Congress Subject Headings. A lists of Library of Congress Subject headings started with the adoption of Charles A Cutter's Rules for a Dictionary Catalog which was published in 1876. Since then the lists has been continuously edited and supplemented with new words. The adding of new words to the list was necessited by the nature of language. Because language is dynamic and keeps on changing in response to changing environments and development of knowledge. The dynamic nature of language has pose a challenge to the people who manage the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). This paper will examine the various problems faced by the LSCH and the Online user.

The initial development of the lists of subject headings was based on the Library of Congress own collection and their users in the mind. It was not intended to be used by other libraries and therefore was not comprehensive. The main principle of subject headings was "the reader as a focus"as Haykin writes: .. the reader is the focus in all cataloging principles and practice. All other considerations, such as convenience and the desire to arrange entries in some logical order, are secondary to the basic rule that the heading, in wording and structure,should be that which the reader will seek in the catalog, if we know or can presume what the reader will look under. To the extent that the headings represent the predilection of the cataloger in regard to terminology and are dictated by conformity to a chosen logical pattern, as against the likely approach of the reader resting on psychological rather than logical grounds, the subject catalog will lose in effectiveness and ease of approach.

It was clear from Haykin's writing that users were the main focus of the LCSH. The Library of Congress also stated in their policy that: Users needs are best met if headings reflect current usage in regard to terminology. Thus, terms in current use are selected in establishing new subject headings.

This created a question of how to meet the users needs. There were two approaches: Cutter on the one hand beleives that users were the best judge to select form and language of the subject headings and therefore their choice has priority over logic and philosophy of choosing the subject headings whereas, other hand Haykin proposed that a system should adheres to logic and strictly formed principles so that users could learn the system without altering logic and principles of subject headings. This contradiction clearly demonstrated the problem of LCSH from the very inception. This contradiction led to the lack of logic, consistency and pattern in listing the subject headings. In fact, authorised subject headings were made by different individual on the basis of need and common uses rather than on the basis of logic and consistency.

The inconsistency and illogical arragement of subject headings has created rather more confusing to the library users than helping them. For example, to anaysis the subject headings on one books. Suppose subject cataloger wants to catalog a book on Masai languages. First, cataloger will checked under the Masai languages subject headings and finds two references, Use For (UF) and Boarder Term (BT) references. Under the UF, Maasi language was listed and under BT, there were three listings Kenya dash languages, Nilo dash Hamitic languages and Tanzania dash languages. In order to check the consistency cataloger checked how UF reference was listed under Masai languages and was found that it was listed as USE Masai language. Cataloger then checked to see how one of the BT references was listed and was found that under Nilo dash Hamitic languages there were further reference listings of BT and NT (Narrow Term). Under BT, Africa comma Eastern dash languages was listed and under NT Masai languages was listed. Cataloger further checked to see how Africa, Eastern dash languages was listed. Under this title there were couple of NT listings including Nilo dash Hamitic languages. In order to check the consistency and the pattern of the subject listing, once again it was checked to see how Africa comma Eastern dash languages was listed. In the subject headings of Africa comma Eastern, the languages was listed as one of the subdivisions however, on the scope note it was written that "here are entered works on the area extending from Sudan and Ethiopia to Mozambique". In order to confirm the consistency, one of the Sudanese languages was checked on the subject headings and was found that it was not listed under Africa comma Eastern dash languages but under African languages. Similarly it was found that when subject headings for Amharic language (Ethiopian languages) was checked it was neither listed under African languages nor under Africa comma Eastern dash languages. The boarder term for Amharic languages were Ethiopia dash languages or Egypt dash languages.

This inconsistency led to the problem of accessing a material through subject headings. This is especially true with the accessing of library material through Online systems. Suppose a student want to access a topic on Amharic language but he does not know the excit name of the language nor he know how to spell however, he know that it is one of the african languages and he found one of the Sudanese languages by typing african languages under subject headings. Understanding vaguely of how Online systems works, the student then trys to find the Amharic language by typing subject african language, hoping that he might get Amharic language. He get long lists of african languages but not Amharic. The student got fustrated and chaged his mind to look for another book title "geographic information systems and their socioeconomic applications" however, he does not know the excit title but he knew that it is something to do with geographical information systems and socioeconomic. He understands little bit about how to use the boolean logic, then under subject find he types geographical information systems and socioeconomic. The student get long lists of books about GIS but not specific subject. It is because that there was no subject listing of socioeconomic under geographical information systems.

Although the books the student was searching for were in the library but becuase of confusing subject headings he could not locate the books. This confusing subject headings problem is becuase of inherent policy of Library of Congress Subject Headings. Let exmine some of the LCSH problems. Currentness of the subject headings is one of the main policy of the LCSH. In order to add current terminology absolete terms need to be removed however, many of the absolete terms remain in the system becuase it takes time in removing the absolete words. Replacing words with common usage terms yet another problem. This not only takes time in updating the words in the systems but also often result in search failure becuase terms that were submitted are either too genreal or too specific to the systems to match the subject headings. It also true that libraries are used by diverse community with various vocabulary powers. Beside the above examples there are other problems such as inverted headings, generic posting of heading, free-floating subdivisions. These also created difficulty in searching subject headings on Online environment, it is because that the Library of Congress subject headings were initially designed for the card catalog.

There are several possible remedy to over come some of the problems of LCSH in the Online environment. With the Online searching capablities, more subjects headings should be allow to list on the subject field rather than restricting to three. In addition, specific guildeline should be lead down to specify in assingning number of subject headings per title. All inverted heading should be reversed to normal headings. Online searching systems need to be standardised so that person using NOTIS system should not get confuse in using ADVANCE systems. Many of the Online catalog systems do not have thesaurus, this feature should be added so that it will help the users to match their term with subject headings. Lastly, LCSH should look into the possiblities of coding the subject headings either on the basis of concepts or subject or the group of words so that it will relief the Library of Congress from updating whole set of subject headings with common usage words, politically correct terms and many others on regular basis. If they need to update the terms then only thing they need to do is to pull the code and add new words. It is absolutely possible with the sophisticated computer programms. This coding of subject headings will allow the libraries in other countries to add their own terms side by side with the words used by LCSH in the states. It will make the Library of Congress not only the de facto standard for subject cataloging but it will become the standard for subject headings.

Although LCSH has been criticised on ground of it inconsistency, illogical syntax and problem in precise subject retrieval, it is still widely used subject headings for the libraries in the states and other parts of the world. With the changing of library cataloging environment from paper to machine (Online systems), Library of Congress also need to fellow the pace with technology and alter redundence design of subject headings which was meant for card catalog to computer. If they failed to understand the impact of computer environment to the library then their subject headings will slowly become dinosaur of twenth century library.

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Updated on August 6, 1998.