Aboutness : Or Piles of Subject Headings

Aboutness : Or Piles of Subject Headings
How do we determine subject headings for materials in our collection?

Determining subject headings for an item in our collection can be a precarious business. The ability to determine what the item is "about" depends a great deal upon the cataloguer’s knowledge, biases, and judgment. Deciding the "aboutness" of a particular item also relies upon the patrons, which are served by a particular library or library system. To try and confine the "aboutness" of a particular work to the cataloguer's judgment and the patron's conceptions is almost impossible.

Attempting to limit the ideas contained in an item to two or three subject headings denigrates the intellectual work. With merely three subject headings a work can only be treated with a shallow level of exhaustivity. In an attempt to better reflect the aboutness of the works outlined here, the two degrees of exhaustivity that have been outlined by A.G. Brown in Introduction to Cataloguing and Classification were used:

  1. Depth indexing, which aims to "extract all the main concepts dealt with in an item."
  2. Summarization, which recognizes only a dominant, overall subject of an item, recognizing only concepts embodied in the main theme.
In the past, when subject headings have been limited to two or three cards, subject analysis has been carried out at the summarization level. Depth indexing has been limited to the realm of periodical indexes, abstracts, and certain bibliographies. With the automation of the catalogue it is no longer necessary to limit subject headings to the summarization level.

A small caveat: With the ability to do depth indexing the need for summarization level subject headings should not be ignored. It is just as important for the patron looking for information on "dogs" to be able to locate the item needed as it is for the person looking for information on "Labrador Retrievers--Chocolate."

To examine the concept of "Aboutness" five books were chosen. The criteria for selection were:

  1. They are books located in my personal library.
  2. They have been used as resources in classes I have taught to adults.
  3. They were located in two on-line catalogues chosen for comparison.
Each book will be dealt with individually with a brief statement about the book, the subject headings I assigned, subject headings assigned by the on-line catalogues, and Library of Congress subject headings that would be appropriate. An overview of the subject headings will be conducted at the end of the review.

The Catholic Fact Book, by John Deedy was the first book examined. This book presents a brief overview of many aspects of the Catholic Church, its teachings, and famous persons associated with it. It is ideal for the Catholic or non-Catholic interested in basic information about Catholicism. A brief statement in the forward explains its purpose:

Rather it is a one-volume book, containing some encyclopedia information and some almanac data, arranged so as to be read as an informal history of its subject, the Roman Catholic Church. The book is not exhaustive of that subject, and is not meant to be. If occasionally it wanders into the offbeat, the purpose is editorial. The intention is to engage interests, while at the same time providing a certain amount of information and data about Roman Catholics.

From this statement a summarization subject heading would be appropriate. The obvious heading would be: Catholic Church.

Since the book also contains specific areas of information that may be of interest to a patron--this is culled primarily from questions patrons have asked me, and my use of this book, as well as the table of contents--the following subject headings were determined:

  • Catholic Church
  • Catholic Church--Doctrines
  • Catholic Church--Saints
  • Catholic Church--Traditions
  • Catholic Church--Famous Catholics
Due to the topic of the books I chose to search in Catholic, college library catalogues. I used Gonzaga University and Mount St. Mary's College libraries to locate the books. In both the depth indexing that I utilized was missing. In Gonzaga's catalogue the only subject heading given this book was "Catholic Church." In Mount St. Mary's catalogue the only "related term" listed was "Deedy, John G." No subjects were listed. This is distressing. At these Catholic institutions it would not be inconceivable that there would be students and staff that might need to search for specific Catholic areas of study. A student searching for information on the canonization process would find this book useful. A search under "saints" would not hit with this book. A frustrating experience for any patron.

Do you catalogue many books on your own, or do you catalogue using a resource such as Webcat?

Next I will examine the concept that more is not always better. Aboutness : How Subject Headings Are Dertmined

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