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Sears List of Subject Heading

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Sears List of Subject Heading


Vocabulary control is important for providing subject access to information in libraries and databases. Names of subjects called, subject descriptors, must be standardized for use in subject catalogues, otherwise our information retrieval system will be chaotic and inefficient.

The Sears List of Subject Headings (popularly called the Sears List) is a known tool for assigning standardized subject headings to all types of documents in a general small libraries having upto 20,000 titles in all subjects. In Pakistani and Indian conditions it is suitable for public, college and small university libraries. Research, special and large libraries may not find it adequate or detailed enough for subject cataloguing their collections.


A standard and popular subject cataloguing tool for more than eight decades, the Sears List of Subject Headings was first designed in 1923 by Minnie Earl Sears (1873-1933) in deference to demands of small libraries for simpler and broader subject headings for use in their dictionary catalogues. Such libraries were finding L C subject headings list too detailed, complicated and also costly. As compared to the LCSH the Sears List has simple phrasing. The first edition contained only 3200 preferred headings. The list become popular for dictionary catalogues of medium and small size libraries. The 2nd (1926) and 3rd (1933) editions were again edited by her. From fourth to fourteenth (1939/1991) editions, it was regularly updated to include new subject headings and modernize the terminology of old ones, if needed. But the format continued the same with some new features such as the addition of Abridged DDC numbers. The orientation to the online environment started with the 13th edition (1986), edited jointly by Carmen Rovira and Caroline Reyes. It was the first edition to be created as an online database for editorial use. It initiated changes to suit online databases and OPACs searches by transcribing headings in natural form with most of the inverted headings being recast to go with the changed approach of users in searching electronic information. It is believed that majority of the users search subjects of an electronic database by natural form of their names. For example, Art became Islamic art to suit searches in online databases. “Library, Public” was changed to “Public library”, similarly “Chemistry, Organic” was changed to Organic chemistry”. This also eased the congestion of entries under a single entry word. For example, all entries pertaining to libraries were now filed by the initial word instead of all converging under the word ‘library’, i.e. ‘Public libraries’ filed under ‘p’ and ‘School libraries’ under ‘s’. With the creation of the electronic database came frequent updates with new topics, current terminology and subject indexing theories. The 13th and subsequent editions follow ALA Filing Rules (1980). The de-inversion of heading lasted till to the 15th edition, the first edition edited by Dr Joseph Miller, now Vice President of the H W Wilson Company, New York.. Joseph Miller further edited editions 16(1997), 17(2000), 18th (2004) and 19th(2007) the later two editions were edited with the assistance of same associate editor.

Each edition of the Sears List strengthens and continues the policies and consolidates the reforms that began with the 15th edition. It is indeed an era of innovations in Sears. The latest knowledge from information sciences and information seeking behavior has been deployed to modernize the internal structure and grammar of the Sears List. Continuing adaptation constitutes the key to its success and popularity in the shifting sands of the information-seeking behavior of users. But the list is still a living manifestation of the principles of subject cataloguing put forth by C.A. Cutter (1837-1903).

Since the beginning the Sears List has always been published by the H.W. Company, New York who are its proprietors and copyright holders. Its editor is an employee of the Company. Its new editions are produced regularly to:

* Incorporate new subjects and their terms

* Restructure the form of old headings based on the changing information needs and information seeking behaviour of the users.

* Give new terms to old subject headings based on current usage

* Delete the obsolete terms.

* Discover new relations between subjects and terms thereof.

Many of the new headings are suggested by the working librarians, bibliographic products vendors, and the specialists with the H W Wilson Company. It simply means the new terms are from the recently published literature.

Orientation to the online environment started with the 13th edition (1986). It was the first edition to be created as an online database for editorial use Miller de-inversion process was completed.

Another important change introduced since its 15th edition is its thesaurus format of listing subject headings by using standard thesaural abbreviations, i.e. NT, BT, RT, USE and SA instead of x, xx, etc. Thesaurus format conform to the ANSI/NISO Standard (American Standards Institution) (1993). It gave every page a new totally new look. Though the format made easy work of cataloguers, yet it had little effect on the public catalogues and their users. Nevertheless, Sears remains a list of subject headings because it is still a general list for pre-coordinated subject headings, whereas a thesaurus is for a specialized subject area for use in post-coordinated subject searching. The current edition is the 19th (2007) edited by Joseph Miller in association with Barbara A Bristow.

Changes in and a Brief Review of the 19th edition (2007)

Sears’ philosophy is to accommodate change while maintaining sound continuity. There are about 440 new SHs in the new edition, though seminal changes are none. New headings are in the areas of computers, IT, politics, popular culture and psychology. Total number of preferred headings is likely to the tune of 8000, yet the number of headings that can be coined or subdivided is, as usual, much larger.

Two major areas of new additions are Islam (very obvious) and graphic novel-latter has thirty headings perhaps formulated from the WilsonWeb Database on Graphic Novels Core Collection. Islam has constantly remained in news since the 9/11 attacks, and many US schools have now introduced curricula on Islamic religion and culture. Some other new headings are: Reality shows, Suicide bombers, Stem cell research, Body piercing and many more drawn from literary warrant. Some other changes are in cancelled or modified headings (p. xlii): Biological diversity becomes Biodiversity, Native peoples has been replaced by Indigenous peoples. Some headings have been fine tuned, e.g., Fictitious character becomes Fictional character. “Principles …” has been expanded a bit to formulate headings in some areas, namely, Native Americans, Government policy, and Mythology and folklore.

Some subdivisions in the main list do not appear in the separate “List of Subdivisions…” (p. xlv+): Following list is only random:

Bible ————————— Natural history

Food ————————— Fi ber content

Photography —————- Enlarging

Popular music ————– Writing and publishing

In fact these are very specific and exclusive subdivisions, which have resulted from the de-inversion of all the headings and are not subdivisions in the real sense. As an another contention Hindu philosophy should be Indian philosophy-latter term is apt and popular. Legally seeking Hindu philosophy is only a part, of the Indian philosophy. In the Sears Indian philosophy has not even been recognized as a non-preferred term. As other anomaly we can have two synonymous headings, Earth-Satellites and Moon for the same celestial entity. Under Body piercing RT could have been Tattooing and vice-versa. Moon worship and Sun worship have not been related. One wonders which small library will need SH “Napkin folding”; “Table setting and decorations” seems more than sufficient.

Principles of Vocabulary Control

Every system of controlled vocabulary is based on some principles regarding:

* Choice of preferred headings (i.e. usable descriptors)

* Levels of specificity of terms (Depth of subject analysis allowed)

* Form and structure of preferred headings (Grammar of headings).

These issues make principles of the system and grammar of the headings (indexing language). Choice and structure of the headings is determined by user studies and the literary warrant. Level is determined by the strength of collection, level of users and above all by the library policy.

Principles of the Sears List

From the very beginning as a matter of policy, the Sears List has always been based on the principles of the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) with certain modifications needed for simplification. The principles of the Sears List are:

* Direct and specific entry

* Common usage

* Uniformity and consistency

It may be noted these are the same principles which C.A. Cutter (1837-1903) gave in his famous Rules for a Dictionary Catalog (1873). These principles have been explained in Sears 19 (2007) on pages xvi-xxii.

Specific entry

It means a subject should be entered under its most specific heading, not under the class to which it belongs. For example, Rose should be entered under “Rose”, not under “flowers”. Penguin is entered “Penguins”, not under “Birds” or even “Water birds”. Similarly, Guide dogs are entered under “Guide dogs” not “dogs”. But specificity is a matter of relativity depending upon the strength of collection, levels of the users, and on the policy of the library.

Direct entry

It means that the specific heading chosen should be entered directly as the lead point, instead of a subdivision. For example, Penguins is entered as such instead of Water birdsPenguins. Similarly use “Barbie doll” instead of Dolls-Barbie doll, Roses instead of Flowers-Roses dolls.

Common usage

The terms chosen as preferred headings are from common usage. If a word has more than one spellings, then the most popular one is chosen for this purpose. (It may be noted that the Sears uses American spellings drawn Webster and Random House dictionaries. But the Indian libraries should use British spellings). It uses common and popular terms instead of scientific or technical terms or jargon. That is the Sears uses terms current among lay users. For example, it uses “Dinners” instead of “Banquets”; “Birds” instead of “Ornithology”; and “Renaissance” instead of Renascence.


This is the very reason for compiling such tools. It means that a heading once chosen should be consistently and uniformly applied in its scope, meaning and spellings until a decision is taken to the contrary. It, however, does not mean that old terms cannot be changed or deleted, or new terms cannot be added. The Sears continuously does it.

Structure of the Sears List

Sears List is an alphabetical [arranged word by word according to ALA Filing Rules (1980)] general list of standard names of subjects is English language for use in small and medium size libraries. It provides subject headings for the entire range of knowledge. The latest edition (19th, 2007) has the following bibliographic details:

Sears, Minnie Earl. Sears List of Subject Headings – 19th ed./ edited by Joseph Miller; associate editor, Barbara A Bristow. New York; Dublin: The H.W. Wilson Company, 2007. ii, 823p, ISBN-1 3:978-0-8242-1 076-2.

It is in two parts: More information is here :,20%2C000%20titles%20in%20all%20subjects.