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Subject Cataloguing

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Subject Cataloguing


Subject cataloging is the phase of the cataloging process which is concerned with determining and describing the intellectual or artistic content and the genre/form characteristics of a resource, and translating that understanding into subject headings and classification notations.(Janis L. Young and  Daniel N. Joudrey¹).

After the resource’s aboutness has been determined, as many subject headings as are appropriate are chosen from a standard list. There are many such lists, including Library of Congress Subject Headings (known as LCSH), the LC Genre/Form Terms for Library and Archival Materials, Medical Subject Headings (which is often referred to as MeSH), the Art and Architecture Thesaurus, and so on.

In addition, a classification notation is chosen from whatever classification scheme is used by the library. In the United States, the most likely candidates are the Library of Congress Classification (often referred to as LCC) or the Dewey Decimal Classification (known as DDC).

Traditionally in the U.S., the classification serves as a means for bringing a resource into close proximity with other resources on the same or related subjects. In the case of tangible resources, the classification is the first element of the call number, which is a device used to identify and locate a particular resource on the shelves.


Subject Cataloging Phases

  • Two Phases of Subject Cataloging
    • Conceptual analysis
      • What is it about?
      • What is its form or genre?
    • Translation
      • Controlled vocabulary terms
      • Classification
Historical Development:

Library catalogues have a very extensive history, and can be traced back to the libraries of antiquity. In the 7th century B.C., important libraries in Mesopotamia had author and title catalogues that were posted on walls for user convenience. Callimachus, scholar and chief librarian of the Alexandrian Library in the 3rd century B.C., compiled a huge catalogue of the library’s literature, called the Pinakes. His work later became the foundation for the analytical analysis of Greek Literature. Catalogues have changed dramatically over the centuries, having appeared in many forms, from clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, printed books and cards, microform, to the online versions used today. This essay will examine articles (see reference list for article titles) written by Charles C. Jewett (1853), Charles A. Cutter (1904), and Patrick Wilson (1983), to establish if their ideas concerning the purpose and organization of library catalogues contain any common themes. In differing degrees, each has played a role in the creation of modern cataloguing theory.

Charles C. Jewett and Charles A. Cutter: Nineteenth Century Cataloguing

Charles Jewett was Librarian and Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian before a disagreement with Joseph Henry, First Smithsonian Secretary, relieved him of his position. Jewett demanded that fifty percent of the Smithsonian’s budget be allocated to the development of the national library he envisioned. His insubordination led to his dismissal in January 1855. Later that same year, Jewett was hired as a cataloguer at the Boston Public Library. By 1858, he was the director, the same year that the Index to the Catalogue of a Portion of the Public Library of the City of Boston Arranged in its Lower Hall was published. Many of the cataloguing rules that Jewett developed for the Smithsonian Institute were included, along with some significant changes. Jewett was an advocate of alphabetical catalogues because they offered a lot of convenience, both to cataloguers and users. In Forging the Anglo-American Cataloging Alliance: Descriptive Cataloging, 1830-1908, Virgil L.P. Blake described Jewett’s system like this:

He adopted a single alphabetical strategy, incorporating in one listing author, title, and subject entries. He used full entries and included in the description place of publication, date, and size under the author entry. In the case of second authors, titles, and subject entries, the bibliographic data was not as complete; and the user was expected to go to the more complete author entry if more detail was needed. Jewett, once again, chose to enter works by authors using pseudonyms under their real names when that could be determined. In addition to the author entry, each volume was also entered under a subject heading and again under the first prominent word in the title (Blake 2003,9).

Jewett strongly believed that a national library was needed, which would oversee a collective catalogue for public libraries across the United States. It would provide scholars access to important books and manuscripts, reveal where intellectual disparities existed, and act as a facilitator for the progression of knowledge (Jewett 1853,54). Jewett developed a set of guidelines for his vision. It would allow users to find out where particular books were in the country, with the added possibility of borrowing them. To accomplish his goal of the union catalogue, he proposed the use of stereotype plates, a series of preserved, mass-produced separate titles to be composed in adherence to a set of very strict rules. Uniformity was Jewett’s major concern, advocating the strict and unwavering practice of following guidelines in cataloguing to avoid errors and confusion (Jewett 1853,61), despite how the process would affect the public.

Charles Cutter worked at the Boston Public Library during this same period, and was a cataloguer working under Charles Jewett. Cutter was thoroughly familiar with Jewett’s rules, particularly the ones for author and title entries. Cutter is considered the first to establish a set of systematic cataloguing rules, and is best known for his Rules for a Dictionary Catalog. As much as he advocated rules for cataloguing, he hoped that they would never forsake the library users, who were always first in his thoughts. His credo was “the convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloguer … [saying that] a plain rule is not only easy for us to carry out, but easy for the public to understand and work by” (Cutter 1904,65). He did not see cataloguing as a science, with strict and complex rules, but as an art form that would facilitate the public’s expectations above everything else.

At the time of his writing, the LC printed cards were beginning to appear, and although he feared for the loss of the art of cataloguing, he could see the great benefits the cards would provide to libraries (Cutter 1904,65). Cutter saw catalogues as having three main objectives: to allow the user to find books, if author, title, or subject were known; to act as a display for what the library had by any given author, subject, and in any kind of literature; and to give assistance in book selection, providing edition and character information (Wynar 1985, 16).

Patrick Wilson

In his article, The Catalog as Access Mechanism: Background and Concepts, Patrick Wilson looked at the purpose of library catalogues and endeavoured to show that they do not accomplish the objectives they set out to. He illustrates this by setting up a critique of the work of Charles Cutter, whose theory helped to lay the philosophical foundation for libraries and the services they offer. Wilson maintains that Cutter’s objectives (listed above) were never met, since catalogues do not show everything by a particular author, and the subject index does not fulfil its potential (Wilson 1983,258-260). Without an online system that incorporates circulation information, they are unable to adequately help in locating anything (Wilson 1983,258).

Wilson attempted to dislodge old notions about library catalogues, emphasizing that they are not the last word in bibliographical control. He sees no reason to construct more complex subject indexes because “[they] can’t provide evaluations, and can’t organize materials functionally” (Wilson 1983,266). Subject cataloguing is based on content description, and therefore, can be expected to provide the initial groundwork required to research topics. Anything further will require investigating other sources, such as specialized indexes, bibliographies, and footnotes (Wilson 1983,267). Wilson maintains:

… that the unique contribution of the catalog is, after all, just what most people have always agreed it had to be, to help locate books and texts that may have been learned about elsewhere (Wilson 1983,267).

An Analysis: The Technological Factor

Jewett and Cutter were pioneers in a field requiring brilliance, finely-tuned organizational skills, and a passionate dedication to libraries and the people who use them. They had rather different views of cataloguing, but that was because of their differing perceptions of a catalogue’s purpose and use. Jewett’s vision was of an American national library, with a union catalogue, and included the possibility of incorporating European countries as well. Standardization and a strict adherence to procedures would be imperative, if there could be any chance of success. On the other hand, precise and uncompromising regulations were not prerequisites for Cutter, who tried to lay down some basic rules for catalogue use in American public libraries, while keeping the public in mind at all times.

Examining them collectively is fair, because neither lived to see the technological advancements destined to reshape libraries, nor had computers changed the world, making all things seem possible. Both were visionaries, whose work transformed libraries. Jewett foresaw the interlibrary loan system; the inclusion of subject indexes; and the genius of his stereotype plates were realized in Library of Congress printed cards. Cutters’ principles were extremely influential in the development of the Library of Congress’ classification scheme and Subject Headings, still in use today.

Computers changed library environments and gave the process of information retrieval many more avenues, no longer making main entry an author or title record. As Wilson has pointed out, computer catalogues have made main entries obsolete; altered how they make entries; and transformed catalogues into search stations that can use various prompts to retrieve information (Wilson 1983,261 262). Computer cataloguing, no longer limits libraries to only author and title entries, and they are necessarily connected to circulation records. For Jewett and Cutter, inflexible, conventional choices for determining access and location were their only reality.

Concluding Remarks

Patrick Wilson’s observations have the advantages of hindsight and the explosion in technological development. Not all of Charles Cutter’s objectives could stand the test of time, especially considering the expansion of the universe of knowledge. Nevertheless, his contribution to the discipline of librarianship is still great. One remaining question that does warrant comment is have library catalogues become more flexible and less costly to build and manage? From the mid-1800s onward, there has been a preoccupation with cost, which has remained an underlying concern for catalogue designers. The price of keeping track of and organizing the world of knowledge in Jewett’s catalogue prompted him to come up with the idea of stereotype plates. Cutter lamented the art of cataloguing, but could see the economic advantages for libraries, if they used LC cards. What about the OPACs? Have they relieved financial burdens for libraries?

Computer catalogues are more flexible, allowing more entry points and quick changes in the system, but they are quite expensive. The other factor is the speed at which technologies are changing. With the economic realities affecting libraries today, keeping up will be difficult. Online catalogues do provide additional searching possibilities, but there are still problems, such as the incompleteness of the data included. As Wilson points out, catalogues, computerized or not, cannot be considered the last word (Wilson 1983,257).

The other complexity is how technological advancements have affected user access. In the past, the process was user-friendly. Currently, it seems that librarians may be the only ones with the skills needed to access information from some new systems. As Jane D. Schweinsburg stresses, it is critical that librarians share their knowledge with patrons. If not, an impenetrable rift will develop between those who have the power to obtain information and those who do not (Schweinsburg 1995,40).

The last 150 years have seen changes in the ideological purpose and organization of library catalogues. They have gone from lists of books, containing limited amounts of information, to globally-interconnected indexes with vast amounts of bibliographic data. The passing of time has witnessed changes in cultural expectations and technological evolutions, but one thing that remains constant is that libraries and their catalogues will play a role in our quest for knowledge and understanding in a sea of information.

Related Papers

Online Public Access Computers and the Rediscovery of Authority Control
Library Catalogues and Collection Development
National Bibliographies and Collection Development
Reference List

Cutter, C.A. 1904. Rules for a Dictionary Catalog: Selections, pp. 62-71 in Foundations of Cataloguing, ed. by M. Carpenter and E. Svenonius. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.
Jewett, C. 1853. Smithsonian Catalogue System, pp. 48-61 in Foundations of Cataloguing, ed. by M. Carpenter and E. Svenonius. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.
Blake, Virgil L.P. Forging the Anglo-American Cataloging Alliance: Descriptive Cataloging, 1830-1908, pp. 3-22 in Historical Aspects of Cataloging and Classification, Volume 1, ed. by Martin D. Joachim. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Information Press, 2003.
Schweinsburg, Jane. Professional Awareness of the Ethics of SelectionJournal of Information Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1995, pp. 33-42.
Wilson, P. 1983. The Catalog as Access Mechanism: Background and Concepts, pp. 253-268 in Foundations of Cataloguing, ed. by M. Carpenter and E. Svenonius. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.
Wynar, B.S. Introduction to Cataloguing and Classification, 7th ed. Littleton, Co.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1985.
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