Subject cataloguing and the principles on which the choice of subject headings should be based

Elaboration, 2016

7 Pages




Principles of subject cataloguing

1. Objectivity

2. Specificity

3. The reader as a focus principle

4. Usage principle

5. The principle of unity

6. Uniformity principle


A look at subject cataloguing with reference to the principles on which the choice of subject headings should be based.


The concept of subject cataloguing appeared on the scene in the mid-nineteenth century. Before then, descriptive cataloging was the only library cataloging that was practiced. Libraries were much smaller than they are today, and scholarly librarians then were able, with the aid of printed bibliographies, to be familiar with everything available on a given subject and guide the users to it. With the rapid growth of knowledge in many fields in the course of the nineteenth century and the consequential increase in the volume of books and other library materials, it became desirable to do a preliminary subject analysis of such works and then to represent them in the catalogue in such a way that they would be retrievable by subject. This is subject cataloguing (Miller, 2004).

Subject cataloging is that aspect of cataloguing whose focus is the subject content of book or information material. Therefore, subject cataloging encompasses classification and assignment of subject headings for the information items.

According to Miller (2004), subject cataloging deals with what a book or other library item is about, and the purpose of subject cataloging is to list under one uniform word or phrase all the materials on a given topic that a library has in its collection. By doing so, if a person is looking for information on a particular topic; he is able to get it through the subject headings approach. This is the chief aim or purpose of subject cataloging. Subject cataloging also aim to achieve the following purposes:

1. To provide a precise formal description of subject content of an item.
2. It brings together all references to materials on the same subject. Even if these references use different terminology, see and see also facilities are used to make reference to related works. E.g. under the heading recycling, there is a see also reference indicating to look at subheadings under subjects, e.g. Waste Paper--Recycling, Glass Waste--Recycling.
3. It shows subject fields affiliations. By use of see also references, associated subjects which give similar treatment to a work or are similar in meaning etc. For example: Bibliographic description see also Descriptive cataloguing
4. It helps in determining subject content when the title of the work does not completely indicate what the material is all about.
5. It provides access to all relevant materials by subject.
6. Provide additional access to the work via the subject content.

To establish subject headings for a given book or information material, the cataloguer uses a subject heading list as the base. A subject heading list is an established and standardized list of preferred terms from which the cataloguer selects term(s) to describe the subject of a book or any information material. The major subject heading lists in use in many libraries are the Sears List of Subject Headings, the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and Medical Subject Headings (MeSH).

Principles of subject cataloguing

Before any effort is made to choose and assign subject headings to library materials it is paramount to understand certain principles of subject cataloging upon which the choice of subject terms are based. These are:

1. Objectivity

Headings should not be assigned which reflect a cataloguer’s opinion about the contents. They must be accurate and unbiased. Since human beings perform content analysis in order to determine what the information material is about, there is high probability of subjective interpretation (Salvano, 2013).To come up with objective subject terms, Salvano(2013) suggests that the cataloguer ought to:

- Assess the topic objectively while remaining open-minded
- Consider the author’s intent and the audience. Always this is a very important guiding factor in subject headings selection. It is advisable to follow stated intentions of the author or publisher in such matters as readership, audience level, treatment as fact or fiction, etc.
- Avoid personal value judgments
- Give equal attention to works, including: topics you might consider not so important, appealing and which you don’t agree with.

2. Specificity

When choosing headings, Miller (2004) recommends that the cataloguers should choose and assign headings that are as specific as the topics they cover. A heading that is broader or more general than the topic is supposed to be assigned only in cases where it is not possible to establish a precise heading , when more than one heading is needed to describe the topic, or when the choice of a more general heading is demanded through instructions in the Subject Cataloging Manual. For example:

If a work is on Canadian drama, use:

Canadian drama

Not Canadian literature

not Drama


If a work is on semi-professional baseball, use:

Semi-professional baseball

not Baseball

not Ball games

3. The reader as a focus principle

This principle is also referred to as “user needs Haykin (1951) as quoted by Drabenstott (1998) asserts that “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.” So we must strive to ensure that the headings we come up with and their structures are those users will seek.

4. Usage principle

According to Sears (1986), user needs are best met if headings reflect common or current usage or the usage for users for whom the material is intended. Thus, terms in common use are selected in establishing new subject headings. Hoerman and Furniss (2000) argues that current or common usage of terms is determined through research in reference works, general indexes and thesauri, current literature in the appropriate field, and the works(s) being cataloged. So the cataloguer must do enough research do ascertain the current usage of terms if in doubt.


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