Library of Congress Subject Headings and Undergraduates Carol Rain Hagy
Undergraduates come to our college and university libraries without an understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings.
Wait, back up. The vast majority of them do not know what subject headings are , let alone how to use them or the finer points of effective searching.
Moreover, many of them are overwhelmed by the university library itself. They may have never seen so many books all in one place. They are not sure what periodicals are. Or microfilm. Fiche. What are they called? They can’t remember.
Many are, for the first time, sharing space with roommates, choosing all of their own meals, and having to wake themselves up in time to go to class.
They might be 1800 miles from their best friends or at schools larger than their hometowns. They are dealing with a lot of changes.
“ Wow. I’ve never been in a two-story library before.” --freshman in her first week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005
They are distracted, and their brains are full.
Even those who consider themselves library-savvy are often confronting new systems of organization and things on a much larger scale.
“ What kind of library doesn’t use the Dewey Decimal System?” --brand-new freshman at Texas Christian University, 1992
Many are not library-savvy. In fact, many are downright scared of libraries.
(This is so common it has a name—it’s called “library anxiety.”)
They come to the library to find information for assignments without really knowing what they are looking for. They are often uncertain about their topics, and, if they are brave enough to talk to librarians, may find they can’t really articulate their needs or interests.
(And if they can’t talk about it in plain, human language, can they put it in words a computer can understand? Maybe not.)
“ I knew where the card catalogs were, but there were so many little drawers, I wouldn’t even know where to start.” --undergraduate, early 1980s
This seems to be a normal stage of the search process, not some aberrant side effect of too much television on a generation.
Many start by plugging keywords into the library catalog. They might not know any other way to do it, or they might just think it is easier. Looking for a good subject heading doesn’t occur to them.
(This growing preference for keywords was noticed long before Google. Researchers in the 1980s puzzled over it.)
Researchers describe first-year students as impatient searchers. They tend to only look at one screen of results. They go back to the search boxes and try new terms rather than refine their original searches. They quickly settle for something “good enough.” They don’t use Boolean operators. They like to follow links.
They do not, as a whole, show any understanding of Library of Congress Subject Headings. They also express little curiosity about exploring the catalog itself.
“ I don’t think I click.” --freshman at the Pennsylvania State University, 2002
There are those who say, well, Library of Congress Subject Headings are out-of-date anyway. They are relics of a card-based system. Students use keyword searching because that works fine. Why do we spend all this money and energy on creating and maintaining subject headings when we obviously don’t need them?
We don’t have time and space here to go into detail about why these people are totally wrong. But it is true that LCSH has a few problems and these are worth examining. Perhaps we can help these students better find the information they need.
One problem is that the vocabulary students use doesn’t always match LCSH.
(Why does LCSH use “motion pictures” and not “movies”?)
Another is that the syntax can be confusing. LCSH often strings together many concepts.
(“Art criticism -- France -- Paris – History -- 18th century -- Bibliography”?)
Cross-references, of course, exist, and they help a lot. Experience helps as well. But it is easy to see how students, once introduced to LCSH, might not quite believe it will make searching work better.
“ The stuff didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t find the right article. When I was looking at books in the reference area that tell you specific names that the online uses, I saw ‘Languages and Languages,’ which made no sense to me.” --undergraduate, early 1990s
LCSH is not ideal for cataloging interdisciplinary works, as it can be lacking in ways to show relationships between subjects.
(“Teenage girls -- United States -- Attitudes” and “Feminism -- United States,” but there is no easy way to clarify that the book is about feminist attitudes of teenage girls.)
When assigning subject headings, catalogers try to be as specific as possible while still describing the contents of the whole work. That means something about grown children of alcoholics will be under “Adult children of alcoholics.” This makes sense. But students—especially ones new to the subject, new to research, or new to exploring the topic for an assignment—will start out looking under very broad terms. In this case, the student is likely to begin with “alcoholics,” not find much, and abandon the idea without realizing that good, specific books exist.
Is there something better?
If we replaced LCSH, what would we replace it with?
Well, another kind of controlled vocabulary is being developed called FAST (Faceted Application of Subject Terminology).
FAST is based on LCSH, but has a simplified vocabulary. It would be more flexible and have a simpler structure.
FAST has eight different facets:
form (type, genre)
chronological (time, period)
Supporters say that FAST will work better in our electronic world and be easier to maintain. It will allow post-coordinate indexing as well as pre-coordinate.
(Post-coordinate means that the searcher is putting the terms together; pre-coordinate means that the system has combined the concepts for the searcher.)
Not everyone is ready to kick LCSH to the curb, however. It has been around for a hundred years and we have been constantly adapting and refining it. We might be able to continue to make it better.
Supplementary Finding Aids
Libraries are also experimenting with portals, pathfinders, and social bookmarking. These tools can help librarians and professors guide students to good resources on topics, and, in some cases, can allow students to recommend good sources to each other.
Library systems vendors are also interested in these developments.
The University of Pennsylvania is one school where students have taken to tagging.
The bigger the word, the more sources are tagged, or labeled, with that word. If you click on “copyright,” you are taken to a list of sources about copyright. Anyone affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania can tag something in their catalog.
We need to be better educating our undergraduates on how to effectively search for subjects. Tagging or FAST or improved keyword capabilities are not going to substitute for some simple skills and a deeper understanding of how controlled vocabulary can work in one’s favor.
Although academic libraries reach out to students through freshman orientations, Introduction to College courses, English composition courses, dedicated library instruction courses, and in many other ways, few of these programs and classes seem to be long enough for librarians to incorporate much information on subject searching.
Students also learn best when they have a reason to immediately apply a freshly-learned library skill, so early-in-the-semester general introductions to the library can be less effective.
(Remember, too, they have to cram these new skills into brains that are already busy learning Introduction to Philosophy, the location of the late-night Wendy’s, and the name of the cute guy two rows over in English class.)
Fortunately, there is evidence that students do learn to search better with a little instruction. If we take the time to explain some basic concepts about Library of Congress Subject Headings, we can help students improve the results of their searches. Students should know that there is an alternative (and supplement) to keyword searching (although they may resist using it!), but they are not going to be able to figure out how it works on their own.
“ My instructor told me to always put search terms on separate lines.” --freshman at Penn State, 2004, after a library instruction class
For Further Reading
On library anxiety:
Mellon, Constance A. “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development.” College & Research Libraries 47.2 (1986): 160-65.
On the search process:
Kuhlthau, Carol C. “Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42.5 (1991): 361-71.
On keyword searching:
Larson, Ray R. “The Decline of Subject Searching: Long-Term Trends and Patterns of Index Use in an Online Catalog.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42.3 (1991): 197-215.
Novotny, Eric. “I Don’t Think I Click: A Protocol Analysis Study of Use of a Library Online Catalog in the Internet Age.” College & Research Libraries 65.6 (2004): 525-37.
On problems with LCSH:
Carlyle, Allyson. “Matching LCSH and User Vocabulary in the Library Catalog.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 10.1-2 (1989): 55-56.