Challenging LCSH – an introduction

Catalogues shape our libraries to a massive extent, but their influence is often underestimated. I’m not just talking about filing order, I’m talking about how we classify books and the huge impact this can have on our library users.  The tools (classification schemes, subject headings) we use have fundamental flaws when used blindly, and as librarians (even non-cataloguing librarians!) we need to be self-aware and use them critically.

A proviso – I am a cataloguing nerd. Can’t help it, I’m afraid! The cataloguing and classification portion of my course is the reason I’m studying at UCL and the Taxonomy Division sessions at SLA 2015 made my heart sing. Naturally, I chose to focus on cataloguing issues for my final library school assignment, so I’ve spent my summer delving in to the depths of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), to see how they cope with another of my interests – feminist history and Women’s Studies. This is my argument as to why using subject headings properly is so important – strap yourself in, this is going to get theoretical.

Books on the shelf will just sit there if they aren’t described properly in the catalogue. It’s a fundamental part of Ranganathan’s rules – ‘Save the time of the reader’ is the obvious one but I’d argue ‘Every book its reader’ is more important here (told you we’d be getting theoretical!). Once we move past known item retrieval (getting the shelfmark of a book we already have details for) and into keyword searching then we need the books to be properly described. Titles can be misleading, books in a monograph series can be completely obscure and the full weight and worth of your collection can be missed if your users can’t find anything on the content and subject of material alongside bibliographic data. It’s also a natural way for users to search the catalogue. Controlled vocabularies like LCSH mean that users know how books are described and can follow a trail through your catalogue, and cataloguers can be consistent – but controlled vocabularies don’t always emulate natural language.

One quick note – if it’s in all caps, it’s an LSCH taken directly from the LC Linked Data Service.

These tools are used globally and are of course invaluable – nothing rivals LCSH for size and comprehensiveness and Dewey is thought to be the world’s most widely used classification system. The problem with this dominance, though, is that monolithic structures can get so far away from common uses of language, and take a long time to adapt. They also represent a particular world view – in the case of LCSH, a well documented Anglo-American, patriarchal, white middle class view. Improvements have been made, thanks to the tireless work of librarians campaigning for change, but more can and should be done.

Sanford Berman is probably the most influential of these campaigners, and we owe him a great debt. As well as famously challenging the LC to change ELECTRIC LAMP, INCANDESCENT to LIGHT BULBS, Berman challenged the worldview of LCSH and advocated changes to outdated, inaccurate and outright offensive subject headings.

Let’s take LIBRARIANS as an example. In the narrower terms, alongside specialisms, we find WOMEN LIBRARIANS – but there isn’t an accompanying MEN LIBRARIANS. This is an improvement from the older form WOMEN AS LIBRARIANS but still positions the male as the default and women as a specialist group. This is down to literary warrant – there needs to be a book on that topic in the Library of Congress collections for a subject heading to be created. This means the LCSH reflects publishing trends and society’s status quo that position people of colour or non-male subjects as specialist groups.

Add to this the fact that there’s no way to represent intersections in a simple way – taking LIBRARIANS again, you have to decide – GAY LIBRARIANS or WOMEN LIBRARIANS? Without a way to combine these the cataloguer has to resort to numerous subject headings per record, slowing them down and possibly meaning they have to be selective – if internal policy is three subject headings per record (a common idea) then how do you represent a person fully? You run the risk of marginalising parts of your user base by making it difficult or impossible to find books about themselves.

This work is so important – if our users cannot see themselves properly reflected in the dominant classification tools then what message are we sending? If our collections aren’t serving our users then what’s the point of our library?

I challenge each and every one of you to pay attention to the material you’re using and how it’s described – is it representative? Does it fit your collection and your users? Can you make changes? It’s hard, especially without many resources, but it’s our duty to try.

Examples of odd, awkward or hilariously outdated subject headings are always appreciated as a procrastination tool, share some below!


If this has sparked an interest, here’s some further reading:

Berman, Sanford, Prejudices and antipathies: a tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Jefferson: McFarland and Co, 1993 [Free online through Berman’s website here]

Olsen, Hope A., The Power to Name: Representation in Library CatalogsSignsVol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 2001) , pp. 639-668 [Free online]

Roberto, K.R. (ed.), Radical Cataloging: Essays at the front. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2008.

Roberto, Katia, and West, Jessamyn, Revolting librarians redux : radical librarians speak out. Jefferson, N.C. ; London : McFarland, 2003

West, Celeste, and Katz, Elizabeth, Revolting Librarians. San Francisco : Booklegger Press, 1972

Editor’s note: this post was originally published August 6, 2015.

12 replies

  1. This is an excellent post and, as you say, so important for many reasons. Subject headings can promote – or, unfortunately, minimize – inclusivity. The issue of not consistently using subject headings is a problem at my library. This is a problem if patrons are browsing the catalog by using the subject headings to look for similar books. Sometimes a too narrow subject heading can result in a patron finding only a single similar book, when in reality we have 10 or 20 books on the same subject. Too broad subject headings can return too many results, causing some patrons to just grab the first one instead of hunting for the best resource for their topic.

    There is a reason every library student takes an introduction to library organization class even if they plan to stay as far away as possible from cataloging: How we describe our books is vitally important to every person who works in the library, from pages to directors. We all have to think critically about it, even if we aren’t the cataloging librarian. Only then can the system continue to evolve to meet the needs of patrons.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a very interesting read. I will follow up on those great references too!

    I sometimes wonder if this problem is ever able to be resolved without mashing the OPAC up more with user generated folksonomies and tag clouds. It seems that findability on this deeper identity level that you speak of (and I totally agree with everything you say) cannot truly exist without a layer of conversational context to act as a real time suppliment to subject headings. But then, how not to muddy the water so much that it all becomes pea soup?! Or how to avoid representing the only vocal minority…? Ahh so many challenges for we librarians!

    I look forward to reading more from you.



  3. For what it’s worth, I’d also recommend an article by Deborah Lee [Indigenous knowledge organization: A study of concepts, terminology,structure and (mostly) Indigenous voices. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 6(1), 1-33, 2011] and a book chapter by Elinor Mazé [Creating Metadata for Oral History in a Digital World, in Oral History and Digital Humanities, eds. D. Boyd and M. Larson, Palgrave, 2014].


    • Thanks for these suggestions, Mary.

      Also, published at the end of last month but blowing up on Twitter today: a special issue of Cataloging & Classification Quarterly on indigenous knowledge organization. Worth a read.


  4. Pingback: Spaces – hls

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s