Re: [ACAT] Objectivity in subject headings

Posting to Autocat

I may have missed some posts in this thread but I’ll add my two cents.

Achieving “objectivity” is very hard to imagine in any kind of specific sense, in that you must not only remove yourself and your own experiences completely, you must also remove your own culture (especially today in the world wide web) and also remove time constraints (so that information from centuries ago can be included). Therefore, chasing “objectivity” in subject headings is pretty much fruitless, and that is why subject headings do not aim at “objectivity” but for “consistency” in the principles of exhaustivity and specificity. (See for more discussion)

Consistency is much easier to achieve; it has been proven to be effective, and it is very possible to evaluate the subject analysis of a particular resource in terms of “consistency” while it would be very difficult to do in terms of “objectivity”. The best we can do with objectivity is, as was noted, to take the viewpoint of how a resource describes itself. Yet, the author’s opinion is probably the most subjective approach possible–but the catalog itself can still remain consistent.

The example I use is: when I would catalog books from the Soviet Union, I would forever be getting books that claimed to be about “anti-Soviet propaganda” coming from the US. In reality, the book was “anti-American propaganda” but I could not assign that subject heading because it would be making a subjective leap (if an obvious one–to me), and could use only “Propaganda, Anti-Soviet” or “Propaganda, Anti-Communist”. From the point of view of the function of the catalog, this is fine–so long as the materials receive the same subject headings consistently. If the consistency is lost, everything becomes a grab-bag. (What I think is happening today, but that is another topic)

Problems arise when a searcher, who is obviously unaware of all of this, wants examples of “anti-American propaganda” and they actually have to search “Propaganda, Anti-Soviet”! How can they know? Well, this may be a case when the searcher has to ask a librarian–or, I would suggest notes in the catalog that describe the situation. So, if someone searched “anti-American propaganda” a note would appear that would describe the situation. It was done pretty easily in the card catalog but never made it into the OPACs.

The loss of notes in the catalog (not only scope notes but other aids to using the catalog) were crucial for people to use the catalog even half-way effectively. Unfortunately, they in essence disappeared with the introduction of keyword.