“On the Subject of Subjects” by Arlene G. Taylor

“On the Subject of Subjects” offers extensive insights into the field of subject cataloging as it stood in 1995. From the beginning, librarians have been inclined to ignore or look down upon subject cataloging and searching, despite the fact that catalog use statistics have shown subject searching to be one of the most common methods of information-seeking. Certainly the Internet is the site of many, many subject searches, although its efficacy is hindered by the lack of trained librarians sorting and organizing it. However, many librarians are beginning to create guides and organizational tools to help combat the chaos that is the Web. Taylor offers examples of this, both in professionally organized and freelance contexts. One such endeavor (tremendously optimistic, from our later view) involves cataloging useful websites with standard MARC records and URLs, adding the records into the OCLC. The article also touches on standards work being done (including such efforts as Core records, Dublin Core, and TEI Headers), which will determine the future of subjects. This leads to a discussion of controlled vocabulary, which some commentators believe have been made obsolete by keyword searching. Taylor disagrees with this, pointing out that although keywords may work for a casual searcher looking for any kind of result, they are often nearly useless for dedicated researchers with very specific needs. This also relates to the problem of specific entries, and being able to provide entries specific enough for researchers to find what they are looking for even while the ways in which subjects are referred to continue to change. Also mentioned is the controversy regarding classification, and how it is to be adapted from a physical to a Web setting. After touching on these topics, Taylor continues on to a lengthier discussion of OPACs. OPACs’ subject searches often provide either too many or too few results, stemming from users’ unfamiliarity with subject headings, the problem being exacerbated by the ways in which results are displayed. The article discusses various research avenues being explored to correct these flaws, such as improving relational structures within catalogs and routing zero-hit searches through actions likely to produce some type of results. Finally, the article closes with a discussion of Library of Congress Subject Headings, noting a variety of recommendations which have been made to help make LCSH easier for users to navigate.

Taylor certainly is competent, and her article provides a thorough look at the forces that were shaping the future of subject searching and subject headings at the time of her writing. The topics touched on are also interesting to regard in retrospect, seeing how some of the issues have since been addressed, or remained in a somewhat altered form. But the article is terribly dated, as it is partially written about the rapidly changing world of the Internet. I think that a newer article about the current state of the subject heading would be much more beneficial to include as a reading.

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