Copyright 1996. Brief excerpts from this paper may be quoted if fully cited. Further use is prohibited without the advanced written permission of the author.
I would very much appreciate feedback from readers on this piece. To contact me, see http://home.comcast.net/~pearcemoses/
I beg the indulgence of the reader, as this paper was written for oral presentation, rather than publication. In particular, a few ideas are poorly developed or supported. When I realized the text would significantly exceed the time I was allotted to speak, I turned my attention to other sections of the paper. Although I did not present the undeveloped sections in my talk, I've left them in this draft as "kernels" that will be expanded during revision.
Archivists have long recognized the limitations of provenance as an access tool. Provenance works very well as an access tool in government and corporate archives, where the functions of an office suggests the "subjects" of a collection. Provenance works less well in providing access to secondary research value of those collections or to special collections; too often patrons don't recognize the relevance of collectors to their subjects.
In many repositories, the primary subject access tool is the archivist's memory and knowledge. Speaking from my experiences on both sides of the reference desk, there's nothing quiet like the synergistic dialogue that can happen when the patron and archivist connect on a subject during the reference interview.
Unfortunately, that creative synergy may never happen for a wide range of reasons. The patron may ask about a subject the archivist is unfamiliar with. Deadlines and off-days may distract the archivist or patron from lengthy discussion. The worst challenge may be the frailty of memory; the archivist doesn't happen to think of relevant material.
The ultimate limitation of the archivist's knowledge is it's failure of the "Mack Truck Test." Whether the knowledge is unavailable because the archivist best suited to helping a patron is sick that day, because of the untimely death (due to the Mack Truck), or due to some other change in personnel, the archivist is an imperfect access tool.
Archivists need to find some way to translate as much of their intimate knowledge of a collection to a more permanent medium than gray matter. Finding guides organized by provenance are an essential first step, but subject catalogs are an important complement.
A name index helped support research based on characteristics of the creator--occupation, ethnicity, religion, gender, or the like. "I'm looking for the work of women poets" or "I'm looking for congressional papers." These queries are independent of the subject of the materials; one woman's poetry may cover love and war, and one senator's papers may contain birdwatching records. But names and their related occupations and avocations aren't subjects in the sense I'm getting at.
One of the axioms of subject analysis of archival collections rests on its distinction from bibliographic materials. Books, papers, articles, and the like tend to be written with a central theme; archival collections, on the other hand, grow out of an activity that may not have a topical focus.
In developing an indexing policy and choosing index terms, I'm less concerned about the subject of the materials--what the records are about, and more concerned about relevant topics of research.
Many people may be concerned that this type of access becomes interpretation of the materials. Assigning interpretive headings violates the principle against labelling works. I'll concede that point, but I'll also argue that any analysis is, at some level, interpretation. More over, we interpret and label materials during the appraisal process; what is appraisal but an estimation of a collection's potential value?
Archives and special collections differ fundamentally from general information repositories in the focus of their collections policy. Archives and special collections often collection material for secondary values. A human right organization might collect 1930s German literature, not because of its literary value but as examples of propaganda. A women's studies library might acquire romance novels not for their stories, but for the evidence they provide about sexual attitudes. It seems odd that we would invest so much money in collecting for specific reasons, then fail to point out those reasons in the catalog.
We may be no better predicting potential research value when assigning subject headings than when appraising for acquisition. But, the risks are lower. An unassigned heading is no different from what we have now, and an assigned heading that never helps a patron is little more than a stab in the dark. But, I think we may strike our mark more often than not.
Finally, a caveat on labelling and making judgments in the catalog. The traditional--and respectable--argument against labeling is that the reader should make up his or her own mind as to the character of the material. I'd spin that about a bit and suggest, if the reader is wise enough to discern the character of the material, then that reader is wise enough to discern inappropriate labeling on the part of the cataloger. I don't want to get side tracked by the issue of labeling, but I will confess to being nervous enough about labeling to say that I think all such judgments should be flagged in description; for instance, "Scholar X cites this material as examples of racist literature."
Providing effective subject access is bit trickier than it sounds. I'd like to begin by outlining some of the problems I've run into in providing subject access before offering some strategies to overcome those problems.
The Byron Harvey collection contains a series of baskets. Not just any baskets, but Native American baskets. And not just any Native American baskets, but patterned coil baskets of the Arizona Whiteriver Apache Indians made in the nineteenth century.
I have a choice of assigning headings that combines the elements into a complex heading:
Pre-coordination and post-coordination both have their strengths and weaknesses. I confess a preference for pre- coordination and a belief that post-coordination does more for reducing the workload of the cataloger than it aids the researcher. Those biases are based on what I perceive to be a distinct benefit of pre-coordinated headings and a particular problem of post-coordinated headings.
Post-coordinated headings have a significant drawback in complex collections; a record describing, for instance, Civil War battles and Native American religions might receive separate headings for Civil War, Battles, Native Americans, and religion. The post-coordinated combinations "Civil War religions" and "Native American battles" are not valid.
Pre-coordination avoids inaccurate combination of the elements of headings. However, I prefer pre-coordinated headings for the reason that they can be browsed. Archival patrons are often "rummaging" through the catalog looking for clues. They're not quite sure what they're looking for, but they'll know it when they see it. The analysis and detail in complex pre-coordinated headings helps give patrons a better list to work with.
One solution is to assign several headings expressing the same notion in several forms: "Indian baskets" and "Baskets--Indian." The other approach is to assign cross-references. Unfortunately, many automated catalogs seem to have lost these niceties; a copy of LCSH next to the terminal just isn't the same.
In addition to basic "see" cross-references to authority forms, a subject catalog can assist patrons by helping them consider how the headings are related to one another. This notion is far from novel. In the days of cards, patrons often found "see-also" cross-references to aid their research. Those references pointed patrons to broader, narrower, and related topics. LCSH has embraced this more complex form of headings by adopting the ANSI standard for thesaurus construction; "see also" has been replaced by BT, NT, and RT. LCSH's implementation of a standard thesaurus structure in a list that evolved over decades is far from perfect, but I think they did an excellent job given their constraints.
Again, this concept is not new. Card catalogs used to include all sorts of notes explaining headings. LCSH includes a precious few scope notes. We need to be sure we use those notes when assigning headings, and that patrons are aware of them to guide their searches.
The coupling of description with a heading is, for me, the distinction between indexing and cataloging. A catalog record provides information that can aid in the selection of materials. An index entry cannot aid in the selection process; because it's merely a pointer, a patron will not know if the materials are likely to be useful until after they have been consulted.
But do each of us have to start from scratch? Can't we share the work? In fact, that's precisely why so many archivists use LCSH in spite of its limitations. LCSH benefits archivists by allowing them to concentrate on cataloging rather than reinventing a subject authority list and by allowing us to interfile our descriptions in other catalogs.
LCSH is far from perfect, but it does begin to address some of the problems I've mentioned. I'm not going to indulge in bashing LCSH. No one that I know--including book catalogers--loves LCSH. Headings are formed inconsistently: some are complex concepts grouped conceptually by inverted form or subdivision; others are fairly atomic concepts in direct order and scattered throughout the alphabet. Many headings contain aspects other than subject, such as format and chronology.
LCSH reflects a long and complex history. Every complaint I've just listed reflects changes in philosophy of subject access over the years at LC, and each change was intended as an improvement over an existing problem.
I've long admired the principle Peter set forth when he began the LCSH-AMC discussion list: LCSH is an imperfect tool, but rather than waste energy complaining, how can we make the best of it?
A related problem is one of accuracy and subtle nuances of meaning. Recently I was hunting for a heading for a collection of photographs of Native American baskets. The LCSH heading was "Indians of North America--Basket making." The photographs showed finished baskets, not their manufacture, so the collection was not terribly valuable for studying the making of baskets. Although not an exact heading, I can use the general heading "Baskets."
Archives need greater specificity and more divisions under a topic than more general libraries. Yet, archives need this specificity only in the areas in which they specialize. At the Arizona Collection,(1) we had enormous amounts of Arizoniana, but so much of it wound up under the headings, "Arizona--History" with three main chronological subdivisions. I needed more headings to break up the Arizona materials. But, LCSH served me just fine for the bits of medical literature that crept into the collection.
But the problem is not entirely with LCSH. First, many archivists have little or no training in assigning subject headings, and they're unaware of the Subject Cataloging Manual or the Cataloging Service Bulletin; without that knowledge, use of LCSH is going to be even more frustrating because they won't find constructed or pattern headings. Second, repositories who resist establishing local headings are shirking some of their responsibility; no list can be complete, and archivists must build on existing tools.
0.1 These rules are designed for use in the construction of catalogues and other lists in general libraries of all sizes. They are not intended for specialist and archival libraries, but such libraries are recommended to use the rules as the basis of their cataloguing and to augment their provisions as necessary.That rule has its corollary in the Subject Cataloging Manual (4th ed., 1991):
The guidelines in this manual apply primarily to assigning headings to books and serials in print forms. Since it was not designed specifically for cataloging non-book materials such as motion pictures, computer files, microfiche, posters, realia, etc., many of the instructions may not be applicable or relevant to those who catalog these types of materials. If special materials catalogers wish to follow the general principles in this manual, some adaptation of the rules will be required.Those two rules point to what I consider to be an underlying belief of catalogers I admire. The rules are a starting point; they are not an end in themselves. I believe the quality of cataloging is not measured by how closely the rules are followed, but ultimately by whether they aid patrons in the selection of relevant materials.
LCSH is a starting point, not the end-all and be-all of indexing vocabulary. In addition to local headings, each repository needs (must, according to the SCM) to develop guidelines for the application of headings (both LCSH and local). Those local guidelines may differ significantly from the bibliographic traditions because of the organic, rather than topical, nature of archival collections.
For example, at The Heard Museum, we are developing a formal indexing policy that assigns direct headings along three principal access points: topic, cultural group, and location. This policy may result in some overlap between headings and sometimes breaks the prohibition of assigning broader and narrower terms to the same record; for example, Hopi Indians, Kachina dolls (a subdivision of Hopi Indians), and Hopi Reservation.
The Committee on Archival Information Exchange is developing courses to be offered in regional workshops and before the annual conference. Take advantage of LCSH-AMC. Read! Ask questions; don't be afraid you're going to look stupid! What if you ask a really basic question; chances are people will think it's enormously profound of you to examine the fundamental aspects of subject analysis!
At The Heard Museum I'm looking to three sources for guidance in setting indexing policy.
Although I'm interested in the history of photography, I have worked most of my professional life with local or regional history photographic collections. As such, issues of artistry, aesthetics, and medium are secondary to issues of politics and social customs. Nevertheless, I do get questions on the photographers who have worked in my area, and I frequently get patrons looking for stereographs. So I've made it a point to provide access for those two photographic "subjects;" but I tend to ignore other access points appropriate to a photographic repository.
At The Heard Museum, I'm learning that patrons are interested in the material culture of Native Americans, especially clothing. As a result, I'm looking more and more at providing access to details about clothing, housing, and possessions represented within the photographs than I normally would.
In addition to local headings, repositories should look at writing scope and catalogers' notes for LCSH headings to see that those headings are better used. Ideally, the local list would also include LC headings related to the subjects in the repository. This list would be a crib sheet to complement LCSH; by bringing out headings most likely to be used, catalogers will know which of the thousands of LC headings to be most familiar with.
I very much support an idea suggested at the Airlie House conference on the future of subject subdivisions.(2) Allow the use of free-form chronological subdivisions. Instead of limiting date subdivisions to established headings, subdivide the heading based on the precise dates of the materials. This trick allows more precise and fewer entries under a given heading. For a collection that contains Arizoniana from the 1940s through the 1970s, the single heading
It may seem that the more we rely on local headings, the less we will conform to the standards of national bibliographic utilities. However, we can maintain consistency by assigning authority headings in 650 and local headings in 690. I fear that strategy ultimately means doing the work twice, and we often don't have time to do it once.
One solution would be to use 650 with the second indicator byte set to '4.' However, not all utilities will permit this for National Level Records.
My second solution would require a change in the MARC format to allow local subdivisions of LC authorized headings in 650 and 651. The local subdivision would be an addition to an authorized heading. The local subdivisions would have distinguishing MARC tags, so that bibliographic utilities could distinguish local subdivisions from authorized subdivisions. National utilities could display only the authority form; local OPACs would display the local form.
The notion of local subject subdivions could be extended to name headings. Because archival collections are formed around an invidual, archives need to be able to subdivide a name heading. Currently, the SCM allows names to be subdivided only by a limited list of free-floating headings. Subdividing the name by an existing LC heading rather than a free-floating heading would provide greater specificity while retaining benefits of a shared authority.
I say, "Catalog it." Archival cataloging has emphasized collection level records that point patrons to the finding guide. I say, the finding guided is merely a compilation of descriptions. Those descriptions should be entered into the catalog and traced.
If all those descriptions are fully indexed, you can imagine the potential nightmare. A search for Carl Hayden retrieves virtually every folder description in his 600 linear foot collection! Results like that are no better than dumping the haystack right on the patron. Instead, we need to ensure that our systems point to the appropriate level of description. Someone interested in Carl Hayden is going to want to see his collection; the description of the collection contains an abstract of the components, so a search on Carl Hayden should retrieve the collection rather than the components. I've accomplished that by setting a policy that a heading is never applied to a description if that heading is applied at a higher level. I trace "Carl Hayden" at the collection level only; I don't use that heading with any of the component descriptions.
That torrid love note from Marilyn Monroe to Charlie Keating? It should not be mentioned or traced in the collection level record. The headings should pertain to all the materials described at that level, and the Monroe letter is only a tiny piece. Instead, describe the letter (or the folder, if that's the lowest level you're indexing) and assign the heading there. A search on Monroe will not retrieve the Keating Collection, leaving the patron wondering why a search for something steamy produced banking records.
My suggestion runs somewhat against archival tradition. An esteemed colleague tends to put all the information into a collection-level scope note, followed by bare-bones lists of folder headings. My approach is to layer the descriptions, distributing the information more evenly throughout. Instead of an extensive collection level note (which run for screens and, as a result, are never read), I emphasize more description at the component level by writing a scope note for series and folder headings. Of course, most folder headings do not received a scope note as they are merely instances that are perfectly described by the scope note for the series; but when something in a folder needs to be brought out, it is done at that level.
The Canadians' principles of descriptions require that no component be described before the whole.(3) I admire the principle, but as a matter of practicality, I don't see any great harm in doing in-analytics for something really valuable while skipping the intermediary levels. I'm suggesting, again, that we rely on appraisal to guide indexing practice.
Finally, we need to investigate expert systems that can help a patron formulate their queries in terms of the indexing language. No only could such a system help improve retrieval by helping patrons select the correct terms to search, it might very well help patrons by guiding them through a process that refines the underlying ideas of their search.
I'm suggesting that we quit using word processors to produce finding guides. We need to enter the whole descriptions in databases that can manipulate the information in a variety of ways. Let's take advantage of the computer to sort things to produce finding guides, cross-collection catalogs, and more.
2. Martha O'Hara Conway, ed. The Future of Subdivisions in the Library of Congress Subject Headings System : Report from the Subject Subdivisions Conference Sponsored by the Library of Congress, May 9-12, 1991 (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Service, 1992).
3. Planning Committee on Descriptive Standards, Rules for Archival Description (Ottawa : Bureau of Canadian Archivists, 1990).