There are several places in a catalogue where there’s a degree of what might best be called editorial influence. More bluntly put, it’s people (at some degree) making decisions about these things, and those decisions come with biases, both good and bad.
We also use algorithms and those algorithms have biases, and that’s a different topic (and one for next week.)
Words mean things
Those words we use as a controlled vocabulary come from somewhere. Humans came up with them – humans with all their virtues and all their biases.
Sometimes, terms were recommended by experts in the field, or people who knew a topic intimately. (Those aren’t always the same thing!) Both these perspectives bring history and assumptions with them that may or may not fit in with the larger collection or way terms are arranged.
Sometimes those terms were the current thing at a particular time, but we have come to new understanding (this is true for a lot of terms about gender identity and sexual orientation, and also for terms around neurodiversity, and around topics like disability.)
Sometimes topics are entirely new – as technology changes, we need to come up with words to help us find things about it. Do we catalogue it by the current tech device, or do we use a more general term, because the iPhone X of today is going to be barely in service in five years, and mostly forgotten in fifteen?
Sometimes we have to pick one – like my exaple in earlier posts, you sometimes need to pick an option so that you have one main subject heading, rather than making people search through
- House cats
- Pussy cats
- Fuzzballs who take over the bed
(Ok, that last one isn’t very likely.)
Some of these terms are more clinical than others. Some are questions of ‘do we make a standard of singular or plural for groups of things’? Some are ‘do we include a common nickname or slang term’. Some terms might be more historically dated than others.
Why does this matter, anyway?
This might not seem like a big deal with cats – but it can be a bigger deal if you’re talking about health information, or topics where there’s often a difference between experience of a thing and professional knowledge and training about a thing.
(Dealing with the legal system as a person dealing with a crime versus lawyers and judges. Dealing with a health issue as a person experiencing a problem versus being a doctor or nurse or health care professional.)
Sometimes terms can bias our assumptions about results. I mentioned the issue with the Library of Congress wanting to drop ‘illegal alien’ and use other terms, and being blocked by Congress (because of the role the Library of Congress plays with the actual work of Congress and the need to reflect the terms used in the laws.)
Individual library systems may decide to change their terms for these kinds of topics, to create a more welcoming and diverse environment in various ways and to reflect the needs of their particular communities.
That part, of course, is where it can get complicated. Libraries are aware that they’re serving the people who come into their building (many of whom do so fairly anonymously: librarians don’t know what you look at on the shelf, and many libraries deliberately do as little tracking of activities, loans, and other user-specific details as they can get away with, to preserve patron privacy.)
But libraries also serve people who never come into them. Not just the people who use online resources (libraries can see what’s getting used), but libraries should also be thinking about all the people who don’t use their services but could.
This is most easily illustrated by public libraries, since they serve a particular location. A library might notice that they’re seeing some types of people use the library regularly, and may be able to tell from demographic information about their area that they’re not seeing some groups as often as they should be.
Sometimes that’s about the words we choose. Whether people can see themselves reflected in the library and the catalogue and the displays.
Who decides subject headings for a work?
There is also a degree of editorial influence on who sets the subject headings.
Large publishers often suggest them – you may see this in the front of the book, on the copyright page. Below the legal information, there will be some suggested subject headings and call numbers. Libraries don’t have to listen to that, but in practice they often do unless there’s a specific reason to overrule them.
In other cases, it may be a central cataloger (in a large library system) or an individual librarian. It’s hard to tell!
Generally, no one in this process (except maybe someone on the publisher’s end) has read the whole book, and the subject headings will reflect the large topics in the book, not specific ones.
People will also pick how specific the subject headings are. For example, do you pick United States – History or Massachusetts – History? Or maybe Women – United States – History – 20th Century. (Here’s a page explaining some of the options from New York University.)
Next time, a brief look at algorithms and how they affect searches. (It’s a huge topic)