Alternative Subject Languages for Cataloging

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Examples of Alternative Subject Languages & Localized Headings


Listed below are descriptions of and links to some of the various subject language and localized subject headings projects that have been initiated by libraries around the world.

First Nations House of Learning Subject Headings

The Xwi7xwa Library (pronounced whei-wha), part of the University of British Columbia library system, houses a special collection of materials by and about First Nations and indigenous peoples in British Columbia. In order to facilitate access to these materials, librarians at the Xwi7xwa Library have developed their own system of subject headings, called the First Nations House of Learning Subject Headings. Development of this system began in the early 1970s and to date, over 11,000 headings have been created.

As a general rule, Xwi7xwa uses the heading First Nations rather than the LC Subject Indians of North America and follows a standard order of [topic]-[place]-[chronology]-[form]

For example:
First Nations - Education - British Columbia – Bibliography

Xwi7xwa also maintains an authority list of First Nations Names. Within the authority list, the Library strives to use the First Nations-preferred names and spellings of nations (e.g., Nuu-chah-nulth rather than Nootka).

In a subject heading search of the UBC library catalog, the First Nations SH are integrated with LCSH and appear in the search results as shown in this screenshot. Headings that are listed in the catalog as "First Nations House of Learning Subject Headings" are coded in the 650 fields, while other locally developed headings are coded in the 690 fields, as shown here. The Xwi7xwa Library is presently working with the UBC Library Cataloguing Division on a migration project so that all subject headings will be searchable in the UBC catalog. Currently, only those cataloged in 650 are searchable in a subject headings search; those listed in 690 as shown above are not searchable (this is due to a system migration to the Endeavor catalog, which rendered the 690 field data non-searchable).

Quaker Subject Headings

Developed for use at the Swarthmore College Friends Historical Library, this set of subject headings was created with the goal of improving access to materials relating to the Quaker religion. While many subject headings pertaining to Quaker life and society exist in LCSH, additional headings were required to accurately represent the content of materials. The complete list of headings has been collocated here.

The Swarthmore College Library catalog supports the search of all of these subject headings, regardless of whether they are coded in 650 or 690 fields, as shown in this screenshot. The locally developed subject headings are often used in concert with established LCSH, and can be modified with any of the standard subdivisions, as in this example where both 650 and 690 fields are displayed.

Maori Subject Headings Project

The Maori Subject Headings project was initiated to help improve information services for and access to information about the Maori. Many New Zealand libraries currently use LCSH and the LOC Name Authority files for bibliographic control. However, LCSH are effectively monolingual and are not applicable or easily adapted to use for description of Maori materials. As such, descriptions written in the native language of the Maori are confined to supplementary notes fields in catalogs, as are place and personal names unique to the Maori. Many respondents in Simpson’s study noted that this has a direct impact on the accessibility of Maori materials and makes locating materials in collections very difficult.

Maori Subject Headings Online: This list currently contains over 1000 headings and is designed for use in both public and academic libraries; the subject headings directory includes a Maori language definition of each term, scope note (in English), English "used for" terms, and broader and/or narrower terms and/or related terms from the Maori headings list. For an example, see this entry for Manu ngahere. Also part of the project is the Iwi-Hapu Names List, a name authority file.

Notes on Application of terms: The Library of Congress MARC Standards Office authorized the use of a source code ‘reo’ to identify Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku (Maori) thesaurus terms used as subject headings.

Example: 650 – 7 $a Pōwhiri $2 reo

Per the report: "The National Library of New Zealand will add subject headings from Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku [Maori Subject Headings] to bibliographic records, as well as the usual Library of Congress subject headings, for all works written in the Māori language, or about Māori. The terms have been loaded into the National Library catalogue and the National Bibliographic Database as authority records available to users of the cataloguing client. These authority records do not contain all the information in Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku [Maori Subject Headings] and are therefore not intended to be a replacement. Libraries will be able to obtain a full set of these authority records to download into their catalogues. Users of the OPAC will be able to see references, scope notes, and broader and narrower terms in relation to records on the database." This example shows the Maori Subject Headings coded in field 650, and their origin is designated with a source code as outlined above.

National Indian Law Library Thesaurus

For many years, librarians at the National Indian Law Library (NILL) had described items in their catalog using a homegrown list of subject headings, but found that for improved collection access, a shift to LCSH was necessary. Creation of a thesaurus focused specifically on areas of Indian law (i.e., rights to natural resources) that were not adequately represented in LCSH was necessary as a means of further improving access to the collection. Efforts were also made to create alternates to already existing LC subject headings (i.e., "tribal councils" as an alterative to "Indian councils") that would facilitate easier access to materials and more accurately represent the language used by NILL researchers and those practicing in the field of Indian law. To request a copy of the NILL Thesaurus or find additional information about the project, see this page. This screenshot shows a display from a catalog search of the NILL. Headings including "Treaty rights – tribes" and "Fishing rights – tribes" are not part of LCSH but have been added through the supplemental thesaurus.

Subject Headings for Judaica Materials

Among other points, LCSH has been criticized for its Christian-centered approach regarding subject headings for religions and religious materials. Within libraries that serve Jewish scholars and Jewish students, multiple projects have been initiated to develop more accurate and specific subject headings for Judaica materials. Examples of these projects include:

Bar-Ilan University: Librarians at the University previously assigned LCSH materials in the collection; however, they realized that for many students, their command of the English language was not sufficient enough for them to be able to effectively understand or use LCSH. Additionally, librarians found that LCSH for Judaic materials often lacked sufficient specificity. Initially, existing LCSH were simply translated into Hebrew for use in the catalog. However, omissions and the oft-cited American/Christian bias in LCSH necessitated the creation of new headings, particularly for subjects such as government and politics, education, varying sects of Judaism, Jewish history, and the Holocaust. As of 2000, the Hebrew subject headings project had collected over 54,000 translated and original headings, with approximately 100 new headings being added each week. The online catalog at Bar-Ilan University Library offers subject headings searching in both English and Hebrew.

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion: The creation of a set of subject headings specific to Jewish liturgical music was prompted by the inadequacy of LCSH for describing these materials. Librarians observed that patrons using this particular collection were often seeking a piece of music for a specific service, however, LCSH lacked the specificity necessary to differentiate between various daily, holiday, and special services, and further, the music written for various parts of each service. To this end, a supplemental list of headings was created to improve subject access to this collection.

Subject Languages for Use on State Government Websites

As part of the Find-It! Illinois Government Information Locator Service (GILS) project, the Illinois State Library commissioned the creation of a controlled vocabulary. The "subject tree" for this collection was developed by lexicographer Dr. Jessica Milstead, who studied both the content of the GILS project, and library-developed Web classification schemes used in other states for similar projects. The subject tree is arranged hierarchically, beginning with 24 top-level categories, which then funnel down into narrower subcategories and subject headings. The most current version of the subject tree can be found here.

Similarly developed projects in other states include the State of Minnesota Thesaurus and the TRAIL (Texas Records and Information Locator) List of Subject Headings.

Subject Headings for Popular Culture Materials

As noted earlier, one of the major criticisms of LCSH is its lack of currency and the lengthy lapses that often occur between a major cultural event or phenomenon entering the mainstream and its addition to the LC lexicon. For catalogers of popular culture materials, such as zines, this can be particularly detrimental, as the content of their materials is typically very current. To this end, the Anchor Archive Zine Library has developed a thesaurus that offers a wide variety of terms for use in the cataloging of zines. Although some terms are taken from LCSH (e.g., anarchism, Buddhism), many other terms have been added in accordance with popular cultural trends or movements that are not yet reflected in LCSH (e.g., do-it-yourself, blogging, environmental activism). Although scope notes have not yet been added to the thesaurus, broader terms, narrower terms, related terms, and use for terms are included here. The entire thesaurus is viewable here.

Taxonomy Warehouse

The Taxonomy Warehouse is perhaps the most comprehensive directory of alternative subject languages. From the well-established (e.g., Art & Architecture Thesaurus; MeSH) to lesser-known vocabularies (e.g., Railway Object Name Thesaurus; African Studies Thesaurus), this site provides basic information on subject languages that can be utilized in cataloging specialized collections. Browse the Taxonomy Warehouse by category here.


Created by Carrie Pirmann
LIS 577: Cataloging & Classification II, Spring 2009
Graduate School of Library & Information Science @ University of Illinois