Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Which describes how you're feeling all the time

I am slooooooowly making my way through Hope Olson's The power to name. In Chapter 6, "Ite/arating Women"Olson reviews catalog records that represent books that have intersectional feminist themes.

Olson's intellectual exercise in "Ite/arating Women" points out the limits of Library of Congress Subject Headings (from this point on, referred to as LCSH) as they existed in 2002 when she wrote the book, as well as exposing the places where LCSH does not have language to express a particular concept. It also points out the limits of Dewey Decimal Classification in addressing materials with intersectional themes.

What I found shocking about Olson's critique, though, was what happened when she put the Library of Congress Subject Headings Manual (from this point on, referred to as SHM) into conversation with these catalog records and points out the ways in which existing LCSH are misapplied or, in some cases, not applied at all. In doing so, Olson makes the point that while proper subject analysis of certain materials will not solve the "inadequate language" problem entirely, it would certainly help increase access.

When creating subject access, metadata creators are asked to distill complex texts down to their essence and then assign subject headings and classification numbers to describe that essence. It is a difficult task when the book being described is on a single topic or represents a single point of view. It becomes much more difficult when multiple themes are thrown into the mix. Often, an aspect of the book is ignored or omitted due to time constraints on the part of the cataloger or because a cataloger doesn't have experience with a subject.

My takeaway from "Ite/arating Women" is that catalogers need to do a better job of understanding subject analysis--especially important when analyzing texts about people whose stories get pushed to the margins of society. While controlled vocabulary is often woefully inadequate to describe both intersectionality and issues related to marginalized people, there is controlled vocabulary that we could use more thoughtfully. The SHM provides a significant amount of guidance, but that's only if we choose to acquaint ourselves with it as part of our training (or growth) as catalogers and would be an excellent place to start. I know that I plan to spend more time understanding how subject headings are put together and how I can construct them differently to provide better access for users.

Stay positive,

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