Oh cataloging

I’m currently reading through Chapter 11, on information retrieval. What specifically caught my interest was the assertion that classification systems force us to confront the necessity of putting labels on things. When you place a subject term on a holding, you partially define it.

I’ve always been fascinated with the power of naming to not only define things, but to expand and even create them. I very nearly wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the significance of naming in young adult novels (See A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle for an example). I love that you can put two things side by side and understand both in a new way. The process of classifying materials requires you to decide what is important about them, which is really a weighty decision when you think through how your choice will alter access to the record.

Working as a temp cataloger, I got a feel for how things are currently cataloged, and it often makes little sense. What child would intentionally search for “voluntarism” rather than “volunteering”? There’s a reason that database thesauri exist, and there’s a reason that the accepted subject terms are always changing. Cataloging attempts to grasp hold of our ever changing ways of looking at life, and succeeds…marginally. And in interesting ways.

My favorite part of looking through catalog entries is checking out how rogue catalogers have chosen to assign subject headings, as you occasionally get interesting surprises (as with Google Autocomplete, another favorite of mine [speaking of which, is there a way to see what people search for and what they eventually settle on, and use that to improve our search terms?]).

The best, most wtf subject heading I have ever come across was from an entry for a DVD of the movie Dracula, which contained the following:

“Subject term: Arteries–Puncture–Drama.”



  1. i love this sooooooo much. i'm always looking for puncture dramas!!also i like your points about categorization A LOT. I once wrote a paper about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically posits that the categories we make for things changes how we think about them. and that the language we use determines the categories we absorb. if i can ever get back onto my old computer, i'll get you the references. i HEART sapir-whorf. also, i'd love to read about the naming of kids' books. maybe you should do a post that's a mini-thesis?

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with classifying things. For example, some of the music I like is from the mid-90s (Far, Fugazi, etc.), and was in fact labeled as "emo" as shorthand for "emotive hardcore." Then some asshat in the 2000s thought he would name any pop-punk band that came around as "emo," and it really stuck. I can't say I like emo now, because people associate that label incorrectly with lame bands and an internet meme.Of course, classifying is necessary, even if it will never be perfect. Our 616 class is cataloging, I'm sure you'll like it. I recommend it for next semester.

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