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The Curse of Controlled Vocabulary

Yesterday, as students filed in and out of my office in a continuous stream, two of them asked questions that made me thank my lucky stars I’d taken that elective cataloging and classification course back in library school. Without it, I would have been mostly stumped yesterday.

Here’s why. Not only did the experience of taking cataloging and classification force me to realize that I’m geeky enough to get a kick out of AACR2 and mapping it to MARC, but I also learned that I’m very very bad at classification. It’s not that I can’t figure out what books are about…most of the time. I just could never reconcile myself to the idea that, because of the historical need to save space on those catalog cards or print indexes, the rules for applying subject terms seem to inhibit that gathering function that Cutter listed among his 3 primary objectives for the catalog. (For my non-librarian friends, these objectives are: allowing people to locate particular books, help them gather together related items, and help them make informed decisions about what they want.) Specifically, the problem lies in the rule that states that if you have a hierarchically related set of subject terms, you must apply the most specific term that applies to the entire work. You may not also apply the broader terms higher up the hierarchical structure. Similarly, if two or more of the more specific terms apply to your work, you cannot apply both. Instead, you have to look upward in the hierarchical structure until you reach a term that can apply to the entire work.

So what does this have to do with my appointments yesterday? Well, twice yesterday I had students come in frustrated and worried that their topics weren’t viable (and these were the topics for their senior theses, so they were a little stressed). They’d plunked terms into the MLA International Bibliography and only retrieved 2 or 3 hits! Here’s an example that’s an amalgam of a couple of students yesterday. Try finding articles on Elena Garro and gender in the MLA-IB. A good student will know to flip the author’s name around and search it as a subject. A good student will also find some synonyms for “gender” (which I won’t list here for fear of Google). This good student will get about 3 hits from MLA. Three hits?!? How can you write a thesis with this little to go on? And this from the database that’s custom-made for searching literary topics.

These students correctly assumed that more must have been written on the topic. And finally, after poking around for a while, we discovered that more people were writing about Garro’s work and some aspect of gender… specifically, either the male or female gender. This means that the indexers who saw articles about Garro’s portrayal of femininity could not also add the subject term “gender” because, remember, you can’t have both narrow and broad terms describing the same work. This means that students interested in gender have to include narrow and broad terms in their search. In a Google-safe example, if you replace “gender” with “women OR femininity OR gender OR manhood OR masculinity”OR “men” you suddenly get 42 results. And if we probed for other gender-related words, I’m sure we’d get even more results.

My two students had the same reaction when I explained this phenomenon: “What?!? Crazy! Why can’t they add the other terms?” Why indeed? We aren’t restricted by those 3×5 cards any more. We aren’t publishing the MLA-IB as a yearly print index any more. We’re simply adding relationships in a database.

I’m thankful to these two students for reminding me of what I’d learned back in my cataloging class. Now that I’ve been reminded, I’m planning to include discussion and examples of this phenomenon in my next instruction session, and probably in many of my sessions in the future. I bet my own searching skills will be greatly improved from now on, as well. Funny how it takes a real-life frustration to teach me what I should have known all along…