Article Summary for Lecture #7—Taylor

In “On the Subject of Subjects” Arlene Taylor demonstrates the importance of subject cataloging, despite its being a “disreputable,” “ignored,” and “disparaged” branch of the LIS profession. (484) The majority of librarians, according to Taylor, are quick to point to studies reflecting declining use of subject-filtering tools in order to discount the overall utility of subject searching. While Taylor acknowledges this decline, she attributes it not to a lack of trying among users but says, rather, that they are thwarted in their subject searching efforts by either zero hits or too many results. This failure of the catalog, continues Taylor, forces users to resort to use of keyword searching which, in turn, limits both the accuracy and relevancy of search results. She then describes various ways in which reliable subject searches are beneficial, suggesting that “innovation” is needed in these areas in order to correct the problems patrons face when searching by subject and to increase the overall accuracy of results. (490)

Taylor notes that, due to the rapid increase in Internet use, as well as the issues involved with subject searches, many people prefer to search by keyword. She then points out some problems associated with this method. First, keyword searches cannot identify synonyms and, therefore, deny users access to many relevant sources. A keyword search for dogs, for example, would not produce results containing the word canines. Another limitation of keyword searches mentioned by Taylor is that they cannot assist users in differentiating between multiple definitions of words. “Search engines,” writes Taylor, “cannot tell you if a suit is a legal term or a set of clothing.” This ambiguity is, indeed, a limiting factor. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, keyword searches do not associate the various relationships among items. This important feature of search tools requires a degree of effort and ingenuity from humans. So, while search engines are cheaper, simpler, and often faster that subject searches, Taylor contends that their flaws seriously limit their value for researchers “looking for the best on a subject or everything on a subject.” (486)

Taylor then discusses the current state of online catalogs, describing proposed ideas for transferring classification standards into the digital realm. She lauds the potential of OPACs but says that they hinder subject searching because they either produce too few or too many results. Taylor cites a study by Ray Larson showing that “only 12 percent of searches retrieved between 1 and 20 items,” and attributing this problem to failure of current systems to account for misspellings, singular vs. plural forms, specific terminology, and a general lack of knowledge among users of subject headings. Larson—and others such as Marcia Bates, Karen Drabenstott, and Tschera Connell—have introduced ways to overcome these flaws and better assist patrons in using OPACS. (488)

Taylor’s final topic is that of LC Subject Headings. She notes that, despite talk of completely discarding the system, the benefits and widespread use of the LCSH means that it is “here to stay.” Improvements to the LCSH have been encouraged, however. A revision committee suggests altering the arrangement of form subdivisions, designing a separate subfield code for them, and creating authority records “for combinations of topical headings with topical subdivisions,” all aimed at promoting consistency of structure and simplicity of use. (489)

For Taylor, the importance of subject searching is obvious. “Without the subject vocabulary,” claims Lawler, “the catalog record identifies a known item but gives no clue to content unless the title has content descriptive words.” While she concedes the presence of problems associated with current systems, Taylor believes these are not insurmountable. More specifically, she suggests that, in order to improve the overall efficiency of subject searching, librarians engage in clearer subject analysis, improving education, promoting collaboration, and implementing proven techniques. I tend to agree with Taylor’s assertions. Subject cataloging may not be necessary for those content with searches resulting in merely “something.” For those who want more—who seek more comprehensive, relevant, and accurate results—subject searching is absolutely essential. So, efforts need to be made to limit the flaws of current subject search tools and to improve their overall functionality. (490, 486)

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