Lesson 5: Subject cataloguing and authority files – why it is important to keep control

Welcome to lesson 5 of the SCIS short course! Let’s get started …

Subject cataloguing is the process of assigning terms that describe what a bibliographic item is about.

Cataloguers perform subject analysis for items in their library, most commonly selecting terms from an authorised list of subject headings, otherwise known as a ‘controlled vocabulary’. Controlled vocabularies often take the form of a ‘thesaurus’, which is used to link similar and related terms. In addition to this, a thesaurus also shows hierarchical relationships between terms. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to this as ‘subject headings’ throughout this lesson.

Do I need to use a controlled vocabulary?

The decision not to use a controlled vocabulary is not something that would be noticed by most library users. The impact of controlled subject headings is subtle, yet it has a profound impact on your catalogue’s ability to retrieve results. It is an ‘unknown unknown’ for users, who do not know about items that their search does not retrieve.

The most common examples of uncontrolled vocabularies are social media tags or user-generated tags — in both examples, users are free to choose any term they wish. It is important to note the limitations of working with an uncontrolled vocabulary.

Consider how controlled vocabularies would help to clear up any confusion in the following situations:

  • Synonyms (two words with the same meaning)
  • Homographs (different words with the same spelling).

Without a controlled vocabulary, one cataloguer may assign the subject ‘Insects’ to a record, and another may assign the subject ‘Bugs’ to a similar record. This would result in discrepancies between search results, meaning that the two different subject headings will return two different sets of resources.

Subject heading lists will likely include preferred and non-preferred headings. A controlled vocabulary would choose an authorised, or preferred, subject heading such as ‘Insects’. It may also display ‘Bugs’ as a non-preferred term.

Please note, more than one subject heading can be assigned to a record.

How do people search?

Library catalogues usually provide two main types of search:

  1. A ’basic’ or keyword search that allows the user to type in a search term or phrase and then search across the whole database. This will often bring back too many search results, which then have to be narrowed down or filtered.
  2. An ’Advanced search’, which allows the user to do a much more specific, or targeted search by selecting particular fields. Typical fields include author, title, series, subject or ISBN. This allows for greater precision in your search results.

How do users benefit from subject headings?

There are several benefits of using subject headings, rather than keywords, in advanced searches. Although it can be assumed that most novice catalogue users will use keyword search rather than subject search, it is important that we communicate the benefits of the latter in order to enhance our library users’ information retrieval skills. This, in turn, means they will make the most of your high-quality cataloguing.

Subject searches expand their understanding of what is available

By performing a subject search rather than a keyword search, users can gain a broader understanding of the resources available in the library. For example, say a user enters the search query ‘Super heroes’ — but the preferred term is ‘Superheroes’. Users will be pointed toward the correct term and will see a broader range of subject headings that may assist their search.

Look at the following image as an example. If a user performs a subject search on ‘Flowers’, they will be directed to a range of resources tagged with that subject heading. But before they do, they might be interested in seeing what other options are available. While the user started their search broadly, they might be interested in browsing narrower terms that they didn’t think to search on — or perhaps a related search that might be of interest to them.

Example of subject search

Subject headings as access points

In the Resource Description and Access (RDA) standard, subject headings are presented as access points, which allow users to follow an efficient path for resource discovery. If we go back to the idea of the key functions of the library catalogue that we explored in lesson 3, we can understand that subject access points support both greater discoverability and navigation.

RDA supports the inclusion of access points, which, together with authorised subject headings and name headings, allows users to refine their searches. Of course, without authorised terms here, the catalogue’s ability to point users toward relevant resources is hindered; say one person has used the subject heading ‘bugs’ and another has used ‘insects’ — a user will only find one or the other, not both.

Choosing which subject headings to use

Your library users should be at the forefront of your mind when choosing which subject headings to prescribe to your catalogue; it is important that the subject headings align with the vocabulary that they would use. Luckily for cataloguers, there are a number of subject heading lists available for you to choose from, many of which have been created specifically for use in certain fields.  Two lists commonly used in the school library environment are SCIS Subject Headings List and Schools Online Thesaurus (ScOT).

Each cataloguing authority that creates these subject headings often has an additional product called ‘authority files’ that allows the catalogue and, ultimately, the users, to reap the benefits of
authorised subject and name headings.

What are authority files?

An authority is the authorised or preferred form for a heading — most often names and subjects — in a controlled vocabulary. An authority file is an index of all authority records of any given agency or library. When your library users perform subject searches, authority files also act as ‘recommended searches’. It can point users to the correct subject heading and help them understand how to narrow or broaden their search.

The inclusion of authority files in your library catalogue ensures compliance with RDA standards. As part of the RDA standard, data used in records to describe ‘an entity’ associated with that resource — be it a concept, person, family, or corporate body — should help users find, identify, clarify and understand each entity.

Look at the example below. The authority record for ‘Superheroes’ leaves no confusion as to how to use this subject heading. This not only helps make the cataloguer’s job easier but also the library users.

Superheroes authority file

SCIS Subject Headings List (SCISSHL) or Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) have authority files available for you to subscribe to. Please note, your subject headings and authority files should come from the same source.

Activities

Become familiar with different search options offered by OPACs and observe the usefulness of controlled vocabularies. Go to an OPAC in your library system or any other catalogue.

  • Do a basic keyword search for a term eg Houses, then go to advanced search, select subjects and search for the same term. Compare the results.
  • Find a ‘Browse search’ option for subjects. Browse for any term e.g. Houses. This browse list is populated from the system’s authority list of subject headings. Can you ascertain which subject heading list the terms come from?

Some library management systems use tag clouds and others use facetted searches to display the controlled vocabularies. Look for examples of these in your system or any other catalogue.

Conclusion

So now you have an understanding of the importance of controlled vocabularies, subject headings, and authority files in the library catalogue. Each one significantly enhances the consistency, value, and usability of your library management system and search functionality. You have seen how people search for resources and how different search interfaces produce varying results. Next week we’ll explore classification, Dewey, and call numbers.

Further reading

  • Schools Catalogue Information Service: Subject Authority: avoiding the unknown unknown http://scis.edublogs.org/2017/03/27/subject-authority-avoiding-the-unknown-unknown/

SCIS Data case study: Caroline Roche, Eltham College, UK


‘Yesterday, a student asked for a book on Emmanuel Macron. It will be delivered today, and I will be able to catalogue it within five minutes because SCIS is quick. I’ll have it in her hands this afternoon.’

School: Eltham College
Type: Independent school for boys (aged 7–18) and girls (aged 16–18)
Enrolment: 850
Cataloguing subscription: SCIS Data + Authority Files
Library management system: Accessit
Size of collection: 11,780 in junior library; 22,665 in senior library

Eltham College, a high-performing independent school in South East London, focuses on the core business of school libraries: providing access. Librarian Caroline Roche works in the senior school library, supported by a library assistant and a school community enthusiastic about the library’s role. Spread over three floors, Eltham College’s senior library provides space for students to study, read and gather during break times. In a library that prides itself on immediate access, SCIS Data contributes to their fast-turnaround workflow.

Continue reading SCIS Data case study: Caroline Roche, Eltham College, UK

Where SCIS becomes much more … muchier

For anyone who may follow us on social media, or has chatted to the team recently, you may be aware that SCIS keeps talking about our ‘big infrastructure upgrade’. This is the result of three years of quantitative and qualitative market research – thank you once again to everyone who has provided feedback along the way.

So here’s a little more detail about what a SCIS infrastructure upgrade means, and why we’re so excited.

Continue reading Where SCIS becomes much more … muchier

Subject Authority: avoiding the unknown unknown

We recently had a query from a user who asked us to explain the value of SCIS Subject Headings and the ScOT vocabulary — and the rather tricky subject of authority control. This query often comes up in our inbox, at conferences and at professional learning sessions, so now feels like a good time for a blog post on the matter.

SCIS vs ScOT — which to choose?
Firstly, we do not consider this an either/or scenario; nor do 100% of our users. SCIS Subject Headings have been developed and refined to support best-practice for resource management in education. SCIS records provide the foundation of consistent, best-quality metadata, to which ScOT headings can be a valuable supplement.

The SCIS Subject Headings vocabulary dates back to the early 1980s and is a pre-coordinated subject headings list. It is intended as an educationally-focused alternative to the Library of Congress Subject Headings. SCIS subscribers can choose to supplement SCIS Subject Headings with ScOT, a post-coordinated vocabulary of topical headings.

Continue reading Subject Authority: avoiding the unknown unknown

Downloading SCIS Authority Files

SCIS catalogue records contain SCIS’s authorized name and subject headings. However, on their own, records will not display the See and See Also references that provide the optimal search experience for your students and staff. SCIS Authority Files provide these references, as well as providing all authorized forms of names and subjects used as access points in SCIS catalogue records. Installing them will enable your library management system to automatically create cross references, which will be visible in your library catalogue.

Schools can subscribe to SCIS Authority Files for only $90 per year, which includes both Name and Subject authorities. SCIS release a new version of the Authority Files twice a year, usually in March and August.

In this post we describe the benefits of installing SCIS Authority Files and provide advice on selecting and installing them, using two systems to demonstrate: Access-It and Softlink’s Oliver. You can find more information about SCIS Authority Files on the authority files help page. You can also watch our new Authority Files video…

SCIS Authority Files from SCIS on Vimeo.

 

SCIS Name Authorities

SCIS Name Authorities specify the authorized name of authors, illustrators, and other creators, be they corporate (eg “Primary English Teaching Association (Australia)”) or individual. This includes See references for non-authorized names. For example, if SCIS Name Authorities are installed and one of your staff search for “PETAA”, they will be directed to all works by “Primary English Teaching Association (Australia)”. Without Name Authorities, they may get no results.

Not all systems support name authorities, so check with your vendor before installing them.

SCIS Subject Authorities

If a user searches on the term “Hurricanes” without a See reference to direct them to the authorized SCIS subject heading, “Cyclones”, they may believe that the library does not contain any resources about hurricanes. See Also references exist between related terms and are important for assisting the user to find resources on similar subjects, such as directing users from “Cyclones” to the related topic “Tornadoes”.

SCIS Subject Authority files include authorized names as subjects. That is, whilst SCIS Name Authorities specify the name “Carroll, Lewis” as an author of a work, SCIS Subject Authorities specify “Carroll, Lewis” as a subject for when a work is about Lewis Carroll.

Selecting Authority Files – Full versus Reference Only

On the SCIS Authority Files page, schools need to choose which files they require: the SCIS Full Authority Files or the SCIS Reference Only Authority Files.

The Full Authority files contain all authorised SCIS headings, including those without See and See Also references, such as “Science fiction films – History and criticism”. This may be useful for local cataloguing of resources not catalogued by SCIS, such as vertical file materials. Use the full list of authorised headings in your library system to ensure consistency with headings used in SCIS records.

If most of your catalogue records are sourced from SCIS and you do little or no original cataloguing, you may decide you only need the significantly smaller SCIS Reference Only Authority Files. These contain only those headings that have See and/or See Also references. We recommend that all schools install at least the Reference Only Subject Authority Files.

SCIS Authority File download options
Download options on the SCIS Authority File page

Downloading SCIS Authority Files

Twice a year, when SCIS release new versions of the Authority Files, go to the SCIS Authority Files page, select the correct files for you, and download them.

The next step is to import them into your library management system. Read your system’s manual carefully for the settings to choose when importing the SCIS subject authority files.

Imports should be regarded as an overnight housekeeping task as the download may take several hours.

Access-It authority import
Steps for importing authority files in Access-It

 

In current generation systems, many of the steps will be similar.

  • In Oliver, go to Management > Import and select the MARC radio button. It is crucial to select “MARC-21 Authority” in the “MARC format” field is crucial.
  • In Access-It, click Cataloguing > Imports > Import MARC Authorities.

    Oliver authority file import
    Options for uploading authority files in Oliver

Your system may require you to make some or all of the following decisions:

  • Choose how to deal with existing, duplicate authority records: Unless you want to retain any Subject Authorities you have created, it is important to replace the existing subject authorities with the new SCIS authorities. In Oliver, select “Replace existing resources”.
  • Specify which authorities you are loading: In Oliver it is important to select “Load subjects” otherwise the subject authorities won’t be loaded. If you are importing Name Authorities, do not select “Load Authors into Subject Authority File” because SCIS Subject Authority files already contain author names as subjects.
  • Specify file encoding: MARC authorities will be encoded in UTF-8.  Select this in Oliver, and leave Access-It as “auto-detect”.
Access-It authority file options
Authority file options in Access-IT