The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 1, Part 2
Apr 1985


Special Supplement on Subject Headings for Information Retrieval

Editor's Foreword

For the last several years I have been collecting classifications and lists of subject headings used for information retrieval in conservation libraries and collections of record material of all sorts. They are brought together in this supplement and offered without modification for the use of readers who are looking for ways to organize their growing libraries.

Information retrieval may involve arranging the books or papers themselves as well as the terms by which they may be retrieved. Both books and terms may be arranged by any principle (author, title, date, language, subject, size, etc.), but the most popular, useful and difficult principle is subject. If you can retrieve information by subject you can retrieve by anything.

Subjects can be arranged either by similarity of concept or alphabetically. If they are arranged by concept, like a detailed table of contents or the Dewey Decimal System, they make up a classification scheme. If they are arranged alphabetically, like the Yellow Pages or the index to a book, then they make up either a controlled-vocabulary list of subject headings, or a keyword list.

Classifications, which group similar topics together and have an outline format, are intended in their broad outline to cover the overall subject field completely. The number and kind of categories they provide within that outline is not fixed, however. New categories can be added and modified as new types of material come into the collection. Classifications are usually used for arranging the material itself; log or complex classification schemes may be indexed to make them easier to use.

Alphabetic lists of subject headings can also serve as a basis of arrangement, as for pamphlets and leaflets in the vertical files of public libraries. More often they are used as finding aids to material arranged by some other principle. They may be simple or complex. In their fully developed form, they have "scope notes" and several kinds of cross references, are keyed to a classification system, and use a controlled vocabulary with standard terms. Subject catalogs in general libraries are of this type. They are based on, or taken entirely from, either Sears' List of Subject Headings or the Library of Congress Subject Headings List.

A simpler type of subject heading list, the keyword index, uses the words found in the documents instead of standard terms, and is more adapted to the use of computerized information retrieval. There are no keyword indexes in this supplement because they are each tailor-made for the body of information they index.

Published, pre-existing classifications and lists of subject headings are not useful for conservation or other special subject libraries, for a number of reasons. They scatter conservation among too many major categories, define terms too broadly, lack significant smaller subject categories, include only terms applicable to entire books, and so on. The alternative is to make up one's own system from scratch, which is a very time-consuming job, or to adapt a system used in a similar library.

Even if one's personal information retrieval system is initially based on one used for somebody else's library, it becomes one s own as it is revised and expanded over the years. All systems require upkeep, which if manually done can be deadly time-consuming for a large collection, especially if it is indexed in depth. Computers, if they have adequate memories and the right kind of software, can eliminate most drudgery connected with filing and retrieval of information. They also make it possible to retrieve literature references by any aspect--author, year, title, subject, and so on. You are not limited, as in manual systems, to the first word on your 3 x 5 file card.

The AIC Newsletter published in a recent issue a list of conservators who were using computers in their work. It included the uses to which their computers were being put: accounting, word processing, conservation records and so on. Information retrieval was not one of the uses listed. The right kind of programs exist, and books are available to guide the consumer in choice of software. All the elements seem to be there; perhaps it will not be long before conservators start using their personal computers for information retrieval in their own libraries and files.

In the meantime, here is a list of book and/or paper conservators, with the computer models they have and the uses to which they put them. The names above the line were abstracted from the list compiled by Betty Fiske and published in the AIC Newsletter. The last three names were added on the basis of personal knowledge.

Robert Futernick - Apple III - Word processing, treatment records
Craig Jensen - Macintosh - Word processing, treatment records, analytical data
Deborah Evetts - Digital Decmate - Word processing, treatment records
Betty Fiske - IBM-PC - Word Processing, treatment records, analytical data
George Cunha - Radio Shack TRS-80 - Word processing Stuart Kohler - IBM XT - Treatment records


Robert Espinosa - Macintosh - Word processing, analytical data Peter Waters - Macintosh - Word processing, analytical data, statistics, and perhaps other uses
Gary Frost - DEC WPS-8 - Word processing (maintenance of a bibliography; some subject retrieval of references)

No matter what system is used, or how skilled you are, retrieval will rarely be perfect. In any search, you will probably get some irrelevant items along with the good ones, and miss a few you should have caught. That's the name of the game. But having a system that works does make your library more accessible to you. It does put information at your fingertips, increase your efficiency, and help you to get your money's worth from the books you have bought. A good system can make it unlikely that you will waste much tine staring at the books on your shelves in your library or pawing through files saying, "I know it's in here someplace--if I could only find it!"

The lists below have all probably all been revised by now. Most of the authors contributed them with the understanding that they were continually being revised, and they would be out of date by the time they were published. This is normal for any live, growing and useful file of subject headings. It reflects the body of information it provides access to.

A good general introduction to classification and use of subject headings is:

Minnie Earl Sears. Sears List of Subject Headings. 12th ed. Edited by Barbara M. Westby. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1982. Page 11-32, "Principles of the Sears List of Subject Headings."

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