Tom Steele: The new cooperative cataloging

Steele, T. (2009). The new cooperative cataloging. Library Hi Tech, 27(1), 68-77.

Thomas Mann argues that we need the LCSH now more than ever. He gives the subject browse feature available on most OPACs as one reason. With other search methods, one is limited by the terms they can think of. While tagging assists in providing more terms, browsing subject headings will give the most complete list of materials a library owns in that particular subject. Also, because of free floating subdivisions, browsing the LCSH itself will not give the user the search terms (Mann, 2003). Free floating subdivisions are like tags in this respect, as there is no “master list” of tag combinations. (72)

This is a matter of perspective; if LC had been using some systematic application of tagging for the past one hundred years, and the brand new innovation under discussion was adding subject headings to LC records, undoubtedly there would be traditionalists vociferously defending tagging and decrying subject headings for just the opposite reasons.  Turn Mann’s reasoning on its head and LCSH’s weaknesses are revealed:  One often cannot find the results they seek by using “the terms they can think of;” “browsing subject headings will give the most complete list of materials a library owns in that particular subject” as identified as the primary focus of the materials by LC catalogers, thereby excluding the (likely) broader set of materials tagged by catalogers and users as relevant to a topic; and while LCSH can be browsed to find the extent of subheadings under a given heading, tags can be flexibly combined (including negative combinations, or exclusions) to allow the user to quickly and easily broaden or narrow their browsing results.  In other words, browsing LCSH occurs through a static display of headings, while tags are dynamic, allowing for a remixable display.  The strengths of LCSH Mann highlights are strengths, but he glosses over the weaknesses of LCSH and ignores the complementary strengths of tags.

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General notes on LCSH and tags

Lots of research on tagging focuses on the most popular items in various catalogs and websites (especially LibraryThing).  In addition, other research shows that tags begin to "stabilize" and become more useful when they reach a critical mass of around 100 times tagged.  It’s clear that tags can be of great value to the […]