Subject Heading Lists

Access problems such as these have, over time, spurred the use of subject headings that indicate the topics covered by materials in the library. Because consistency is an important issue when providing access to information in a library catalog, there have been a small number of very comprehensive and regularly updated subject lists developed for use in libraries. The two most commonly used lists for public, academic and school libraries are Sears List of Subject Headings and Library of Congress Subject Headings. These lists were developed to try to cover most known topics in a consistent manner, enabling libraries to provide access to materials on similar subjects under one consistent term. 

Specialized lists have also been developed for the use of libraries that deal only with areas such as medical or agricultural information. This type of specialized list contains a more detailed breakdown of the information area, appropriate to the more detailed level of coverage in special libraries. These specialized lists have usually been developed under the auspices of a knowledgeable, respected institution, such as the National Library of Medicine or the National Agricultural Library, or by large organizations or database creators who are dealing with a specific topic.

Whichever type of subject heading list is appropriate to the library in question, the important thing is to choose a subject heading list and use it consistently throughout the collection. The purpose of these lists is to provide access to the collection through the use of subject terms that describe the content of the items in the library. Using a subject heading list means that all library materials concerning a particular topic will be gathered together under one designated term in the library catalog. This prevents the patron from having to look up several synonyms of a word to find all the information on the topic in question. The important job for the cataloger is to determine the necessary terms for any given item. Assigning subject headings to a library item is not a difficult process, but there are some basic guidelines that must be understood on how to use these lists that can make the job of picking subject headings easier for the library staff.

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