Finding Appropriate Terms
Once the topic of the item being cataloged has been determined, the second step in assigning subject headings is to find the appropriate terms in LCSH. Catalogers can feel free to use several subject headings for each item being cataloged, to make sure that all aspects of the topic have been indicated to the patron looking for information. It is important, though, not to just assign lists and lists of subject headings to each item in the library. If a heading is used too frequently, the listing of materials under that heading becomes cumbersome for the patron to look through, defeating the purpose of having subject headings to begin with.
Traditionally, catalogers tried to assign just 3 or 4 subject headings at the most to any library item. Because catalog cards had to be typed or copied for each of these subject access points, and all of these cards had to be filed into a card catalog, using more subject headings created more work. These headings also had to be listed at the bottom of the cataloging information for each record, meaning that too many subject headings could create card entries that needed more than one card to hold all the information. This, again, created more work for the library staff. The challenge to the cataloger became one of determining the 3 or 4 best terms, out of all the possible terms, to use to describe a given library item. Sometimes this became a frustrating or time-consuming task, trying to best determine what terms library users might look for when finding library materials.
Computers have made using several subject headings an easier job. When cataloging information is entered into a computer program, the subject headings are entered one time, usually at the end of the cataloging record. Once these terms are entered in the record for a library item, each of those subject terms becomes an access point for patrons to find that library item. Multiple copies of cards do not need to be generated for access to be allowed to each term used. This gives more freedom to the cataloger. Because the information is just entered once into the computer, there is no need to limit the amount of information that can be used. Catalogers will often use the notes and the subject heading areas to give rather extensive information about the item being listed, so that patrons have more access options when trying to find information.
While many library items will still have 3 to 5 subject headings assigned to them, items will also be found with many more headings. For example, if a library has a small collection of items on snakes, and an encyclopedia of reptiles is being cataloged, it would be appropriate to go through the table of contents and assign subject headings for each type of snake listed in the work. In this way, a general keyword search or a subject search for a type of snake would show the patron to this encyclopedia as a source of information. Smaller libraries in particular can benefit from the generous use of subject headings if they have computerized catalogs.
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