What’s in a subject heading, anyway?

| November 3, 2011

A post by Allen Foresta on this very same blog inspired me to reconsider (positively) my love of subject headings assigned by the Library of Congress.  A quick explanation of what these are, for the uninitiated: as a form of bibliographic control, the Library of Congress assigns books subject headings, which enable users to search for books by subject, rather than simply by author or title.  What’s fantastic about subject headings is that books on similar topics are then linked by being described by the same terms (and searchable by hyperlink when in an online OPAC, like Educat or CLIO).  Subject headings work because the descriptive options are finite, but they’re tricky for the same reason: we’re relying on human subjectivity to determine the core meaning or salient features of any given work.  No two people tend to describe anything the same way.  And while certain books–like textbooks, for instance–seem straight forward, other books–like fiction or memoirs–aren’t, necessarily.  Aside from being an incredibly useful tool for searching for books on research topics, I also find it intriguing to know what facets of the book I’m about to read the LOC finds most pressing.  The publisher, the editor, the publicist, and the book’s reviewers all put their markings on the exterior of the book–their interpretations. But subject headings affect where the book lives on the shelf for the rest of the book’s library life.  Which description is most crucial to the book?  And then there’s the author, who spends the entire mid-section of the book–the pages between the jacket–trying to explain what the book is really about.  Who’s correct? And what about the reader; doesn’t each person who encounters a text transform it through their personal interpretation? Ah, philosophy!


The first thing I do when I open a new book is check out the subject headings printed on the back of the title page.  It’s such a precise and sometimes erratic-seeming sliver of what’s in store for me next.  For example, the subject headings describing Mary Karr’s memoir, LIT:

Poets, American–20th century–Biography.
Recovering alcoholics–United States–Biography.
Mental illness–United States–Case studies.
Alcoholism–United States–Case studies.
Dysfunctional families–Texas.

This book has it all: poetry, mental illness, alcohol, Texas.  I doubt Mary Karr would be surprised by these headings, but might she be surprised by “Dysfunctional families–Texas”?  As it is, if someone is doing research on dysfunctional families in Texas via a subject search, Karr’s life story should pop up on the list.  She must have high-fived someone when she saw that.

But here’s an interesting counterpoint to the above… Augusten Burroughs’ DRY, his follow-up memoir to RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, has the following subject headings:

Advertising agencies –New York (State) –New York.
Novelists, American –20th century –Biography.
Copy writers –United States –Biography.
Manhattan (New York, N.Y.) –Social life and customs.

Sounds fairly regal, no?  Manhattan, it’s social life and customs.  Novelists; ad agencies; the 20th century.  I imagine walks around Central Park with an Irish setter.  What’s odd is that this book is explicitly about alcoholism and his recovery (the book is called Dry!) but you would never know from the subject terms that his memoir and Karr’s cover the same terrain.  What’s the story behind that story?  Only the catalogers can explain.

Well, what subject headings describe your favorite books?