Tuesday, April 3, 2007

LCSH Incarnate

I have been enjoying the active discussions on the recently formed Future of Subject Headings list run by the American Library Association. The Library of Congress has already abandoned keeping track of series headings; now we are nervous that subject headings may be the next thing to go.

Of course, librarians by constitution tend to be a bit nervous. We enjoy predicting our own doom, and have been doing so regularly for quite some time now. Whether it was Melvil Dewey attempting to standardize library practices, the advent of the card catalog, the end of the Mansell project (somebody did finish it, right?), ordering catalog cards from OCLC instead of Library of Congress, the end of Prism, keyword searching, or predictions of a post-literate society, we have been sure that the Next Big Thing will spell the end of professional librarianship as we know it. (Click here for a delightful article about touring the Vatican library, including reminiscences about the Vatican's first card catalog.) Add to that budget cuts, spiraling serial prices, and animated librarians, and it's no wonder that some of us aren't sleeping so well these days.

Thus the discussion of subject headings on the Future of Subject Headings listserv. If most students use keyword searches to find their materials, why do we need subject headings in the first place? Subject headings may make librarians happy, but what do they do for the average library patron? The Future of Subject Headings list has already generated an impressive analysis of what is both good and bad about subject headings. Like most good/bad lists, the things that are good or bad about subject headings are heavily dependent on context. The Google-ing down of search strategies is going to force us to change--again--the way we teach students to search for resources; the role that subject headings will play in the future will to some extent depend on how well we can adapt the controlled vocabularies of LCSH to a keyword-based environment.

Which brings me back to the threatened demise of librarians. One of the luxuries of being a theological librarian, particularly in a seminary context, is that you get immersed in religion and theology in a way that makes it easier to navigate theological resources by feel. It's a deep subject, and we Protestants have done our best to make sure that areas like ecclesiology are as complicated as possible. (Have you ever imagined a world where you would only need the term "Church" and everyone would know what you were talking about?) But it is a manageable subject, and with time, there is a growing familiarity and capability with the terms and history of theology.

So, too, with any discipline that any librarian loves and spends time with over the years. Because we are librarians, we may never gain the subject expertise of a practitioner in our field, but because we are librarians, we do gain a facility with navigation--with association--that allows us to organize and locate good resources. We are LCSH incarnate. No one of us holds the entirety of the Big Red Books in his or her head, but we know our own areas, and we are very good at collaborating. We may not control the budgets and the programming that will determine whether LCSH survives another generation, but people who want to find resources in a sea of information will still be glad to have us around.

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