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Let’s talk subject headings…and more on cookery.

Discussions on AUTOCAT (a cataloguing listserv) have been interesting the last couple of days. Currently there’s a little debate on how useful/necessary/arbitrary Subject Headings on fiction are. I had never thought to question the pratice of assigning subject headings to fiction. Heck, if we didn’t do that there’d be at least 2 full-time cataloguers here out of work since all they do is fiction!

The essential argument against SH in fiction is that some users don’t understand the difference between Fiction and Nonfiction and therefore read fiction thinking it contains factual information. They suggest that only nonfiction should have subject headings so that users wouldn’t get confused. Also, by adding subject headings to fiction, cataloguers are becoming “literary critics” – we decide what the books are about, and thus put our own understanding/bias into the headings which may or may not be helpful in assisting patrons.

Well, in my experience, most people know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Sure there are some books that are really hard to figure out – I know, I’ve catalogued a few (all the more reason to add fiction subject headings, I say). But, in general, the majority of books are easy to define as fic or nonfic. Also, as one person on the listserv pointed out, SH on fiction include the subfield $v Fiction (or $v Juvenile fiction), in public libraries the call number is often FIC Name [or some variant], like here it’s FIC/Smith and also in public libraries the fiction collection is in a separate, distinguishable area from the nonfiction. For instance, I have yet to put foot in my public library’s nonfic section – it’s on the 2nd floor and I’ve never gone up there. If someone manages to miss all three of these indicators, then I doubt they’d really clue in even if you told him/her that the book was fiction/nonfiction.

In general, people think cataloguing is just data entry. All we do is input name, title, publisher, etc. Most librarians understand that cataloguing is not that simple. I can spend much time deliberating on the Dewey for nonfiction books. I can waste even more time doing subject analysis. Subject analysis and assigning subject headings is not nearly as easy as you’d think. Sure, yesterday I had a lovely book on cats that described all the major breeds so that was straightforward; however there are so many other books out there that don’t fall into an easy category, or that I’m so unfamiliar with the topic that I’m not sure what the keywords would be to even start looking for relevant LCSH.

Juvenile books are actually, I find, harder. There is such a fine line between juvenile fiction and nonfiction sometimes. It is common for authors and publishers to present factual information using a fiction approach. For example, in the past month I’ve catalogued at least 4 children’s books on Joan of Arc. I think 2 or 3 I did as nonfic and 1 as fic. The one I did as fiction has a little cartoon-y Joan with dialogue about how she was feeling and what she said to certain people. It was quite obvious that the dialogue is a part of the author’s imagination. One of the other books was almost picture book, but it had no dialogue and the text pretty much stuck to the facts that are generally known. So, to a child, it would read like a story, but it had factual content. A 6 year old who wants to read about Joan might not be able to tell the difference, but a parent or caregiver using the books would.

I’m not really explaining it well, I guess the morning coffee is wearing off, but really, it is useful and necessary even in juvenile works to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction and to add fiction headings. Maybe a better example would be the graphic novel that turned out not to be a “real” graphic novel (since that’s a genre heading reserved for fiction items). It was a graphic novel on mathematicians – Archimedes, Pythagoras, Euclid and one other. The author used a story to discuss the lives of the mathmeticians and their thorems. It was not classed with the graphic novels (we do class our graphic novels anyway), but in math. I’m sure someone picking it up in the nonfiction section might be confused at first, but once they see that the book does include the theorems and basic facts on these guys, they’ll realize it really does have useful stuff in it. Ok so that was a bad example too, since Graphic novels don’t have fiction subject headings but $v Comic books, strips, etc.
Gee, I’m horrible at explanations.

So to change topics slightly, the discussion on cookery/cooking was brought up in this debate somehow, and someone mentioned that the words had different defintions. Then another was so kind as to post these definitions and below is an excerpt from an email:

Excerpted from Webster’s Third International Dictionary:
Cookery: “the art, science, process, or practice of cooking”


Cooking: “to prepare for eating by a heating process…to expose to fire, heat or some agency felt to be similar in a technical process”

Ah ha! So, see, there is a real reason why the subject heading is cookery and not cooking!

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About Jen

An instructor, a reader, a dog-owner, and advocate; that's how I define myself and these aspects directly impact my interests and conversations.

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