Subject cataloging has opened up a whole new aspect of librarianship to me. Namely, how does an indexer or bibliographer correctly and comprehensively determine an article’s “aboutness”? I’ve been working with the Hispanic American Periodicals Index (HAPI) since January 2009 helping update the organization’s thesaurus and index articles from Spanish language periodicals. Only since about June of this year have I started learning the more challenging process of subject cataloging.
Unlike subject cataloging, descriptive indexing is a standards-driven process that mostly eliminates the possibility of subjective interpretation. In contrast, subject cataloging requires that the bibliographer perform content analysis in order to determine what an article is about so that they can then assign meaning to an article. This process, as you can imagine, opens the door to subjective interpretation. After all, it’s a human who analyzes the content and applies subject headings based on what they think the article is about. So this begs the question, how does a bibliographer not only determine what an article is about, but how do they also assign subject headings that will help the end user correctly determine “aboutness”? What happens if my interpretation of the content differs from another person’s interpretation of the same content? Is the article then about two different things? The process of determining “aboutness” is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. After all, as an indexer, you have to use a limited number of terms to describe meaning, a potentially limitless concept. And as far as I know we don’t yet have a software program that performs automated content analysis, interprets meaning, and assigns perfect subject headings. This is no doubt part of what makes subject cataloging a fascinating and challenging aspect of librarianship.