Monday, June 30, 2008

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Last week, I received an announcement from the Cataloging Distribution Service News and Announcements list. It read


Due to production problems, the 31st edition of the five-volume printed edition of the Library of Congress Subject Headings, commonly referred to as the Red Books, will not be available until the spring of 2009. The data cutoff date for the 31st edition will now be December 31, 2008.

Customers who have already placed a paid order for the 31st edition have the option of leaving their payments in their deposit accounts or requesting a refund.”

When the Red Books became available online back in 2001 or 2002, I began to use them in that format. I was a contract cataloger at the time, working at a variety of different libraries, and I didn’t always have access to the (then) 4-volume print edition. It is often easier to scan the printed version and one gets a different perspective of the subject headings on paper than from the digital version, but I’ve grown accustomed to searching for subject headings with my computer and that is my preferred method of access.

For one thing, there are now 5 – count ‘em 5 – Red Books to browse through looking for that authorized word or phrase. If I want to keep the books close enough that I don’t have to leave my computer, I’d have to get an additional desk! And like the electronic version of anything, the list is easy to revise and is updated nightly. While the print version saves paper and ink by using Pattern Headings, the electronic version can include all subdivisions for every topic. It also includes names and free-floating subdivisions which the print version cannot do without turning into a 10-volume set.

Newcomers to cataloging can benefit from the print version, though, because it includes a very valuable introduction – definitely worth reading – with instructions for how to navigate the Red Books plus the history and background of subject headings. The explanation on the Authorities web site focuses on how to search effectively. That’s important, but it assumes the cataloger already knows all about LCSH and needs only information about what’s different on the web site from the Red Books.

If you haven’t used the online version of LCSH, it’s available at the Library of Congress web site. LC has lots of interesting things on their site, so it’s worth a trip regardless of Subject Headings.

If you’d like to sign up for News and Announcements from the LC’s Cataloging Distribution Service, you can do that here.

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