Taylor, A. (1995). On the subject of subjects. Journal of Academic Librarianship 21:484-91.
One of the classic library catalog models includes a categorization method of the subject of a certain work. However, Arlene G. Taylor gives us the fact that even since the 1830’s, the usefulness of a subject search is a much debated topic in the library world. It seems as though library users search mostly on “known items”, which is already a step beyond the subject search. For example, a library user looking for a specific author or particular article will (in most cases) already know the subject of which they are searching. Therefore, what use is having the subject search at all? However, starting in the 1980’s researchers found that with the birth of the internet came a comeback of the subject search in full force.
Taylor dives into the subject access via the internet with a dichotomy of positives and negatives produced by the system. She draws from other studies that show that even though an internet subject search gives the user several hundred options to peruse, the results are often overwhelming. Users will use the keyword search as a subject search, which creates more chaos more than order. Moreover, computer programmers are the ones that set up this system, not librarians. This results with a presentation of ANY sources, not the BEST sources. The response to this problem is being tackled by information specialists that work with and within the Library of Congress and the OCLC to create standards for subject searching to help the users find the best sources available to suit their needs.
Another problem Taylor mentions is the debate of keyword searching and vocabulary control, which is defined as all word or word forms that are mapped to the authorized word form for that concept (MacCall 2015). The two are not interchangeable, and a keyword search is “chancy” when trying to look for items in a subject field. Using a controlled vocabulary can better index search terms to make searching easier throughout the internet. “On the other hand,” Taylor states, “there are several advantages to free text indexing: low cost, simple searching, searchability of full information content, no human indexing errors, and no delay in incorporating new terms” (486). Each argument has its pros and cons. Two other points of categorization that are currently being worked on are specific entry, which takes titles of works and puts them under the best subject for its purpose ahead of time, Library of Congress Subject Headings, and classification.
Taylor’s article is interesting in that it ties back to Thomas Mann’s point of the principle of least effort, which argues that it is the library’s responsibility to provide the best resources for its user. Taylor narrows in on this topic and reveals that providing high standards for subject searches (via the Dublin Core and Text Encoding Initiative, that created the ties needed between encoded information and the physical resource for which the user is searching). Taylor provides one simple point that speaks volumes for the much debated subject of subjects: if the technology for providing better sources to the user does not exist, the only way to fix it is to grab hold of innovation and develop the technology.