Organising knowledge: The importance of library standards in a global society

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By Vicki

Subject Headings and web searching – making the library count

Providing access to information and knowledge is a primary function of library practice and in a series of three blogs I will focus on the importance of Subject Headings. 

Part 1 Subject Headings and web searching – making the library count

Part 2 Library of Congress and SCIS Subject Headings

Part 3 The Schools Online Thesaurus (ScOT) – not your ordinary Subject Headings

Getting the mechanics of library provision right is the first step to future-proofing your school library and the information access of your users. 

‘The National Library Guidelines for New Zealand Schools’ of 2002, ( p. 32) state the first critical success factor for library access is that: ”The library contributes to effective information management within the school and plays an integral role in the school’s ICT infrastructure”.

Increasingly this infrastructure is moving beyond the school into the global environment, making the selection and access to appropriate quality information more important than ever.

As well as managing access, the school library’s systems should also support the development of student’s information seeking skills. With the popularity of the Web, I can see why librarians may despair trying to instill good information literacy skills into their students when ‘Googling’ offers such a quick fix option.

One of the many benefits of teaching students effective search skills using the Library Catalogue is that these skills are transferable to the Web and other online search databases.  By beginning with the Library Catalogue, students can more easily define their search in a quality controlled database. Searching using Subject Heading terms, along with keywords and phrases, produces better Web results, and quality results in online databases like EPIC .

If you are searching for “Teen reads” using subject heading terms such as “Teen fiction” or better still “Young adult fiction” , produce better library related results in the Library Catalogue and doing a Web search. 

The best way to experience this is to do a comparison search on the Web and compare the results. Your students can also benefit from this knowledge and it is a way of understanding the value of using the library catalogue as a quality control for further online searching. 

Tag Terms

I won't spend time discussing the use of Subject Headings versus web tags or tag terms, but as a starting point it is good to understand the difference between the Subject Headings used in the Library Catalogue and the tag terms used to organise information on the Web.

Most of you with online accounts will be aware of tagging or may have been tagged. It might be the embarrassing photo on Facebook linked to your name tag or the latest hashtag discussion on Twitter. Or you may have been busy flexing your library skills organising your blog entries with appropriate key terms. Tag words are everywhere and can be used and created by anyone and like the keywords and Subject Headings used in Library Catalogue records, tag terms help to organise content and make it accessible to others. 

Unlike Subject Headings, tag words on the Web have no governing rules. It’s mostly a first in, first served approach and to be useful they rely on a match (often random) to be made between the content and terms used to search. With the amount of content on the Web, even a very poor search will produce results, but not necessarily quality results.

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) use controlled vocabulary, which is internationally standardised to ensure that resources worldwide can be ‘tagged’ with the same subject terms and therefore located with a search using the same terms. You import records with these Subject Headings as part of your cataloguing. Being international, authoritative material online will also be tagged with the same Subject Headings which means using the information found in the catalogue record can help your students find authoritative material online.

Don’t think this is just for older students. The next time a student is after a book on ‘Bugs’ and you want to encourage their information seeking and vocabulary, show them the Subject Heading ‘Insects’ and related terms and produce a list of subject-based results for all the resources on that subject.

In this example - A keyword search for ‘Bugs’ produced this record with the Subject Heading for all resources on the same topic ‘Insects’ and better still also shows related terms like Spiders and Arachnida.

Armed with the correct Subject Heading search terms, information seekers will find all catalogued or indexed resources related to their subject or topic, be it in the Library Catalogue, databases like EPIC or the Web.

So when you have students interested in a certain topic, take the time to familiarise them with the Subject Heading terms related to that topic. Sure, they might still go ‘Googling’, but by doing this you are helping to create confident, connected users of information no matter where they search online.

Find out more about cataloguing your library including information on keywords and subject headings.

Related readings:

National Library of New Zealand 2002, The School Library and Learning in the Information Landscape: Guidelines for New Zealand Schools.