Frontmatter:  View Table of Contents  |  Preface  |  A History of the Sears List  |  Principles of the Sears List
Headings:  Headings to be Added by the Cataloger  |  "Key" Headings  |  List of Canceled and Replaced Headings
Subdivisions:  The Use of Subdivisions in the Sears List  |  List of Subdivisions Provided for in the Sears List
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Search:  Search the Sears List of Subject Headings

Principles of the Sears List of Subject Headings

Certain principles and practices of subject cataloging should be understood before an attempt is made to assign subject headings to library materials. The discussion that follows makes reference to the Sears List of Subject Headings, henceforth referred to as the Sears List or the List, but the principles are applicable to other lists of subject headings as well.

The Purpose of Subject Cataloging

All library work is a matter of the storage and retrieval of information, and cataloging is that aspect of library work devoted to storage. The best cataloging is simply that which facilitates the most accurate and complete retrieval. The two basic branches of cataloging are descriptive cataloging and subject cataloging. Descriptive cataloging makes possible the retrieval of materials in a library by title, author, date, etc. — in short all the searchable elements of a cataloging record except the subjects. Only by conforming to the standards for descriptive cataloging can a librarian assure the user accurate retrieval on the descriptive elements. Those standards are codified in Resource Description and Access (RDA), which is in the process of replacing the older Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second revised edition (AACR2).

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, descriptive cataloging was the only library cataloging that was found necessary. Libraries were much smaller than they are today, and scholarly librarians then were able, with the aid of printed bibliographies, to be familiar with everything available on a given subject and guide the users to it. With the rapid growth of knowledge in many fields in the course of the nineteenth century and the resulting increase in the volume of books and other library materials, it became desirable to do a preliminary subject analysis of such works and then to represent them in the catalog in such a way that they would be retrievable by subject.

Subject cataloging deals with what a book or other library item is about, and the purpose of subject cataloging is to list under one uniform word or phrase all the materials on a given topic that a library has in its collection. A subject heading is that uniform word or phrase used in the library catalog to express a topic. The use of authorized words or phrases only, with cross-references from unauthorized synonyms, is the essence of bibliographic control in subject cataloging. The purpose of a subject authority, such as the Sears List, is to provide a basic vocabulary of authorized terms together with suggestions for useful cross-references.

The two most common types of subject authorities are the thesaurus and the subject heading list. A true thesaurus, in the realm of information science, is a comprehensive controlled vocabulary of discrete unit terms, called descriptors, arranged is such a way as to display the hierarchical and associative relationships among terms. It is usually limited to a particular realm of knowledge, as in the case of the Art and Architecture Thesaurus. The American national standards for thesauri are spelled out in the NISO Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Thesauri. A subject heading list, such as the Sears List or the Library of Congress Subject Headings, is simply an alphabetical list of terms that have been established over time as warranted by the materials being cataloged. A subject heading list also indicates relationships among terms but does not attempt to establish any comprehensive hierarchies. In addition to simple descriptors, a subject heading list can include pre-coordinated strings composed of subject terms with subdivisions.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings, which in print now comprises five large volumes, is primarily a list of headings that have been used in the Library. Likewise Medical Subject Headings derives from the holdings of the National Library of Medicine. The Sears List is unique among subject heading lists in that it does not attempt to be a complete list of terms used in any single library but only a list of headings most likely to be needed in a typical small library and a skeleton or pattern for creating other headings as needed. By using the Sears List as a foundation, the cataloger in a small library can develop a local authority list that is consistent in form and comprehensive for that library. This has proven over the years to be a practical and economical solution to the cataloging needs of small libraries. In other ways, such as the use of uninverted headings only and of popular rather than technical vocabulary, the Sears List is specifically tailored to the needs of small libraries of any kind, including school libraries, small public libraries, church libraries, etc.

Because the Sears List is not a complete authority list, the cataloger using the Sears List must take an active part in developing a larger vocabulary of terms. As an aid in this process we offer the following discussion of the basic principles of subject analysis and the construction and control of subject headings.

Determining the Subject of the Work

The first and most important step in subject cataloging is to ascertain the true subject of the material being cataloged. This concept of “aboutness” should never be far from a subject cataloger’s thoughts. It is a serious mistake to think of subject analysis as a matter of sorting through material and fitting it into the available categories, like sorting the mail, rather than focusing first on the material and determining what it is really about.

Many times the subject of a work is readily determined. Hummingbirds is obviously the subject of a book entitled The Complete Book of Hummingbirds. In other cases the subject is not so easy to discern, because it may be a complex one or the author may not express it in a manner clear to someone unfamiliar with the subject. The subject of a work cannot always be determined from the title alone, which is often uninformative or misleading, and undue dependence on it can result in error. A book entitled Great Masters in Art immediately suggests the subject Artists, but closer examination may reveal the book to be only about painters, not about artists in general. After reading the title page, the cataloger should examine the table of contents and skim the preface and introduction, and then, if the subject is still not clear, examine the text carefully and read parts of it, if necessary. In the case of nonbook materials, the cataloger should examine the container, the label, any accompanying guides, etc., and view or listen to the contents if possible. Only after this preliminary examination has been made is it possible to determine the subject of a work. If the meaning of technical terminology is not clearly understood, reference sources should be consulted.

Only when the cataloger has determined the subject content of a work and identified it with explicit words can the Sears List be used to advantage. The List is consulted to determine one of three possibilities. If the word the cataloger chose to describe the subject content of the work is an established heading in the List, then that heading should be assigned to the work.

If the word the cataloger chose is a synonym or alternate form of an established heading in the List, then the cataloger forgoes the word that first came to mind in favor of the term from the List. A third possibility is that there is no heading in the List for the subject of the work at hand, in which case the cataloger must formulate the appropriate heading, add it to the library’s subject authority file with its attendant references, and then assign it to the work.

Many books are about more than one subject. In that case a second or third subject heading is necessary. Theoretically there is no limit to the number of subject entries that could be made for one work, but in practice an excess of entries is a disservice to the user of the catalog. More than three subject headings should be assigned to a single item only after careful consideration. The need for more than three may be due to the cataloger’s inability to identify precisely the single broader heading that would cover all the topics in the work. Similarly, a subject heading should not be assigned for a topic that comprises less than one third of a work. The commonest practice, known as the Rule of Three, may be stated as follows: As many as three specific subject headings in a given area may be assigned to a work, but if the work treats of more than three subjects, then a broader heading is used instead and the specific headings are omitted. A work about snakes and lizards, for example, would be assigned the headings Snakes and Lizards. If the work also included material on turtles, a third heading Turtles would be added. But if the work discussed alligators and crocodiles as well, the only subject heading assigned would be Reptiles.

Subject headings are used for materials that have definite, definable subjects. There are always a few works so indefinite in their subject content that it is better not to assign a heading at all. Such a work might be a collection of materials produced by several individuals on a variety of topics or one person’s random thoughts and ideas. If a cataloger cannot determine a definite subject, the reader is unlikely to find the item under a makeshift or general heading. The headings Human behavior and Happiness, for example, would be misleading when assigned to a book titled Appreciation, which is a personal account of the sources of the author’s pleasure in life. The book has no specific subject and so it should be assigned no subject headings.

Specific and Direct Entry

The principle of specific and direct entry is fundamental in modern subject cataloging. According to that rule a work is entered in the catalog directly under the most specific subject heading that accurately represents its content. This term should be neither broader nor narrower but co-extensive in scope with the subject of the work cataloged. The principle was definitively formulated by Charles A. Cutter (1837-1903) in his Rules for a Dictionary Catalog. Cutter wrote: “Enter a work under its subject-heading, not under the heading of a class which includes that subject.” His example is: “Put Lady Cust’s book on ‘The Cat’ under Cat, not under Zoology or Mammals, or Domestic animals; and put Garnier’s ‘Le Fer’ under Iron, not under Metals or Metallurgy.” The reason this principle has become sacred to modern cataloging is simply that there is no other way to insure uniformity. In subject cataloging uniformity means simply that all materials on a single topic are assigned the same subject heading. If the headings Cats, Zoology, Mammals, and Domestic animals were all equally correct for a book on cats, as they would be without Cutter’s rule, there would be no single heading for that topic and consequently no assurance of uniformity. One cataloger could assign the heading Cats to Lady Cust’s book, another cataloger could assign the heading Mammals to another book on cats, and a third cataloguer could assign the heading Domestic animals or Pets to yet another book on cats. There would then be no simple way to retrieve all the materials on cats in the library’s collection.

The principle of specific entry holds that a work is always entered under a specific term rather than under a broader heading that includes the specific concept. This principle is of particular importance to the cataloguer using the Sears List, since the heading of appropriate specificity must be added if it is not already there. If, for example, a work being catalogued is about penguins, it should be entered only under the most specific term that is not narrower than the scope of the book itself, that is, Penguins. It should not be assigned the heading Birds or Water birds. This is true even though the heading Penguins does not appear in the List. When a specific subject is not found in the List, the heading for the larger group or category to which it belongs should be consulted, in this case Birds. There the cataloger finds a general reference that reads: “SA [See also] types of birds, e.g. Birds of prey; Canaries; etc. [to be added as needed].” The cataloger must establish the heading Penguins as a narrower term under the heading Birds and then assign it to the book on penguins. In many cases the most specific entry will be a general subject. A book entitled Birds of the World would have the subject heading Birds. Even though Birds is a very broad term, it is the narrowest term that comprehends the subject content of that work.

Having assigned a work the most specific subject heading that is applicable, the cataloger should not then make an additional entry under a broader heading. A work with the title Birds of the Ocean should not be entered under both Birds and Water birds but only under Water birds. To eliminate this duplication, the See also references in the public catalog direct the user from the broader subject headings to the more specific ones. At Birds, for example, the reference would read: “See also Birds of prey; Canaries; Pelicans; Penguins; Water birds,” etc.

The principle of direct entry holds that a subject heading should stand as a separate term rather than as a subdivision under a broader heading. If the reader wants information about owls, the direct approach is to consult the catalog under the heading Owls, not under the broader subject Birds subdivided by the narrower topic Owls. In other words, the cataloger has entered the book directly under Owls, not indirectly under “Birds — Owls,” or under “Birds — Birds of prey— Owls.” The latter two subject strings are both specific, but they are not direct.

Types of Subject Headings

There are four types of subject headings: topical headings, form headings, geographic headings, and proper names.


    Topical subject headings are simply the words or phrases for common things or concepts that represent the content of various works. In choosing the word or phrase that makes the best subject heading several things should be considered. The first and most obvious is the literary warrant, or the language of the material being cataloged. The word most commonly used in the literature is most likely the word that best represents the item cataloged. If nine out of ten books on the subject use the phrase “Gun control,” there is no reason to use any word or phrase other than Gun control as a subject heading, so long as that phrase meets certain other criteria.

    A second consideration, and one of the criteria that a subject heading should meet, is that of common usage. In so far as possible a subject heading should represent the common usage of the English language. In American libraries this means current American spelling and terminology: Labor not Labour; Elevators not Lifts. (In British libraries these choices would be reversed.) Foreign terms such as Film noir are not used unless they have been fully incorporated into the English language. By the same token contemporary usage gradually should replace antiquated words or phrases. The heading Black people, for example, replaced Negroes as common usage changed. In time the heading African Americans was added to the Sears List for greater specificity, as the use of that term stabilized. What is common usage depends, in part, upon who the users of a library are. In most small libraries the popular or common word for a thing is to be preferred to the scientific or technical word, when the two are truly synonymous. For example, Desert animals is preferable in most small libraries to Desert fauna. In such a case the scientific term should be a See reference to the established term.

    In order to maintain uniformity in a library catalog two things are necessary. The first is abiding by Cutter’s rule of specificity, and the second is choosing a single word or phrase from among its synonyms or near-synonyms in establishing a subject heading. If Desert animals and Desert fauna were both allowed as established headings, the material on one subject would end up in two places. Sometimes a single word or phrase must be chosen from among several choices that do not mean exactly the same thing but are too close to be easily distinguished. In the Sears List, for example, Regional planning is an established heading with See references from County planning, Metropolitan planning, and State planning. The term chosen as the established heading is the one that is most inclusive.

    Another important consideration in establishing topical subject headings is that they should be clear and unambiguous. Sometimes the most common term for a topic is not suitable as a subject heading because it is ambiguous. Civil War, for example, must be rejected in favor of United States— History— 1861-1865, Civil War, since not all civil wars are the American Civil War. The term Civil wars could itself become a heading, if it were needed for general materials on rebellions or internal revolutions.

    When a single word has several meanings, that word can be used as a subject heading only when it is somehow rendered unambiguous. The word Depression, for example, can mean either an economic or a mental state, but as subject headings one is formulated Depressions and the other Depression (Psychology) . Stress can mean either stress on materials or stress on the mind, and the two headings are Strength of materials and Stress (Psychology) . Notice that the ambiguous word is qualified even when the other meaning is expressed in other words. Furthermore, an ambiguous term such as Feedback should be qualified, Feedback (Psychology) , even when the other meaning, Feedback (Electronics) , does not yet exist in the catalog. Whenever identical words with different meanings are used in the catalog, both require a parenthetical qualifier, which is usually either a broader term or discipline of study, as in the case of Seals (Animals) and Seals (Numismatics) .

    In choosing one term as a subject heading from among several possibilities the cataloger must also think of the spelling, number, and connotations of the various forms. When variant spellings are in use, one must be selected and uniformly applied, such as Archeology rather than Archaeology. A decision also must be made between the singular and plural form, which will be further discussed under Grammar of Subject Headings below. Sometimes variant forms of words can have different connotations, as with Arab, Arabian, and Arabic. It may seem inconsistent to use all three forms in subject headings, but, in fact, they are used consistently in the following ways: Arab relating to the people; Arabian referring to the geographical area and to horses; and Arabic for the language, script, or literature.


    The second kind of heading that is found in a library catalog is the form heading, which describes not the subject content of a work but its form. In other words, a form heading tells us not what a work is about but what it is. Form in this context means the intellectual form of the materials rather than the physical form of the item, although the physical forms of some nonbook materials, such as puzzles, sound recordings, or comedy films are also identified by form headings.

    Some form headings describe the general arrangement of the material and the purpose of the work, such as Almanacs, Atlases, Directories, and Gazetteers. These headings are customarily assigned to individual works as well as to materials about such forms. Theoretically, at least, any form can also be a topic, since it is possible for someone to write a book about almanacs or gazetteers.

    Other form headings are the names of literary forms and genres. Headings for the major literary forms, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Essays, are usually used as topical subject headings. As form headings they are used for collections only rather than for individual literary works. Minor literary forms, also known as genres, such as Science fiction, Epistolary poetry, and Children’s plays, are much more numerous and are often assigned to individual literary works. These headings will be discussed at greater length below under Literature. The distinction between form headings and topical headings in literature can sometimes be made by using the singular form for the topical heading and the plural for the form heading. Short story, for example, is topical, for materials about the short story as a literary form, while Short stories is a form. Likewise, Essay is topical, while Essays is a form. The peculiarities of language, however, do not always permit this distinction.


    Many works in a library’s collection are about geographic areas, countries, cities, etc. The appropriate subject heading for such a work is the name of the place in question. Geographic headings are the established names of individual places, from places as large as Africa to places as small as Walden Pond (Mass.) . They signify not only physical places but also political jurisdictions. These headings differ from topical subject headings in that they refer to a unique entity rather than to an abstraction or category of things.

    The Sears List does not attempt to provide geographic headings, which are numerous far beyond the scope of a single volume. The geographic headings that are found in Sears, such as United States, Ohio, and Chicago (Ill.) , are offered only as examples. The cataloger using the Sears List must establish geographic headings as needed with the aid of standard references sources. Some suggested sources are the most current editions of The Columbia Gazetteer of the World; National Geographic Atlas of the World; Statesman’s Year-book; Times Atlas of the World; Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary; and the Web site of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The geographic headings and geographic subdivisions found in Sears follow the form of abbreviation for qualifying states, provinces, etc., found in Appendix B (Abbreviations) of AACR2.


    Still other materials in a library’s collection are about individual persons, families, corporate bodies, literary works, motion pictures, etc. The appropriate heading for such material is the unique name of the entity in question. The three major types of name headings are personal names, corporate names, and uniform titles. Individual or personal name headings are usually established in the inverted form, with dates if necessary, and with See references from alternate forms. The heading Clinton, Bill, for example, would require a See reference from “Clinton, William Jefferson,” and if the library had material about any other person called Bill Clinton, the name heading for the president would need to take the form Clinton, Bill, 1946-. Corporate name headings are the commonly established names of corporate bodies, such as business firms, institutions, buildings, sports teams, performing groups, etc. Materials about a corporate body, such as Rockefeller Center or Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, are entered directly under the corporate name heading as a subject. Uniform titles are the established names of sacred scriptures, anonymous literary works, periodicals, motion pictures, radio and television programs, etc. Materials about a particular motion picture or about an anonymous literary work, for example, are entered directly under the uniform title, such as Gone with the wind (Motion picture) or Beowulf, as a subject. Materials about a literary work with a known author are entered under a name-title heading consisting of the author’s name followed by the title, such as Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Hamlet for a book about Shakespeare’s play.

    Like geographic headings, name headings are numerous beyond the scope of the Sears List and must be established by the cataloger as needed. Suggested sources for personal and corporate names are Who’s Who; Who’s Who in America; Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary; The Dictionary of National Biography; the Encyclopedia of Associations; the Library of Congress Name Authorities online; and the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) at General encyclopedias and standard reference works limited to specific fields are also useful sources for names.

The Grammar of Subject Headings

While many subject headings are simple terms like Reptiles or Electricity, other subjects can be very complex, in some cases involving several levels of subdivision. In order to construct subject headings consistently the cataloger should understand the grammar of subject headings.


    Single Nouns

    A single noun is the ideal type of subject heading when the language supplies it. Such terms are not only the simplest in form but often the easiest to comprehend. A choice must be made between the singular and plural forms of a noun. The plural is the more common, but in practice both are used. Abstract ideas and the names of disciplines of study are usually stated in the singular, such as Biology or Existentialism. An action, such as Editing or Fraud, is also expressed in the singular. Headings for concrete things are most commonly in the plural form, when those things can be counted, such as Playgrounds or Children. Concrete things that cannot be counted, such as Steel or Milk, obviously remain in the singular. In most cases common sense can be relied upon. In some instances both the singular and the plural of a word can be subject headings when they have two different meanings, such as Theater for the activity and Theaters for the buildings. In the case of Arts and Art, the one means the arts in general, while the other means the fine and decorative arts specifically.

    Compound Headings

    Subject headings that consist of two nouns joined by “and” are of several types. Some headings link two things because together they form a single concept or topic, such as Bow and arrow or Good and evil; because they are so closely related they are rarely treated separately, such as Forests and forestry or Publishers and publishing; or because they are so closely synonymous they are seldom distinguished, such as Cities and towns or Rugs and carpets. Other headings that link two words with “and” stand for the relationship between the two things, such as Church and state or Television and children. Compound headings of this type should not be made without careful consideration. Often there is a better way to formulate the heading. A heading like “Medicine and religion,” for example, is less accurate than the form established in Sears, which is Medicine — Religious aspects. (There is not likely to be material on the medical aspects of religion.) One question that arises in forming compound headings is word order. The only rule is that common usage takes precedence (no one says “Arrow and bow”), and, where there is no established common usage, alphabetic order is preferred. Whatever the order, a See reference should be made from either the second term or from the pair of terms reversed, as in Forestry, See Forests and forestry, or Children and television, See Television and children.

    Adjectives with Nouns

    Often a specific concept is best expressed by a noun with an adjective, such as Unemployment insurance or Buddhist art. In the past the expression was frequently inverted (Insurance, Unemployment; Art, Buddhist). There were two possible reasons for inversion: 1) an assumption was made that the searcher would think first of the noun; or 2) the noun was placed first in order to keep all aspects of a broad subject together in an alphabetical listing, as in a card catalog. In recent years these arguments have been abandoned in favor of the direct order because users have become more and more accustomed to searching in the order of natural language. The only headings that have been retained in Sears in the inverted form are proper names, including the names of battles and massacres.

    Phrase Headings

    Some concepts that involve two or more elements can be expressed only by more or less complex phrases. These are the least satisfactory headings, as they offer the greatest variation in wording, are often the longest, and may not be thought of readily by either the maker or the user of the catalog, but for many topics the English language seems to offer no more compact terminology. Examples are Insects as carriers of disease and Violence in popular culture.


    Specific entry in subject headings is achieved in two basic ways. The first, as noted above, is the creation of narrower terms as needed. The second is the use of subdivisions under an established term to designate aspects of that term, such as Birds — Eggs or Food — Analysis, or the form of the item itself, such as Agriculture — Bibliography. The scope of the Sears List can be expanded far beyond the actual headings printed through the use of subdivisions. Some subdivisions are applicable to only a few subjects. Eggs, for example, is applicable only under headings for oviparous animals. Other subdivisions, such as Analysis, are applicable under many subjects. Still other subdivisions, such as Bibliography, are applicable under nearly any heading. The Sears List does not attempt to list all possible subdivisions, but all those that are most likely to be used in a small library are included. For every subdivision included there is an instruction in the List for the use of that subdivision. Some subdivisions are also headings, such as Bibliography, and in such cases the instruction is given in a general reference as part of the entry for that heading. Other subdivisions, such as Economic aspects, are not themselves headings, and in such cases the instruction for the use of the subdivision is a free-standing general reference in the alphabetical List.

    Topical Subdivisions

    Topical subdivisions are those subdivisions that brings out the aspect of a subject or point of view presented in a particular work. A work may be a history of the subject, as in Clothing and dress - History; or it may deal with the philosophy of the subject, as in Religion — Philosophy; research in the field, as in Oceanography—Research; the laws about it, as in Automobiles - Law and legislation; or how to study or teach the subject, as in Mathematics — Study and teaching. The advantage of subdivisions over phrase headings for complex subjects is that uniformity can be more readily achieved with subdivisions. Once the subdivisions have been established, they can be appended to any applicable subject heading without guessing or straining the language for a suitable phrase. Subject strings with topical subdivisions can be read backwards: Clothing and dress — History, for example, means the history of clothing and dress, and Oceanography—Research— Ethical aspects means ethical aspects of research in the field of oceanography.

    Geographic Subdivisions

    Another aspect of subjects that can be brought out in subdivisions is geographic specificity. The unit used as a subdivision may be the name of a country, state, city, or other geographic area. A topical heading with a geographic subdivision means simply that topic in a particular place. Bridges — France, for example, is the appropriate subject string for a work on bridges in France, and Agriculture — Ohio for a work on agriculture in Ohio.

    There are only two types of topical subject headings that can never be subdivided geographically. The first are those headings, such as Exploration or Church history, that are used instead as subdivisions under geographic headings, as in Arctic regions — Exploration or United States— Church history.

    The second are those subjects, mostly in the fields of literature and the arts, for which the geographic qualification is conveyed by a modifying adjective rather than by a subdivision. Many of these subjects have a general reference similar to this reference at the subject Authors: “SA [See also] authors of particular countries or regions, e.g. American authors.”

    Beyond these two types of headings that are never subdivided geographically there is a broad spectrum. Not all other topical headings lend themselves logically or practically to geographic subdivision. Some topics, such as Fractions or Femininity of God, are either nonphysical or too abstract to have a geographic location. Others are physical but not easily located in a particular place, such as Computer viruses or Space debris. Still other headings, such as Pet therapy or Lung cancer, are unlikely to be dealt with geographically, at least in works that would be found in a small library.

    Many subject headings in the Sears List are followed by the parenthetical phrase (May subdiv. geog.). In application this means that if the work in hand deals with that subject in general, only the heading itself is used; but if it deals with the subject in a particular place, the heading may be subdivided geographically. If, however, a library feels the need to subdivide any subject heading geographically that is not so indicated in the List, the library should do so without hesitating, provided, of course, that the heading does not fall into one of the two types of headings that can never be subdivided geographically.

    Headings with a geographic adjective may sometimes be further subdivided geographically. The adjective then denotes the place of origin while the subdivision represents the location where the thing is found, as dealt with in the work being cataloged, such in Italian art — Great Britain or American authors — Paris (France) .

    Geographic subdivisions can be either direct or indirect. The Sears List uses the direct form of subdivision, whereby topics are subdivided directly by cities, counties, metropolitan areas, etc., as in Theater— Paris (France) or Hospitals — Chicago (Ill.) . The indirect form of subdivision, used by the Library of Congress and certain other subject heading systems, interposes the name of the country or state (the larger geographic area) between the topical subject and the smaller area, as in “Theater — France — Paris” and “Hospitals — Illinois — Chicago.”

    Chronological Subdivisions

    In any catalog, large or small, there will be many works on American history. If these works are all entered under the general heading United States— History, the library user is required to look through many entries to find materials about any specific period of American history. Chronological subdivisions, which correspond to generally accepted periods of a country’s history or to the spans of time most frequently treated in the literature, make such a search much simpler by bringing together all works on a single period of history, such as United States— History— 1945-1953. If a chronological period has been given a name, this name is included in the heading following the dates, as in United States — History — 1600-1775, Colonial period.

    Historical periods vary from one country to another and usually correspond to major dynastic or governmental changes. The Sears List includes chronological subdivisions only for those countries about which a small library is likely to have much historical material, with the greatest number of period subdivisions under United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, and a few subdivisions only under several other countries. Whenever there is only a small amount of material on the history of a country, it should simply be entered under the name of the country with the subdivision History, without a chronological subdivision. For most small libraries in North America the heading Turkey — History will suffice for all historical material about Turkey, even though Turkey has a very long history. If, however, a library should acquire a large amount of historical material about any such country or region, period subdivisions should be established beyond those spelled out in the Sears List. For these the cataloger may wish to consult LC Period Subdivisions under Names of Places.

    The subdivision Politics and government under countries should be reserved for general and theoretical material. Historical material on the politics and government of a country are entered under the name of the country subdivided by History with or without a further chronological subdivision. Other kinds of subjects, especially those relating to literature and the arts, may also be subdivided chronologically as appropriate, usually by century.

    Form Subdivisions

    The most common item found in a library is an expository prose treatise on a subject. Many works, however, present their material in other forms, such as lists, tables, maps, pictures, etc. Form subdivisions specify the form an item takes. Like form headings they tell what an item is rather than what it is about. Some of the most common form subdivisions are Bibliography; Catalogs; Dictionaries; Directories; Gazetteers; Handbooks, manuals, etc.; Indexes; Maps; Pictorial works; Portraits; Registers; and Statistics.

    Topical headings with form subdivisions, such as Children’s literature — Bibliography or Geology— Maps, render such works retrievable by form and separate them from expository treatises. Apart from a few examples, these combinations of subject heading with form subdivision are not given in the Sears List but are to be added by the cataloger as needed. Form subdivisions are particularly valuable under headings for the large fields of knowledge that are represented by many entries in a library’s catalog. In applying form subdivisions the cataloger should be guided by the character of an item itself, not by the title.

    Many works with titles beginning with Outline of, Handbook of, or Manual of, are in fact expository works. For example, H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and H. J. Rose’s Handbook of Latin Literature are lengthy, comprehensive treatises, and to use the form subdivisions that the titles suggest would be inaccurate. Other so-titled Outlines or Manuals or Handbooks may prove to be bibliographies, dictionaries, or statistics of the subject.

    The Order of Subdivisions

    At the Subject Subdivision Conference that took place at Airlie House, Virginia, in May 1991, organized by the Library of Congress, it was recommended that subdivisions follow the standard order of [Topical] — [Geographic] — [Chronological] — [Form] . Since that time the library community has endeavored to implement that recommendation. Only in a few subject areas, especially in the field of art, have exceptions been made. A cataloger using the Sears List can safely assume that subject strings made in the recommended order will provide the greatest uniformity. By following this standard the cataloger will know, for example, to prefer Elderly - Housing — United States to “Elderly — United States — Housing,” and Sports — United States— Statistics to “Sports — Statistics — United States.” (Housing is a topical subdivision, and Statistics is a form subdivision.)

    The order of subdivisions also indicates against subdividing any subject heading in the List geographically that already incorporates a chronological or form subdivision. The heading Physicians — Directories, for example, would not be subdivided by Ohio, because the correct order of subdivisions would be Physicians — Ohio — Directories.

    Geographic Headings Subdivided by Topic

    A longstanding exception to the practice of subdividing topics geographically, and one that remains apart from the Airlie House recommendation, is that of subdividing geographic headings by topics, when those topics pertain to the history, geography, or politics of a place. For works discussing the history of California, a census of Peru, the government of Italy, the boundaries of Bolivia, the population of Paris, or the climate of Alaska, the appropriate subject strings would be California — History; Peru — Census; Italy — Politics and government; Bolivia — Boundaries; Paris (France) — Population; and Alaska — Climate.

    Many subdivisions, such as Defenses or Description and travel, are used only under geographic headings; many subdivisions are never used under geographic headings; and others, such as History or Biography, are used under geographic headings exactly as they are under topical subjects. Specific instructions for the application of subdivisions are given at the general reference for the subdivision in the List. For example, at Census in the List the general reference reads: “SA [See also] names of countries, cities, etc., with the subdivision Census [to be added as needed].” Similar instructions appear under Boundaries; Climate; Population; etc. Some topics that are used as subdivisions under geographic headings are applicable to countries only. The subdivision Foreign relations, for example, can be used only under countries, since only countries have foreign relations. The instructions for applications are explicit. At Foreign relations in the List, for example, the general reference reads: “USE names of countries with the subdivision Foreign relations, e.g. United States — Foreign relations [to be added as needed].”

    A list of suggested topical subdivisions that may be used under the name of any city is given in the List under Chicago (Ill.) ; those that may be used under the name of any state are listed under Ohio; and those that may be used under the name of any country or region, except for History further subdivided chronologically, are given under United States. Since each country’s history is unique, the period subdivisions for its history are also unique.

Some Difficult Areas of Application

In many areas the application of subject headings and their appropriate subdivisions is a simple and straightforward matter. There are, however, areas in which either the complexity of the material or the vagaries of the English language create persistent problems. Even in these areas, by maintaining sound principles, following instructions carefully, and using common sense, it is possible to catalog library materials in such a way that users can find what they need. Some of these problem areas are dealt with here.


    Discussions of biography as a form of writing are given the topical subject heading Biography as a literary form. Works that are themselves biographies are given either the form heading Biography or the form subdivision Biography. Such works are considered here in two groups, collective biographies and individual biographies.

    Collective Biographies

    Collective biographies are works containing biographies of more than three persons. Works consisting of biographies of three persons or fewer are treated as individual biographies and given headings for the names of the persons individually. Collective biographies not limited to any area or to any class of persons, such as Lives of Famous Men and Women, are simply assigned the heading Biography. Often collective biographies are devoted to persons of a single country or geographic area, such as Leaders of the Arab World, or Dictionary of American Biography; or to ethnic groups, such as Who’s Who among Hispanic Americans. For such works the appropriate subject heading is the name of the geographic area or ethnic group with the subdivision Biography, in this case Arab countries — Biography; United States - Biography; and Latinos — Biography. If there are many entries under any such heading, the biographical dictionaries, which list a large number of names in alphabetical order, may be separated from the works with longer articles intended for continuous reading by adding the form subdivision Dictionaries. The heading for such a work as Dictionary of American Biography or Who’s Who in America would then be United States— Biography — Dictionaries.

    Some collective biographies are devoted to lives of a particular class of persons, such as women, or persons of a particular occupation or profession, such as librarians. These are entered under the heading for the class of persons or occupational group with the subdivision Biography, such as Women — Biography or Librarians — Biography. Still other collective biographies are devoted to any or all persons connected with a particular industry, institution, or field of endeavor. For these works the appropriate heading is the heading for that industry, institution, or field with the subdivision Biography, such as Computer industry — Biography; Catholic Church — Biography; or Baseball — Biography. A subject is usually broader in scope than a single category of persons associated with that subject, and likewise Baseball — Biography is broader than Baseball players — Biography and would be more suitable for a collective biography that includes managers, owners of teams, and other persons associated with the sport.

    Individual Biographies

    Usually the only subject heading needed for the life of an individual is the name of the person, established in the same way as an author entry. The rules for establishing names are in AACR2. If a work is an autobiography, the author’s name is entered in the bibliographic record twice, once as the author and again as the subject. There are a few individual persons about whom much has been written other than biographical material, such as works about their writings or other activities. In such cases, subdivisions are added to the person’s name to specify the various aspects treated, among them Biography. As examples of such persons, the Sears List includes Jesus Christ and Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616, with subdivisions appropriate to material written about them. The subdivisions listed under Shakespeare may also be used, if needed, under the name of any voluminous author. The subdivisions provided under Presidents — United States may also be used under the name of any president or other ruler, if applicable. The subdivisions needed will vary from one individual to another. Different topics will be applicable, for example, to the material on Martin Luther, Napoleon, and Sigmund Freud. It should be noted that this use of subdivisions represents the exceptional, not the usual, treatment.

    For most individual biographies the name alone is sufficient. Occasionally a biography will include enough material about the field in which the person worked that a second subject heading is required in addition to the personal name. A life of Mary Baker Eddy, for example, may include an account of the development of Christian Science substantial enough to warrant the subject heading Christian Science — History. The additional subject headings should be used only when the work contains a significant amount of material about the field of endeavor in addition to the subject’s personal life, not simply because the subject was prominent in that field.

    It is not customary practice to categorize the subjects of individual biographies by race, sex, occupation, etc. with the subdivision Biography. Headings such as African American musicians — Biography or Women politicians — Biography are appropriate only to collective biographies. Some catalogers are tempted to assign such headings to individual biographies as well, but there are several compelling reasons for not doing so. The first and most obvious is that in the case of a collective biography it is the author or compiler of the work who classifies or categorizes the persons included, not the cataloger. For a book such as Black Women Scientists in the United States, the subject heading African American women scientists is applicable because the author has selected the subjects of the biographies expressly for being African Americans, women, and scientists. For a collective biography entitled Just as I Am: Famous Men and Women with Disabilities, the subject string People with disabilities — Biography would be appropriate because the author has written about several disabled persons with their condition as the common feature. It would be impertinent labeling, however, for a cataloger to assign the subject string People with disabilities — Biography to a biography of an individual person who happened to be differently abled, even if that condition were an important element of the person’s story. In other words, three or more disabled persons constitute the category People with disabilities, but a single person can never constitute a category. Entering individual biographies under categories of persons violates the principle of specific entry. The only heading that is neither broader nor narrower but is co-extensive in scope with the subject content of the work is the personal name heading for the person written about. See also references can be made, if such references are deemed useful, from a category of persons to the names of individuals about whom the library has material. At the heading African American women authors, for example, one would then find any books that are really about African American women authors, followed by a reference: “See also Angelou, Maya; McMillan, Terry; Morrison, Toni,” etc. Increasingly, in an online environment, tagging or bookmarking is used to identify examples of things. Tag are typically flexible and uncontrolled and serve local needs. As such they can be inconsistent without compromising the essential integrity of the catalog.


    An aspect of subject headings fraught with confusion is that of nationalities. Even though some headings are given national adjectives, the general rule is that the national aspects of subjects are expressed by geographic subdivisions under the topical subject headings. Headings for things that are always stationary are never given national adjectives but are instead subdivided geographically, such as Architecture — France. Things that are not stationary are also usually expressed as topical headings with a geographic subdivision, such as Automobiles — Germany or Corporations — Japan. When those things are replicated or transported to foreign countries, however, they are given national adjectives to express national style, ownership, or origin, and subdivided by the place where they are found, such as German automobiles — United States or Japanese corporations — France.

    Headings for topics in literature and the arts are given national adjectives to express national character, such as American literature, Spanish art, etc. These headings may then be subdivided geographically by any place except for the country expressed in the national adjective. American literature — Southern States is therefore allowable, but not “Spanish art — Spain.”

    In the area of people, all headings for categories of persons are subdivided geographically in the Sears List with the exception of Authors, Novelists, Dramatists, and Poets, which are given national adjectives. All other categories of writers, such as Biographers, Journalists, etc., are subdivided geographically. A collective biography of American poets would be entered under American poets — Biography, but a collective biography of American composers or journalists would be given the heading Composers — United States— Biography or Journalists — United States — Biography. When a book deals with a category of persons from one country living or working in a foreign country, such as American composers in France, the book requires two subject strings rather than one, in this case Composers — United States and Americans — France.


    The field of literature presents special difficulties in cataloging because it includes two distinct types of material. The first consists of works about literature, and such works are assigned topical subject headings for whatever they are about. The second consists of literary works themselves, and those works are assigned form headings to describe what the item is rather than what it is about.

    Works about Literature

    The subject headings for works about the various literary forms are the headings for those forms, such as Drama, Fiction, and Poetry. A work about poetry is simply given the heading Poetry. Topical subdivisions are added to such headings as needed. A work about the history of poetry or about the criticism of poetry would be entered under Poetry — History and criticism. A work about the technique of writing plays would be entered under Drama — Technique. Form subdivisions may also be used under these headings to indicate the form the work takes, such as Drama — Dictionaries or Poetry— Indexes. In addition to the major forms of literature there are also lesser genres, which are subsets of the major literary forms, such as Science fiction or Epic poetry. These headings are also applicable to works about literature, with topical and form subdivisions added as needed.

    Literary works are commonly studied and written about according to categories characterized by nationality, language, religions, etc. The primary consideration in discussing literature is nationality, as in American literature, Mexican literature, and Brazilian literature. These topics are never dealt with as subsets of English literature, Spanish literature, or Portuguese literature simply because they are written in the English, Spanish, and Portuguese languages. Nationality takes precedence over language. Only a few national literatures are included in the List, and others are to be added as needed. Works about the major literary forms of national literatures are entered under the direct phrase, such as Italian poetry or Russian fiction, and again specific aspects or forms are expressed by subdivisions, as in Italian poetry — History and criticism or Russian fiction — Dictionaries. The subdivisions that appear under English literature may be used under any national literature, and headings for the major literary forms for any national literature may be formulated by substituting its national name for the word English.

    Apart from national literatures there are also literatures characterized by areas larger than countries, such as Latin American literature or African literature; by languages not limited to or identified with a single country, such as Latin literature or Arabic literature; or by religions, such as Catholic literature or Buddhist literature. All these kinds of literature are treated in the same way as national literatures. Where a national literature is written in two or more prominent languages, the language is identified in parentheses after the name of the literature for material specifically limited to literature in that language, such as Canadian literature (French) . Materials about the literatures of minority groups within a country, written in the predominant language of that country’s literature, are identified by subdivisions indicating the author group under the name of the literature, such as American literature — African American authors. Materials about the literatures of indigenous minority groups written in their own language are given the name of the language, such as Navajo literature.

    Literary Works

    Items that are literary works themselves are of two types: collections of several authors, or anthologies, and works by a single author, or individual literary works. Literary anthologies are given a heading for the most specific literary form that includes every item in the anthology. Very general anthologies are given broad headings, such as Literature — Collections; Poetry — Collections; or Drama — Collections. Anthologies of national literatures and the forms of national literatures are given the headings for those literatures or forms with the subdivision Collections, such as American literature — Collections and Italian poetry — Collections. Headings for minor literary genres, such as Science fiction or Pastoral poetry, are usually assigned to anthologies without any subdivision.

    Traditionally the literary works of individual authors receive no subject headings. Literary works are best known by author and title, and readers usually want a specific novel or play, or poetry by a specific poet — material that can be located in the catalog by the author and title entries. Headings describing the major literary forms (such as Drama, Fiction, and Poetry) and the headings for the major forms of a national literature (such as Irish drama, Russian fiction, and Italian poetry) are never assigned to an individual work or to a collection by a single author. It would be counterproductive, for example, to assign the heading Fiction to every novel in a library’s collection, since the numbers of records with the same heading would be impracticably large. Furthermore, the form and national origin of a work are expressed in the classification.

    In recent years, however, many libraries have felt the need for access by genre to individual works of imaginative literature. In the Sears List the headings for minor literary forms and genres— such as Ballads, Fables, Fairy tales, Horror fiction, Science fiction, etc. - are identified in the scope notes as applicable to individual works as well as to collections and materials about the topic. If there is no scope note indicating that a literature heading can be applied to an individual work, it can be assumed that it is not intended to be so applied. This policy is in accordance with the Guidelines on Subject Access to Individual Works of Fiction, Drama, etc. prepared by the Subcommittee on Subject Access to Individual Works of Fiction, Drama, etc., of the ALA Subject Analysis Committee (ALA, 1990; 2nd ed., 2000). It varies from the usage of the Library of Congress Subject Cataloging Manual in that it allows form and genre access to certain kinds of literary works that are often requested in libraries. Genre headings with national or linguistic adjectives, such as Australian science fiction or Latin epic poetry, are applicable to collections but are never assigned to individual works. If they were assigned to individual works, since all authors fall into the purview of one nationality or another, there would be nothing remaining under the heading Science fiction or Epic poetry but collections of international scope. Likewise, the cataloger is discouraged from adding the qualifier “juvenile” to the genre headings. The subdivision Juvenile literature may be added to genre headings in libraries where it is necessary to distinguish juvenile materials from adult materials, that is, in libraries not devoted exclusively or primarily to children’s materials, or where juvenile material is not indicated in the shelf number. No other subdivision is ever applicable to genre headings, as applied to individual works.

    The cataloger is also discouraged, except in the most unusual cases, from devising new genre terms. The Guidelines on Subject Access of the ALA aim to limit the number of genre terms in order to bring like material together, while the proliferation of genres and sub-genres would only scatter like material and do the user a disservice. As stated on page 4 of the Guidelines, “Genre terms are determined by convention, as set by the bibliographic community of publishers, booksellers, librarians, and readers.” It is only by conforming to these conventions that the application of genre headings to individual works is really useful.

    In some libraries subject access is provided to works of literature by using any applicable subject heading from the List with the subdivision Fiction, Drama, or Poetry. Hence a collection of stories all set in Los Angeles could be assigned the heading Los Angeles (Calif.) — Fiction; a collections of plays in which the main characters are all nurses could be assigned the heading Nurses — Drama; and a volume of poems by several authors all on the theme of baseball could be assigned the heading Baseball — Poetry. Personal and corporate names can always be added to the List in order to be used with the subdivisions Fiction, Drama, and Poetry to provide subject access to literary collections that deal with real persons or corporate entities.

    Providing the same kind of access by setting, character, or theme to individual works of fiction, drama, or poetry is more problematic. For the collection of stories set in Los Angeles, the appropriate level of specificity can be determined by finding what is common to all the stories. The plays about nurses may be about a variety of nurses, one elderly, one Hispanic American, one male, etc., but their being nurses is what they have in common. The topic Nurses, then, is of equal specificity with the collection itself. In individual stories or plays, however, the characters and settings are unique. All subject headings are all less specific than a unique character or a unique situation, and to assign any of them is to violate the principle of specificity and abandon uniformity in cataloging.

    It is the case, nonetheless, that some libraries, for the purpose of readers’ advisory or for curriculum enhancement, require the application of topical subjects and geographic headings to individual works of fiction, drama, and poetry. In this endeavor they leave behind the logic of subject analysis and embrace a kind of tagging or labeling that is approximate and pragmatic and not subject to hard rules. Even without the principles of specificity and uniformity, however, there are still some guidelines that may be useful in the application of topical subject and geographic headings to individual literary works:

    1. Use only terms that come readily to mind. Only if a novel is extensively set in the milieu of the motion picture industry, for example, would the heading Motion picture industry — Fiction be suitable.
    2. Use only terms that are specific enough to limit retrieval in a meaningful way. Headings such as Family life — Fiction or Popular culture — Fiction are dubiously useful, since they would apply equally to innumerable novels.
    3. Use only discrete terms, not terms that combine two or more concepts. Use two headings, such as Hispanic Americans — Fiction and Nurses — Fiction instead of Hispanic American nurses — Fiction.
    4. Apply headings for categories of persons only when the main character or several principal characters are representative of that category in a more than incidental way.
    5. Use geographic headings only when the setting of a novel is prominent and central to the work. All novels are set somewhere, but many novels have very little in the way of local color.
    6. In applying geographic headings, use only place names of intermediate specificity. Headings for countries are usually too broad for purposes of setting or local color. Only a few novels of epic scope ever deal with the history and geography of an entire country, and the concept of local color implies something more limited than a country. On the other hand the names of most towns and villages are unknown outside their own region. For most novels the most useful geographic headings will be the names of states or regions and certain large cities.
    7. If both a topical subject and a geographic location are central to a work, they should be expressed separately rather than as a subject string.
    8. Historical novels should be given headings only for the broadest historical periods under a place name, usually a century. The only exception to this rule would be for a few distinct periods or events that have stimulated a great number of literary works, such as United States— History— 1861-1865, Civil War— Fiction.
    9. Do not hesitate to catalog an individual work of fiction, drama, or poetry without topical or geographic headings. Many literary works do not lend themselves to this kind of treatment, and to go beyond the obvious will only lead users to items that do not satisfy their needs.

    In applying topical and geographic headings to individual works of fiction, drama, and poetry, the most important rule is to remember or imagine the needs of the users in a particular library setting, either readers who want novels, plays, etc., with a particular theme or setting, or teachers who need fictional materials on curriculum topics.

    Themes in Literature

    Some libraries have a significant amount of material about topics, locales, or themes in imaginative literature. The appropriate headings for such material is simply “Topic in literature,” according to the pattern found in the Sears List under Literature — Themes, such as Dogs in literature, Ohio in literature, etc. Headings of this type are for critical discussions only, not for literary works.

    Materials about the depiction of historical persons in drama, fiction, or poetry are entered under the person’s name with the subdivision In literature, such as Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, 1769-1821— In literature. Materials about the depiction of a particular war in drama, fiction, or poetry are entered under the heading for the war with the subdivision Literature and the war such as World War, 1939-1945— Literature and the war.


    Catalogers are often called upon to formulate headings as needed for wars and current events, when those wars or events generate books and other library materials. Wars fought between two or more nations are given a name, followed by a date or dates, as appropriate, such as War of 1812; Israel-Arab War, 1967; World War, 1939-1945; etc. Civil wars, insurrections, and invasions are entered under the history of the country involved (following the dates, as with other historical periods), such as United States — History— 1861-1865, Civil War; Cuba — History— 1961, Invasion; etc.

    Events of short duration, including battles, are dealt with as isolated topics rather than as periods in a country’s history. Events that have names are given a heading for the name, followed by the place, and then by the date, such as Tiananmen Square Incident, Beijing (China), 1989. Battles are entered under the name of the battle, but in the inverted form, with the place of the battle qualified as needed, such as Hastings (East Sussex, England), Battle of, 1066. Recurring events, such as games, festivals, etc., are given the recurring name, followed by the date, with the place in parentheses, if the place changes, such as Olympic Games, 1996 (Atlanta, Ga.) . Unnamed events, such as individual tornadoes, are entered under the kind of event subdivided by the place of the event, such as Tornadoes—Moore (Okla.) .


    The heading Native Americans may be subdivided geographically by continent, region, country, state, or city. Headings for individual nations or tribes of Native Americans may be established as needed according to the traditional formulation, such as Aztecs and Navajo Indians. Headings for classes of persons among the Native Americans, such as Women or Children, and for things distinctly ethnic, such as Medicine or Music, are expressed as phrase headings, such as Native American women, Native American children, Native American medicine, and Native American music. Topics not of an ethnic nature, such as Housing or Social conditions, are expressed as subdivisions under Native Americans, such as Native Americans — Housing and Native Americans — Social conditions.


    Following the principle that subject headings ought to reflect the common usage, subject headings relating to government policy are phrase headings when they apply to something general or when there is a common phrase available, such as Fiscal policy or Social policy. Where there is not a ready phrase available, the heading is formulated by the thing the policy applies to with the subdivision Government policy, such as Genetic engineering — Government policy.


    In general, deities that are still worshipped in the modern world are treated as religion rather than mythology. Ancient mythologies are expressed in phrase headings, such as Celtic mythology or Roman mythology. Materials on individual deities or legendary characters are given the name of the deity or character appropriately qualified, such as Vesta (Roman deity) or Paris (Legendary character) . Materials on a theme in mythology are assigned a heading for that theme, similar to a theme in literature, such as Fire in mythology. Unlike mythology, folklore pertains to modern peoples as well as ancient. The folklore of a people, that is, stories based on oral rather than written traditions, is expressed in subject headings by the name of the people subdivided by Folklore, such as Inuit — Folklore. Topics in folklore are expressed by the topic subdivided by Folklore, such as Plants — Folklore. Materials on the collective folklore of a place are assigned the heading Folklore subdivided by the continent, region, country, etc. Catalogers are cautioned to recognize that stories based on spiritual and/or religious beliefs should not be described as folklore, even if they originate from oral traditions.


    The assignment of subject headings for electronic media and for audiovisual and special instructional materials should follow the same principles that are applied to books. The uniform application of the same headings to book and nonbook materials alike is especially important in an integrated catalog, which brings all materials on one subject together regardless of format. Because nonbook materials often concentrate on very small aspects of larger subjects, the cataloger may not find in the List the specific heading that should be used. In such instances the cataloger should be generous in adding new subjects as needed. There are many form and genre headings that apply equally to nonbook materials and to books about such materials, such as Biographical films; Comedy television programs; and Science fiction comic books, strips, etc.

    Topical subject headings assigned to nonbook materials should not include form subdivisions to describe physical format, such as motion pictures, slides, sound recordings, etc. Information on format as an aspect of descriptive cataloging can be found in the most recent edition of the standard cataloging rules.

Classification and Subject Headings

The cataloger should recognize a fundamental difference between classification and subject headings for the library catalog. In any system of classification that determines the arrangement of items on the shelves, a work can obviously have only one class number and stand in only one place, but in a catalog the same work can be entered, if necessary, under as many different points of entry as there are distinct subjects in the work (usually, however, not more than three). Classification is used to gather in one numerical place on the shelf works that give similar treatment to a subject. Subject headings gather in one alphabetical place in a catalog all treatments of a subject regardless of shelf location.

Another difference between classification and subject cataloging is that classification is frequently less precise than the subject entries for the catalog. Material on floriculture in general as well as on specific kinds of garden flowers are classed together in 635.9 in the Dewey Decimal Classification. A book on flower gardening, one on perennial gardening, and one on rose gardening will all three be classified in one number, while in the catalog each book will have its own specific subject heading: Flower gardening, Perennials, or Roses.

Library materials are classified by discipline, not by subject. A single subject may be dealt with in many disciplines. The Dewey classification numbers given with a heading in the Sears List are intended only to direct the cataloger to the disciplines where that subject is most likely to be treated. They are not meant to be absolute or cover all possibilities and should be used together with the Dewey Decimal Classification schedules. The cataloger must examine the work at hand and determine the discipline in which the author is writing. On the basis of that decision the cataloger classifies the work, not by the subject of the work alone.

Maintaining a Catalog

The library catalog is a vital function at the very center of a library, and as such it is always growing and changing to reflect the growing collection and to meet the changing needs of the users. It is a challenge to the cataloger to add new records, revise existing records, and make all the appropriate references, and at the same time maintain the integrity of the catalog.


When a cataloger has determined what an item to be cataloged is about and formulated that concept into words, the next step is to find the subject heading that expresses that concept. The first thing to be determined is whether or not there is already an existing heading in the List for that concept. If, for example, there is a book on lawsuits, the cataloger may think of the terms Lawsuits, Suing, and Suits. Upon consulting the List it becomes clear that those words are not headings but references to the established heading Litigation. Litigation is slightly broader than Suing but is more suitable as a subject heading because it includes the matter of defending oneself against lawsuits. In this case the cataloger enters the book into the catalog under the heading Litigation. A new heading is not necessary.

At other times the appropriate heading for a book is not a new heading but a new combination of an established heading and a subdivision. If, for example, there is a book on the use and abuse of alcohol on college campuses, the cataloger may first think of the term Drunkenness. In the Sears List Drunkenness is an unpreferred term and a reference to two established headings: Alcoholism and Temperance. The scope note at Temperance reads: “Use for materials on the virtue of temperance or on the temperance movement.” The book is not about drunkenness in relation to either vice and virtue or the temperance movement, so that heading can be eliminated. Neither is the book really about alcoholism, but at the heading Alcoholism, there is a general reference that reads: “SA [See also] classes of persons with the subdivision Alcohol use, e.g. Employees — Alcohol use; Youth — Alcohol use; etc., [to be added as needed].” At this point the cataloger realizes that the appropriate Sears subject heading for the book at hand would be College students — Alcohol use. College students is already an established heading in the List, but it could be added if it were not.

The cataloger should always keep in mind that it is not only appropriate but essential that types of things and examples of things not found in the List be established as headings and added to the List locally as needed. If there is a book on gloves, for example, and there is no heading in the Sears List for Gloves, the cataloger thinks of the concept or category of thing that would include gloves. Clothing comes to mind. At the heading Clothing and dress in the List there is a general reference: “SA [See also] types of clothing articles and accessories [to be added as needed].” The cataloger then establishes the heading Gloves and enters the book into the catalog under Gloves. It would be inappropriate to enter the book under the heading Clothing and dress simply because Clothing and dress is in the List and Gloves is not. It would mean that a user looking in the catalog under Gloves would find nothing. The general references in the List should reinforce the point that the List does not aim at completeness and must be expanded. Even where there is no general reference, narrower terms for types of things and examples and instances of things must be added as needed.

At times it is nearly impossible to determine what broader concept or category a new subject might be included under. This should not deter the cataloger from establishing any heading that is needed. Take, for example, the case of a book on thumb sucking, a common phenomenon among small children. The nearest terms in the List might be Child psychology, Child rearing, or Human behavior, but they are none too near. Nowhere is there a general reference instructing the cataloger to add headings for common childhood phenomena, and still the only appropriate heading for the book would be Thumb sucking. Here the intrepid cataloger, thinking how useless the headings Child psychology, Child rearing, or Human behavior would be on such a book, adds the heading Thumb sucking to the List and enters the book into the catalog under that heading.

There are resources that a cataloger can turn to for help in establishing subject headings that are not in the List. Other available databases and catalogs in which books are listed by subject can always be consulted, such as the Web site of any large library whose catalog is online. Periodical indexes, such as Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature or Applied Science & Technology Index,are especially helpful in establishing headings for current events and very new topics and trends and for technical headings. The index and the schedules of the Dewey Decimal Classification are a useful source of subject terminology as well as a way of seeing a topic in its relation to other topics. The Library of Congress issues lists of new subject headings in Library of Congress Subject Headings Weekly Lists on its Web site and includes new subject headings of current interest in its quarterly Cataloging Service Bulletin. Library of Congress cataloging information, including subject headings, emanating from its Cataloging in Publication (CIP) program, is available in various online databases and is also printed on the title page verso of many books.


Because the English language does not stand still, neither do subject headings. It would be impossible today for a catalog to maintain the headings Negroes or Dinosauria, since common usage has relegated these terms to history. The prevailing thinking about the form of subject headings also changes, and as a result whole groups of headings need to be revised. All the inverted headings in the Sears List, for example, were eventually revised to the uninverted form, such as Health insurance for “Insurance, Health.” With each new edition of the Sears List a library should consult the List of Canceled and Replacement Headings in the front of the volume and revise its catalog accordingly. Any headings created locally based on the pattern set by a Sears heading, and strings consisting of a Sears heading and a subdivision, must also be revised if that heading is revised in Sears. If, for example, a library had added the headings “Insurance, Title” and “Insurance, Health — Law and legislation,” those headings would need to be revised to Title insurance and Health insurance — Law and legislation.


Once an item has been assigned a subject heading, either a heading found in the List or one added as needed, attention must be directed to insuring that the reader who is searching for this material will not fail to find it because of insufficient references to the proper heading. References direct the user from terms not used as headings to the term that is used, and from broader and related terms to the term chosen to represent a given subject. The Sears List uses the symbols found in most thesauri to point out the relationships among the terms found in the List and to assist the cataloger in establishing appropriate references in the public catalog based upon these relationships. There are three types of references: See references, See also references, and general references.

See References

In the public catalog See references direct the user from unpreferred or unestablished terms and phrases to the preferred or established terms that are used as subject headings. Under most headings in the Sears List, following the UF [Used for] label, is one or more suggested terms for See references in the public catalog. A cataloger may want to use some or all of them as references, and many catalogers add other See references they deem useful. In theory there is no limit to the number of See references to a particular term, but in practice there may well be, especially in a card catalog. The references will be more useful if the cataloger considers materials from the reader’s point of view. The reader’s profile depends on age, background, education, occupation, and geographical location, and takes into account the type of library, such as school, public, university, or special.

The following are some types of unpreferred terms that might be used as See references in a catalog:

  1. Synonyms or terms so nearly synonymous that they would cover the same material. For example, Instructional materials centers requires a reference from School media centers.
  2. The second part of compound headings. For example, Antique and vintage motorcycles requires a reference from Vintage motorcycles.
  3. The inverted form of a heading, either an adjective-noun combination or a phrase heading, especially if the word brought forward is not also the broader term.

    For example, Theory of knowledge requires a reference from “Knowledge, Theory of,” there being no heading Knowledge.

  4. Variant spellings. For example, Archeology requires a reference from Archaeology.
  5. The opposite of a term, when it is included in the meaning of a term without being specifically mentioned. For example, School attendance requires a reference from Absence from school and from Absenteeism (Schools), and Equality requires a reference from Inequality.
  6. The former forms of headings revised to reflect common usage, when the older term still has any currency. For example, Negroes remains as a reference to Blacks and to African Americans, but Dinosauria is no longer retained as a reference to Dinosaurs.

The first time a heading from the List is assigned to a work in the collection, the terms in the UF field in the List are entered, at the cataloger’s discretion, as See references in the public catalog. When the same heading is subsequently assigned to other works, the references are already in place. When the cataloger adds a heading to the authority file as needed, all the appropriate See references are entered as well the first time the heading is used. For the heading College students — Alcohol use, for example, suitable See references might be Campus drinking, College drinking, and Drinking on campus.

See also References

In the public catalog See also references direct the user from one established heading to another established heading. Under most headings in the Sears List, following the BT [Broader term] label, is a term that is broader in scope than the heading itself. As a rule, a term has only one broader term, unless it is an example or aspect of two or more things. The broader term serves two functions in the List. The first is to aid the cataloger in finding the best term to assign to a work. If the first term the cataloger thinks of to describe the contents of the work does not cover all aspects of work, the broader term may be the more appropriate heading for that work. The second function is to indicate where See also references should be made in the public catalog. A See also reference is made from a broader term to a narrower term, but not from a narrower term to a broader term. Take, for example, the broader term Clothing and dress on the heading Gloves. When the heading Gloves is assigned for the first time to a work in the collection, a reference is made at Clothing and dress “See also Gloves.” If Clothing and dress has never been assigned to a work in the collection, it is entered in the catalog for the sake of the reference, and the reference “See also Gloves” is made. The point is that the user who is interested in works on clothing and dress in general may also be interested in works limited to gloves. The book on gloves need not be entered under both Clothing and dress and Gloves, but only under the appropriately specific heading, because the See also reference will direct the user from the broader to the narrower term. If the book on gloves were entered under both Clothing and dress and Gloves, the catalog would first list the book under the heading Clothing and dress and then direct the user to look as well under Gloves only to find the same book.

Under many headings in the Sears List, following the RT [Related term] label, one or more terms are listed that represent similar or associated subjects. These related terms are neither broader nor narrower than the main term but roughly equal in specificity. The term Pardon, for example, is related to Amnesty. The cataloger or the user may easily look first to one term only to realize that the other is the more precise term for the material being cataloged or being sought in the catalog. Related terms are reciprocal. When the term Pardon is assigned for the first time to a work in the collection, a reference is made in the catalog at Amnesty “See also Pardon.” The reciprocal reference at Pardon “See also Amnesty” is also made, but only if Amnesty has also been assigned to a work in the collection. A reference is never made to a heading until there is a work entered under that heading in the collection, and if the only work entered under a heading is lost or discarded the references to that heading must be deleted. References to headings under which there is no material in the collection are called blind references and are to be avoided.

General References

Under many headings in the Sears List, following the SA [See also] label, there is what is called a general reference, not to a specific heading but to a general group or category of things that may be established as headings as needed. In the example of Clothing and dress given above, the general reference is to “types of clothing articles and accessories, [to be added as needed].” This reference is addressed to the cataloger as a reminder not to be limited to the types of clothing and dress items given as examples in the List —Hats, Hosiery, Shoes, etc. — but to create a heading for any other clothing item, such as Gloves, when the need arises.

A second function of general references is to provide instruction in the application of subdivisions. Only a few subdivisions are universally applicable. All others apply only to certain types of headings. For every subdivision provided in the List, except those of unique application, there is a general reference spelling out the use of that subdivision. If the subdivision is also a heading, the general reference is given under the heading. Folklore, for example, is both a heading and a subdivision. Under the heading Folklore the general reference reads: “SA [See also] topics as themes in folklore with the subdivision Folklore, e.g. Plants — Folklore; names of ethnic or occupational groups with the subdivision Folklore, e.g. Inuit — Folklore; and names of individual legendary characters, e.g. Bunyan, Paul (Legendary character) [to be added as needed].” When the subdivision is not also a heading, there is a free-standing general reference in the alphabetical List with instructions on the use of that subdivision. For example, at Industrial applications, which is not a heading but only a subdivision, there is a general reference that reads: “USE types of scientific phenomena, chemicals, plants, and crops with the subdivision Industrial applications, e.g. Ultrasonic waves — Industrial applications [to be added as needed].”

Some libraries also display general references in the public catalog. Rather than make a specific See also reference from the broader term to every narrower term, they adapt the general reference in the List to address it to the user of the catalog. At Flowers, for example, rather than a specific See also reference to Day lilies, Orchids, Peonies, Poppies, Roses, Tulips, and Violets, there would be a general reference “See also types of flowers.” The drawback of this procedure and the reason it is not recommended is that the user who wants to see all the books on specific flower types would have to think of every type of flower and look in dozens of places in the catalog. Many online catalogs are now able to provide the user with an expanded display of all the narrower terms under Flowers that have been used in the catalog.


The cataloger should keep a record of all the subject headings used in the catalog and all the references made to and from them. This local authority file may be kept on cards or on a computer. Some catalogers are tempted to forgo this process and merely consult the catalog whenever there is a question of previous practice. Without a local authority file, however, there can be no consistency in the cataloging. It is not possible to consult the catalog at the heading Teachers — Ethics, for example, and find what See also references were made to that term from any broader or related terms or what See references were made from unpreferred terms. Since Teachers — Ethics is not in the Sears List but was added as needed, consulting the List is not the answer. When a book appears on the ethics of psychologists, the cataloger will create Psychologists — Ethics, but without knowing what references were made to the heading Teachers — Ethics, there is no way the cataloger can create similar and consistent references for the new term. Likewise, if there is only one book entered under Teachers — Ethics, and if that book is lost or discarded, without a local authority file there would be no way of knowing what to delete in order to avoid blind references.

Many libraries today do little original cataloging but instead get their cataloging records from outside sources, either from computerized cooperative cataloging utilities or from vendors, often the same companies that sell them their books and other library materials. This procurement of cataloging from outside sources can save libraries a great deal of money, but it does not mean that there is no work for the cataloger in the library. Someone must order the cataloging, specifying to the vendor the particular needs of the library. If a library is devoted largely or entirely to children’s materials, for example, a librarian will need to specify that the library does not want the subdivision Juvenile literature on every subject heading. A library using Sears subject headings will need to apprise the vendor of that fact. When the cataloging records arrive in the library, only a cataloger can check them to be sure they are what was ordered. And lastly, only a cataloger can make the appropriate references in the local catalog, tailored to that library’s particular collection, which make the records useful to the users.

Cataloging in the Twenty-First Century

It is useful to view modern cataloging practice in an historical perspective. In the nineteenth century, as libraries grew and cataloging became more thorough, it was clear that some form of cooperation among libraries was desirable. For many years the distribution of printed library cards was the principal method of cooperative cataloging. Later computerized utilities replaced printed cards. From the beginning it was clear that without principles and standards guaranteeing uniformity, cooperative cataloging would be impossible. In the very first volume of the American Library Association’s Library Journal (1876-77) there are several lengthy discussions of cooperative cataloging, including an article on the topic by Melvil Dewey. It was out of these discussions and the voluminous correspondence that ensued that the modern standards of cataloging developed, both the rules for descriptive cataloging and Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalog. These rules are not arbitrary but are firmly grounded in logic. They have stood unchallenged for over a hundred years because they have served to facilitate accurate and comprehensive retrieval in the modern library.

The world of libraries in the twenty-first century is already quite different from what it was only recently. More information is available in machine-readable form, and ready access to the Internet has changed the way many users seek and find information. Traditional methods of storage and retrieval in libraries will increasingly be supplemented by new methods engendered by artificial intelligence. The challenge of catalogers in the future is to approach every new technology and theory knowledgeably and fearlessly, judge them against what we know are the soundest principles, and embrace the good and reject the spurious, always keeping in mind the ultimate goal of meeting, even anticipating, the changing needs of the library users.


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