November 17, 2017

Amazing, Magic Searches!

Subdivisions combine the precision of the cataloger with the freewheeling style of a Googler

So far in the 21st century, our library has hired four new reference librarians and we’re looking for a fifth. The head of reference must train these new hires. The question that nags at all of us is: Which old library knowledge and conventions do we pass on, which are best abandoned? The question has never been more important. Librarians and their special knowledge are being challenged by every yahoo on the block.

Despite anxiety, the list of keepers for reference work is quite long. Encyclopedia Britannica and Statistical Abstracts remain. The reference interview, approachability, and empathy still matter. The most surprising keeper on the list is so un-assuming that it is in danger of being forgotten altogether: the Library of Congress subject subdivision.

Subdivisions perform magic in a library catalog, allowing librarians to finesse their keyword searches in ways that astonish amateurs. They replace the sometimes disparate strings of keywords searchers use to express the nuances of their questions. Sometimes they identify the format of a book’s content: diaries, longitudinal studies, pictorial works. They put spin on a subject – psychological aspects, for example. At their most powerful, they can define and specify relationships between topics. For instance, if you wanted to find a book about how librarians are viewed by the public, you would use librarians – public opinion. If you wanted to find books about the views of librarians, you would use librarians – attitudes. Who knew?

Even back in 1977, when Becky got her first post-MSLS job, subdivisions didn’t draw much attention. No one sat down to memorize them. They appeared centered and at the top of every subject catalog card, so they sneaked into our working vocabulary. Our card catalogs are gone, seen more often now as quaint furniture in loft apartments, and the cards themselves serve as scrap paper.

To help our new librarians learn this valuable vocabulary, we present our list of 25 high-performance subdivisions – guaranteed to make your patrons exclaim, ‘How did you do that?

Building the list

Becky had memorized a preliminary list she wanted to use to train new librarians. She needed fresh perspective so she enlisted Heidi Buchanan, a newer reference librarian (MSLS 2000), who coauthored with Timothy Carstens ‘The Future of the Catalog: A User-Friendly Academic Search Engine’. Heidi has a healthy respect for cataloging, but she doesn’t share Becky’s emotional attachment to subdivisions.

We started with Becky’s list and added the subdivisions Heidi has discovered. We double-checked our list by scanning the Library of Congress publication Free-Floating Subdivisions: An Alphabetical Index (16th ed. Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress, 2004), which is 177 pages of nothing but subdivisions. We stopped short when we read in the introduction, ‘This list should be used with caution and only in conjunction with the Subject Cataloging Manual.’

Realizing our lack of technical expertise, we turned to Hiddy Morgan, an experienced cataloger who also works part-time at the reference desk and has a sharp eye for the intersection of the catalog and the patron. Hiddy gave us a crash course in the use of the Subject Cataloging Manual: Subject Headings (5th ed. Library of Congress, Cataloging Policy and Support Office, 1996) – cataloging’s best-kept secret! These two thick blue binders provide definitions and interpretations for subdivisions and explain the exacting rules that govern their assignment. Hiddy also consulted the OCLC subject authority file to confirm current use of our subdivisions.

Finally, we performed dozens of ‘real-life’ searches to test each subdivision against certain questions. Were they too mysterious (bonsai collections)? Too obvious (history)? Were they too complicated (knowledge)? Did they come with too many rules governing their use (use controversial literature only with religious topics!)? And finally: Did they truly kick butt?

To use the subdivisions listed, pretend they’re keywords. The card catalog enabled librarians to learn subdivisions, but, ironically, it is the online catalog that gives subdivisions so much power. A card catalog searcher had to move unerringly through such strings as: Turkey – History – Ottoman Empire, 1288 – 1918 – Sources to reach that golden word – sources – that promised a collection of primary documents. Today’s librarian can just type ‘Ottoman Empire and sources‘ to do the same job!

Before you write to the editor, read this: results may vary. These are, after all, keyword searches. By itself, influence will get you a ‘whole bunch of nothin,” but pair it with Elvis and you get Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives. Although precise word order and knowledge of exact date ranges no longer matter, exactness does. It’s sources, not source; diaries, not diary. Furthermore, if your online catalog is not profiled so that keyword searches take you into it, subdivisions won’t help a bit.

So, reference librarians, try these out. Amaze a patron by turning the next request for info about artifactual communication into a search for interior decoration and psychological aspects. Catalogers, be encouraged. Your analytical skills matter to all of us. We are convinced that subdivisions work beautifully, allowing librarians to combine the precision of the cataloger with the freewheeling style of a Googler.

The List

Examples of keyword searches are in italics; subdivisions are boldface. The length of these entries varies according to the complexity of the subdivision and its use. Aspects: the royal family of subdivisions. Use these to put a spin on any topic. Especially good for unlikely pairings. We give sample searches for each.

  1. Economic aspectsCollege sports and economic aspects
  2. Health aspectsLove and health aspects
  3. Moral and ethical aspectsWealth and moral and ethical aspects
  4. Psychological aspectsColor and psychological aspects answers the comeback-kid reference question, ‘How does color affect my mood?’
  5. Physiological aspectsAnger and physiological aspects
  6. Social aspects – From country music and social aspects comes Smile When You Call Me a Hillbilly: Country Music’s Struggle for Respectability.
  7. Amateurs’ manuals – Ideal for the do-it-yourself crowd. Wiring and amateurs’ manuals gets the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Electrical Repair. A search with fewer liability concerns might be ham radio and amateurs’ manuals.
  8. Personal narratives – First-person accounts of a variety of topics. Agoraphobia and personal narratives; Crusades and personal narratives (remember to make narratives plural!).
  9. Case studies – Not just for topics like management, this also finds real-life stories that illustrate personal qualities. For the request, ‘I need to read about someone who showed courage.’
  10. Problems, exercises – Workbooks for practice or review (e.g., vocabulary, algebra, leadership skills). Its partner, Outlines/syllabi, is handy for people who need some basic information. ‘I need to help my kids with their homework’ or ‘I signed up for physics and it’s too hard!’
  11. Early works to 1800 – ‘For individual works written or issued before 1800’ (OCLC subject authority file). This subdivision finds older writings that get lost in a large library collection, especially since search results usually show the reprint date rather than the date of creation. Works well with topics in the sciences and social sciences. ‘How did people write about child rearing in Colonial times?’ or ‘I need a medieval take on astronomy.’
  12. Sources – Crucial in the search for the primary documents that historians and genealogists crave! Forget the rigid structure a subject search requires for historical topics and toss sources into a keyword search! Replace United States – History – Civil War, 1861 – 1865 – Sources (!) with Civil War and sources. Partners include Diaries or Correspondence.
  13. Pictorial works – An image search on the web can be fruitless or downright dirty! Try a book instead. Regarding this subdivision, the Library of Congress warns catalogers, ‘If less than 50 percent of the work being cataloged consists of illustrations, do not bring out the pictorial aspect, regardless of the importance of the illustrations’ (Subject Cataloging Manual: Subject Headings). Anatomy and pictorial works is a safe search.
  14. Statistics – Catalogers, please continue to assign this one! Statistics are always in demand, and knowing that the cataloger will use statistics (not statistical or quantitative) makes all the difference in a search.
  15. Attitudes – The opinions belonging to a particular group. Attitudes and cigarette smokers asks how smokers feel about, well, about anything. For how others feel about the smokers, use public opinion.
  16. Public opinion – The attitudes or opinions toward a group or topic. How do people feel about smokers? Smokers and public opinion.
  17. Influence – The singular matters. Works well with icons: Elvis and influence or Bauhaus and influence.
  18. Cross-cultural studies – Explores diversity among different cultural and ethnic groups. Best when the topic matters more than the place. Courtship and cross-cultural studies; advertising and cross-cultural studies.
  19. Sex differences – For gender issues relating to ‘individual languages, individual organs and regions of the body,’ etc. (OCLC subject authority file). Perfect for those Mars/Venus questions. Communication and sex differences; brain and sex differences.
  20. Social life and customs – Everyday life! What do Southerners eat? What did the Puritans do for fun? This one has saved many a reference librarian as the study of history has shifted from kings to commoners.
  21. Therapeutic use – Tells how the tangible and intangible are used in therapy. Humor, bee pollen, cannabis. Its partner is treatment, which describes methods of treating diseases and disorders. So it’s lithium and therapeutic use, but depression and treatment.
  22. Description and travel – Excellent for finding more information about a place than just hotel and restaurant rankings. Adding this phrase often yields more relevant results than a search on the place name alone. Everglades and description and travel; Vatican and description and travel. Also useful: Guidebooks.
  23. Legal status – Applies to people (laborers, prisoners, mail order brides). Its partner, Law and legislation, goes with things (endangered species, prisons, sports). Great for patrons who are not quite ready to tackle the technical language of statutes and codes.
  24. Vocational guidance – An example of terminology that doesn’t immediately come to mind. Great for anything related to careers: killer résumés, dress for success, or ‘just what do I do with a major in English?’
  25. Antiquities – This is a real ‘Who knew?’ subdivision. Antiquities can be relics such as potshards and buildings, but they also describe customs or events, especially those of ancient times (DK Oxford Illustrated Dictionary. Oxford Univ., 1998). Results can be surprising: a keyword search for New York City and antiquities finds Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City. Try it with your home state!

We welcome your additions to the list.


Becky Kornegay, Heidi Buchanan, and Hiddy Morgan are all librarians at the Hunter Library, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC. Kornegay, with 26 years of reference experience is Head of Reference. Buchanan has four years in academic reference work and is Information Literacy Librarian. Morgan brings 30 years of cataloging experience to her post as Assistant Head of Cataloging

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