To USE and Use For: The Art of Subject Authorization

By Laura Hayner

There is a distinction thrown around in library school and, I’m sure, within the library community on the whole--there are catalog(u)ers and then there’s everyone else. As a metadata enthusiast, I guess I pledge my allegiance to the former category, and so I was tasked with conducting the initial authorization for the Boston TV News Digital Library subject-heading list.

I’m hip to the Library of Congress (LC) lingo and can navigate geographic subdivisions as well as USE and UF (use for) pointers fairly well. Traveling from unauthorized to authorized terms is kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure,” but for nerds.

The creation of a robust, accessible, and searchable digital library has many steps. In this blog, members of the Boston TV News Digital Library’s intern army have described the catalog card transcription process, and Karen Colbron has also detailed the wonderful moment when it appeared that the card identifiers matched up to the film reels. The most recent step has been to apply metadata, or descriptive information, in the form of authorized subject terms to each card’s record in the database. If you thought the cards’ contents weird, just wait until you have to take all of those unique snowflakes and make them conform to LC Authority rules.

Why use authorized terms, you ask? Well, there are many reasons, some of which I shall breeze through. They help point a variety of items to one access point. They can make searching easier. Also, they just look nice.

To start, I was given WGBH’s list of terms used for their Ten O’Clock News project, as well as a general list of subject headings used by WHDH to index its film footage, circa the 1960s and 70s. I was then charged with helping the BPL librarians authorize the names, places, and topics therein. There are a plethora of gateways to the LC’s authority rules and I used all of them; as an example, WHDH’s ‘Kennedy, Jackie’ became LC’s ‘Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy, 1929-1994.’

Once the initial list of authorized terms was created, interns then selected terms from that list to add to each card’s record. Also, interns were invited to suggest additional terms based on a card’s contents. This involved looking up the authorized LC term and defending why it should be added based on the card’s context, to be approved or rejected by BPL librarians. Adding additional geographic locations, such as towns in Massachusetts, was straightforward; adding additional subjects and names required more work.

For example, recall Sadie Roosa’s post from July 29, 2011, “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!”. ‘Russians’ and ‘Soviets’ are interchangeable in these cards, as well as throughout the system. In addition, the Ten O’Clock News subject list had the related terms ‘Russian ships’ and ‘Russian sailors.’ Russians? Soviets? Which one should I choose?

LC Subject Headings offer the following guidance. ‘Soviet Union’ should be used for “subject headings beginning with or qualified by the word Soviet for works on topics pertaining to the Soviet Union as a whole during the period 1917-1991.” So, the Soviets are coming! Thus, the authorized terms would be ‘Ships -- Soviet Union’ and ‘Sailors -- Soviet Union.’

Name fragments on cards made it particularly difficult to assign an authorized term. Many were abbreviated or lacked enough contextual information to confidently apply a name heading. Two names that appeared frequently in abbreviated forms were ‘Volpe’ and ‘Cushing.’ It didn’t take much additional information to be reasonably sure that the cards are referring to John A. Volpe, former Governor of Massachusetts, and Cardinal Richard Cushing, former Archbishop of Boston. However, for cards with more common names or less information, the overarching rule for term application was when in doubt, leave it blank. Harder to do than you might think.

Intern postings have lamented the sparse and vague lines of catalog card description. While those blog posts have shed light on some cards, hundreds more lack enough information to confidently apply any subject terms without additional research. How would you know to apply ‘Marijuana’ to the record for “Kennedy Kids Busted” without additional facts? Even with all of Jake Sadow’s background research, there isn’t enough information to apply ‘Murder’ to the card labeled “Tick Tock Lane”. Interns’ extra research using the card’s clues helped to justify why we chose to add and apply certain terms. But, even then, we won’t be sure we were right until we see the footage. As we work through our records to thoughtfully apply authorized subject terms, it will continue to be tricky.

As they say in the news business, stay tuned!

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