Library resources provide experiences as well as information

Library cataloguers have spent a hundred plus years indexing the subjects of books and other resources, but paid relatively little attention to some other aspects, such as their genre. For example, the Library of Congress Subject Headings are pervasive in countless library catalogues, and have been since the first half of the last century, yet the Library of Congress Genre/Form Headings (LCGFT) were only established a few years ago, and are still something of a work in progress.

A series of studies I’m presently carrying out is assessing the applicability of the LCGFT by comparing them with other genre lists, and by comparing their use with that of other terms that have not yet made it into LCGFT. In one particular study, the use made by LibraryThing taggers of certain fiction genres listed in Wikipedia but not in LCGFT was compared with the use they made of those genres that are included in LCGFT. It was found that, on average, the non-LCGFT genres were used a lot more than were the LCGFT ones, with genres such as chick lit, pulp and hardboiled major omissions in terms of ‘user warrant’.

This raises the question of why cataloguers have been less keen on describing their resources in terms of genre, or at least certain genres. The paper I wrote for the International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) conference, based on the study, suggests a few possible explanations. Of course, librarians could be reluctant to use terms that might be considered derogatory, though a lot of LibraryThing taggers appear to have fewer such inhibitions. But I think it goes deeper than this. Many of the missing genres, and many genres in general, relate to the experience a resource provides, more than to its content. Yet libraries have traditionally treated their resources objectively, leaving experience a matter for the user (or reader, in the case of fiction). This position of neutrality can be found in a lot of cataloguing literature, and explains why cataloguers focus on content and subjects: what a resource is about, rather than what it gives, or what it is for. In a postmodern world, however, especially one in which public libraries follow more inclusive (and popular) collection development policies, this focus may be too narrow and less helpful. The biennial ISKO conference has been postponed until 2022, but my paper will nevertheless be published in the ‘proceedings’ later this year!

Philip Hider

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