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Subject Headings: Creating a Bridge to Good Recommendations

Post by Leslie Gardner
Posted May 08, 2014 in NoveList Plus, Readers' Advisory News

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In the April issue of NoveList Notes, Cathleen Keyser talked about the use of appeals as a building block for good recommendations. I wanted to chat about how subject headings can do the same.

Remember that book with a black and red cover that you weren’t sure who the author or what the title was, but you know it had teenagers and werewolves? Subject headings are a great way to find those elusive books. When I say “subject headings” think about the characters, what is happening in the plot, where the story is set and when it is taking place. For example, Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer is about teenage vampires and werewolves, including teenage romance and set in present day Seattle, Washington. Another example is Clive Cussler’s The Bootlegger that is set during the 1920’s prohibition with liquor smuggling, assassins, spies, and detectives.

I lead a group here at NoveList that continually analyzes the use of subject headings to represent titles in our database. We review requests for new subject headings, as well as the use of current headings, keeping in mind how they will affect recommendations. Requests can range from punctuation changes or terminology updates to major clean-up projects.

How can subject headings improve recommendations? When used in our records they link books that have the same characters, events, time periods or settings. We also prioritize the headings to create the best matches. Readers then have the ability to search using these subjects as limiters.

To give you an idea of the kind of work we’ve been doing recently, we added subject headings to distinguish between detectives, amateur detectives, and private investigators.  At one point we only had a heading for detectives, which misrepresented those who did not work for a police force.  We decided to differentiate the role of the sleuth based on their profession. We now use private investigators for those people hired by a private party to solve a crime. For those people who have a career, but solve crimes on the side as a hobby, we use amateur detectives instead. These three headings are not used for those characters with occupations that require investigation, such as journalists, bounty hunters, lawyers, and insurance investigators.

Lots of projects are still on our roster, all with an eye toward improving access and recommendations for the librarians and readers we serve. If you have any feedback, questions, or suggestions about our subject headings, we’d love to hear from you! 


Leslie Gardner is a Senior Cataloger at NoveList.