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Subject Description. LIS 571 The Organization and Control of Recorded Information. OVERVIEW. What is a subject? Why distinguish subject from physical description? What are LIS processes for subject description? What is subject analysis?. WHAT IS A SUBJECT?. A subject is . . .

I am the owner, or an agent authorized to act on behalf of the owner, of the copyrighted work described.
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subject description

Subject Description

LIS 571

The Organization and Control of Recorded Information


What is a subject?

Why distinguish subject from physical description?

What are LIS processes for subject description?

What is subject analysis?

what is a subject

A subject is . . .

a representation of the intellectual content of an information object,

or its aboutness, topic, theme, expressed concepts or ideas, area of interest or knowledge.

understanding subjects
Understanding Subjects

The traditional view of a subject . . .

is based on bibliographic conventions

for representing textual objects.

distinguishes between

what an object is about and what an object is (i.e., subject description of intellectual content vs. physical description of container or package).

understanding subjects1
Understanding Subjects

The traditional view of a subject . . .

assumes an object has identifiable intellectual content.

Yet subjects are difficult or impossible to identify

for a few textual objects and most nontextual objects.

problems in subject description
Problems in Subject Description

Subjective interpretation based on ambiguous,

emotional content

Domain expertise of person doing subject representation

Materials that don’t lend themselves to simple subject representation:

"How can nonbook materials, such as visual and musical works, be subject-indexed using the medium of language" --Svenonius 1994, 600

why distinguish subject from physical description
Why Distinguish Subject from Physical Description?
  • To distinguish between work and text
  • To clarify representations of various kinds of subjects
  • To provide more access points for searching
  • To provide intellectual access versus bibliographic access
representing intellectual content
Representing Intellectual Content

Topic (content within document)


Person (as in a biography)

Corporate body (as in a prospectus)

Geographic area (as in a travel guide)

Named entity (about buildings, etc.)

Time period (about Renaissance, etc.)

Form (literary: poetry, essays)

--A. Taylor 1999, 137

representing physical object
Representing Physical Object

Title (name of object)


Person (in role such as creator)

Corporate body (in role such as creator)

Geographic area (as place of origin)

Time period (as period made)

Form or format (as physical description)

representing form
Representing Form

Usually considered subject description:

  • Literary forms: poetry, essays
  • Popular genre: romance (fiction), jazz (music)
  • Type of info.: correspondence, bibliography, statistics
representing form1
Representing Form

Usually considered subject description:

  • Organization of info: calendar, outline, dictionary
  • Style or technique related to purpose or audience: comedy, drama, persuasion
  • Style or technique related to time period: Baroque (music), Impressionism (painting)
representing format
Representing Format

Usually considered physical description:

  • Physical media format: book, video, photo, map
  • Artifact format: sculpture, figurine, vase, shirt
  • Communication mode: text, image, video, audio
  • Technical digital format: ASCII/text, HTML, .pdf, .gif
  • Version/part of work: edition, translation, chapter
functions of subject descriptions
Functions of Subject Descriptions

Subject descriptions serve to . . .

  • Organize document shelving for physical browsing and retrieval
  • Inform searchers about intellectual contents of documents
  • Provide consistency of representations
  • Assist in collection development and acquisitions
  • Assist in collection maintenance
what is subject analysis


  • Determining intellectual content or subject content or aboutness


  • Document analysis: information professional (cataloger, indexer) studies document to determine document surrogate for system
  • Query analysis: information professional (intermediary) or end-user studies user request to determine search terms
the purposes of subject analysis
The Purposes of Subject Analysis
  • Clarify and organize subjects of docs and queries
  • Express subjects precisely
  • Achieve consistency between document and search terms
the when of subject analysis
The When of Subject Analysis
  • During production of primary document

Author’s abstract and/or index

Indexing commissioned by publisher

Cataloging in publication (CIP)

  • Prior to storage for retrieval

Cataloging or indexing by bibliographic utility

Cataloging or indexing by individual library

  • During information retrieval

Problem statement or question from user

Query formulation by intermediary or user

the how of subject analysis
The How of Subject Analysis

1. Familiarization

Acquainting oneself with general content of document and query

2. Extraction

Identifying, pulling out significant concepts and natural-language terms

3. Translation

Converting extracted terms into controlled vocabulary of system

4. Formalization

Applying rules for exact format, spelling, punctuation, codes, etc. for input to system

the how of subject analysis1
The How of Subject Analysis

Subject analysis is a balancing act . . .

  • based on literary warrant (information objects) and on user warrant (user needs)
  • requiring evaluation and verification at every stage in a continuous, iterative process
the who of subject analysis
The Who of Subject Analysis

Authors, publishers, catalogers, indexers, abstracters, reviewers

Intellectual characteristics:

  • Precise, orderly and systematic mind
  • Flair for analysis and intellectual rigor
  • Critical skills and good judgment
  • Expert language skills

Svenonius, Elaine. 1994. Access to nonbook materials: The limits of subject indexing for visual and aural languages. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45, no. 8 (September): 600-606.

Taylor, Arlene, G. 1999, 2005. The organization of information. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.