Thursday, July 28, 2005

Music subject headings

Wow, the blog has been lonely lately, hasn't it? It's almost as if there are too many things floating around in my head that I can't get any of them fully formed enough to even write about here.

One of those many floating thoughts has been subject headings for music. Many traditional schemes, like LCSH, make a distinction between headings used for works about music, and headings used for music itself. For example, "Symphonies" is used for music scores and recordings of symphonies. But "Symphony" is assigned to texts about symphonies.

Obviously at first glance the distinction between the two forms is subtle. Even if a user realized the potential for this distinction being made (!), it would be difficult for that user to determine which form to use in which case. In my library catalog, a subject browse on "symphonies" lists first an entry for 5407 matches, then second, "see related headings for: symphonies." Clicking on the latter yields a screen saying "Search topics related to the subject SYMPHONIES," but no way to actually do that. This is probably because the authority record for symphonies has no 550s specifying any related headings. Geez. Both because the system shows this anyways and because there are no related headings. [Yet another NOTE: the mechanism for specifying a heading is broader or narrower than another heading in the MARC authority format is ridiculously complicated. No wonder the relationships between LCSH headings are so poor.] This same screen is also where one would view the scope note for the heading "symphonies":

Here are entered symphonies for orchestra. Symphonies for other mediums of performance are entered under this heading followed by the medium, e.g. Symphonies (Band); Symphonies (Chamber orchestra). Works about the symphony are entered under Symphony.

OK. So to find out if "symphonies" is what I'm looking for, I need to click "see related headings for: symphonies"? Riiiiight. Sure, my catalog could handle this better. Not many do.

This distinction isn't always so obvious to specialists, either. I've been reading up on the topic for a project and I'm struck by how rarely it's made explicit. A huge majority of writings simply assume they're talking about one, the other, or both, but never say so. Many others indicate they're discussing one or the other but provide examples of both. I myself recently forgot the distinction at a critical juncture. :-)

I'm wondering if this distinction between headings for works about music and works of music is still needed in modern systems. [NOTE: I don't consider any of the MARC catalogs I'm familiar with to be "modern systems"!] We certainly now have mechanisms to make this distinction in ways other than a subject string. Most of me says this is an outdated mechanism. But in a huge library catalog covering both types of materials, the distinction does need to be made in some way. I'm still pondering over exactly which way that should be.


Thom said...

What's annoying also is that current practice is to delete 550s from many authority records that were entered (esp. those that are broader). It's almost like they're deconstructing the tree on which thesauri (even LCSH) are based, and are so useful.

Dan said...

As a former music librarian (and music cataloger), I'm seeing two different issues here. One is the lack of complete cataloging in the MARC record (no 550s). The other is the confusion of headings.

I do think music as a subject has had a huge amount of input from music librarians, virtually all of whom have some background in music (both performance and theory). And, as most classical work is known by an non-specific title (Nocturne, Symphony, Concerto in A, etc.) the combination of uniform titles and subject headings do more than just what keyword searching might do.

Yes, it can be confusing to the uninitiated, but I would hope, even in a record store catalog, that someone might try to delineate that search beyond just looking up "Symphony."

Much as I have an issue with some of LCSH, I think the uniformity of music headings has markedly improved in the last few decades. Check out some older LCSH's to see how bad it used to be!

Jenn Riley said...

Hi Dan, thanks for your comments. (Great rant on LIS research on your site!)

I definitely agree the LCSH music headings (both for texts and for music) do have a lot of input from music librarians. Actually, on my bad days, I truly believe those same music librarians are the only ones to whom the headings make sense! And I can say that as a musician and a librarian, even though I currently don't work only with music, and they don't make sense to me sometimes.

Thanks for bringing up uniform titles. I consider these another expert-type search strategy. We can put out endless numbers of handouts describing how they're constructed next to OPAC terminals, host frequent BI sessions teaching same, and have an unparalled advocacy program, and still fail large numbers of our users who search for music with generic titles. One has to know to use the plural form of the form/genre in the search, oh, wait, except when the composer wrote only one of that form! Then it's singular. User-friendly, huh? Maybe the high recall provided by the uniform title is only needed by the experts that would know how to search for them, but I'd really like to make it easier.

I agree that hopefully even the most novice user would type more than just "symphony" into a catalog. I'd like to see an interface that helps them narrow down the results if they do happen to do that, however (faceting, anyone?). I also would like to see systems that could handle either "symphony" or "symphonies" equally as part of a multi-term query, and rely on other mechanisms to determine if works about or works of music are desired. Embedding this distinction in the terminology seems waaaaay to subtle for my taste.