ISKO Italy Open conference systems, Paradigms and conceptual systems in KO

A bridge to the stars : Subject access to juvenile fiction in catalogues of some European countries

Alenka Šauperl

Building: Main building
Room: Hall V
Date: 2010-02-25 12:00 PM – 12:30 PM
Last modified: 2010-01-28


[Submitted condensed paper]

Do librarians provide a reliable bridge between readers and authors of juvenile fiction and do we have some national peculiarities, which make the bridge better or worse? Differences in subject description of juvenile fiction were investigated in seven library catalogues:
-- libraries in the Gorizia region in Italy (Sistema bibliotecario della Provincia di Gorizia),
-- Karlovac region libraries in Croatia (Skupni katalog knjižnica Karlovacke županije),
-- Oton Župancic Public Library (Knjižnica Otona Župancica) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and
-- Stadtbibliothek public library in Graz, Austria.

These countries share some cultural similarities because they belonged to the same country in some historical periods. They also belong to the Alps-Adriatic Working Community founded in Venice in 1978. One could expect that youth or their caretakers could search for literature in any of the neighbouring countries and borrow their materials either in a period of tourist visit or during a period when the family accepts employment there. Because English is frequently held as "lingua franca," British Library catalogue was selected as an English reference point. As an international reference Internationale Jugendbibliothek München was also added. This way a wider community of the European Union was reached. The question is: does cataloguing share characteristics that allow European citizens using European libraries? Descriptive cataloguing was not considered in this analysis since European libraries follow international cataloguing code (ISBD).
-- Five children literature classics were chosen for this analysis:
-- Dahl, Roald: Mathilda
-- Gaarder, Jostein: Sophie's world
-- Lindgren, Astrid: Ronia, the robber's daughter
-- Mankell, Henning: A bridge to the stars
-- Schmitt, Eric-Emmanuel: Oscar and the pink lady
It is difficult to find works, which were translated in all the countries. There are many works translated into different languages. But only few library catalogues record the original title. Recording of original title is optional in area 7 (notes) of International standard for bibliographic description. Most helpful data on this matter came from the Wikipedia : the free encyclopedia.
Results show that catalogue records are inconsistent within an individual library and among all libraries in the sample. Librarians do not prepare consistent subject descriptions. Three cases from the British Library illustrate this case.

This inconsistency can be attributed to two reasons. (1) Works of fiction were traditionally only described with class numbers, which allowed shelving. The need for detailed subject description of fiction only emerged in late 1980s in some libraries (e.g. in Denmark) and is very slowly spreading through the world. (2) Subject description is time consuming and many library directors minimize or avoid it to cut costs of technical services.

Class number, which is present in all catalogues except the Austrian one, usually represents: the author's country, language and/or nationality, the literary genre, and the target audience. Universal and Dewey Decimal Classification systems are used in the six analyzed catalogues. These similarities would allow users to visit any of the library catalogues. They would also allow international sharing of subject description.

Subject headings in the sample bring information on the subject of the literary work (topic, aboutness), author's country, language and/or nationality, the literary genre, and target audience. This means that the same information is repeated in class numbers and subject headings. One could envision a computer software, which would automatically translate class numbers into subject headings and/or vice versa. This automatic process would give cataloguers time to focus on other dimensions of subject description, such as describing the story of the work of fiction, its characters, place, time periods, events, emotions, morale, and any message that the author intends to send to his or her readers. It is frequently difficult to tell what the message is in works of fiction for adult readers. Works of fiction for young readers more often have a clearer message. However, because of the basic similarities of subject headings and class numbers across the analyzed catalogues we can again state that users should be able to use all the catalogues or libraries with similar success.

Some catalogues include summaries, which may be one or several sentences long. Sometimes they appear to be copied from book covers or publishers' web pages. In other cases they seem to be written by the cataloguer. Summaries tell more on the story and may be considered an enhancement of subject description. But they can also bring information which in fact does not describe the subject of the work of fiction but another dimension instead. Most often they bring information on emotional experience of the reader, on the author or the history of the literary work. Looking at publishers' information or the description of the analyzed works of fiction in the Wikipedia : the free encyclopedia, these attributes can be considered universal. Here too we can see that subject description could in fact be shared and understood internationally.

Yet uniform subject description is in fact discouraged by the IFLA Principles underlying subject heading languages, where one of the principles states that subject description should be tailored to the user. In fact it should be and is most often only tailored to the collection. We could probably claim that the analysed catalogues show the latter - subject description is tailored to the collection and librarians' view of the readers. In this sense the descriptions appear to be universal and could therefore be shared at least to some degree. This would give cataloguers time to focus on specifics of their audience and collection and add library specific attributes to the universal description.

It would be economically beneficial if subject description could be more consistent. But uniform subject description is not possible because of diverse library collections and users. The solution might be in multiple levels of subject description intended for different libraries. One layer is in fact universal. This is either because traditionally works of fiction have been on the margin of subject cataloguing or because of the ways fiction is treated in indexing systems (classification systems and subject heading languages). Both reasons have been intertwined, since indexing systems stem from library practices. The other layer should be user and/or library specific. Here either librarians or publishers could add information on the story and/or the author. Moreover, emotional experience could be added. Finally, users could be able to contribute their own opinions, a possibility already given in the catalogues of the libraries in the Gorizia region (Italy) and in Graz (Austria).

The bridge librarians pretend to build between the reader and the author is in fact not reliable. Subject description within the same library catalogue is not consistent. Fortunately, this characteristic is shared among the analysed libraries. The bridge is unreliable also because subject description most often consists only of the class number. But it should not be unconceivable or impossible to build a reliable bridge. The class number builds a solid foundation. It could be automatically translated into basic level subject headings. These could then be enhanced in individual libraries to meet user needs. Finally, publishers and users could add a final layer. This way, our bridge could lead the user to the stars of fiction -- not only universal stars, but stars that might be different for every user.