Reviews of SCIS Subject Headings Fourth Edition

By Barbara Braxton, Barbara Shardlow, Rod Barker

SCIS Subject Headings Fourth Edition was published and distributed to schools in November 1999. The following reviews have been written from three different perspectives: a Teacher Librarian, a SCIS agency cataloguer assisting with content, and a SCIS unit cataloguer assisting with production.

A Teacher Librarian

My previous life must have been quite spectacular, because I seem to be paying for it now! Otherwise, why, just weeks after completing my cataloguing course at Library School, ruining my eyes and my brain trying to figure out the complexities of the SCIS Subject Headings Third Edition, cross-referencing it with lists of additions and amendments downloaded from the Internet and the SCIS Standards tor Cataloguing and Data Entry, would the easy-to-read and easy-to-follow fourth edition become available? Maybe those who keep suggesting that 'God is getting even with me' know something I don't?

The fourth edition is such an improvement on its predecessor, you can almost overlook the fact that it weighs more than two kilograms. The most obvious difference between the editions is the layout. Gone are the all-upper-case entries, the mix of plain, bold and italic fonts, and those little xand xx symbols which always confused me, because I never could remember which meant 'see' and which meant 'see also' or 'seen from'.

The new look is much cleaner and the format is much easier to follow. Standard headings are in bold with regular capitalisation which makes them much easier to read, and accompanying notes are also in plain print. Each entry also has the terms 'UF' (used for); 'BT' (broader terms); 'NT' (narrower terms); and 'RT' (related terms), so it is very easy to decide which heading will best meet your needs. And for those whose brain hard-drive is getting crowded, the codes appear at the bottom of each page!

Similarly, non-standard headings are also easy to standardise and to create 'see references' which are critical if our younger students are to conduct successful searches independently. These students do not have the sophisticated vocabulary that a collection of standard headings must have, yet we must meet their needs by providing them with access to the OPAC through simpler keywords.

For instance, last year I did a unit of work with my year one students entitled 'Chooks in Books' and we read lots of stories about chickens. Many of them were keen to find out more, but were initially frustrated because they could find no entries under 'chooks' but when they tried 'chickens' they were automatically led to the standard term 'poultry' and there were all the books they wanted.

And, if you do like to indulge in a little original cataloguing rather than using SCISWeb or SCISCO, it is easy to find your way from the subject term you first entered to the correct standardised subject heading. But beware, political correctness is in, with common terms like 'Aborigines' exchanged for 'Aboriginal Peoples'. And I have just got everyone understanding that 'Aborigine' is a noun and 'Aboriginal' is an adjective! But we can take heart that 'Santa Claus' still exists and so do 'Easter Eggs'.

Anyone who has moved into an established library, where cataloguing and accessioning have been done by well-meaning but untrained people, will appreciate the value of this tool. When you find that extra hour of the day that we are supposed to have, it will prove invaluable to clean up subject files so that students and staff will make the OPAC their first stop, not their last.

And while I might gain some weight from no longer running around the shelves, a few squats with a fourth edition in each hand will soon fix that!

A SCIS agency cataloguer assisting with content

The new SCIS Subject Headings Fourth Edition is taller and thinner -an ideal proportion for some. But the hefty intellectual work of revision and restructure has had another consequence -the list has gained weight!

From a cataloguer's point of view, what has the new look SCIS Subject Headings Fourth Edition achieved?

  • The change in format has resulted in a much more user friendly list, even for those who use it as a daily tool and contribute to its content. The change from 'x' and 'xx' symbols to standard mnemonic symbols for index terms and cross references makes the hierarchical structure of the list and allowed headings much clearer. As a result, the selection of the most appropriate subject heading for a work and the creation of new headings and their structures is easier.
  • The revision of the subject headings for Aboriginal peoples was a much needed improvement. The replacement of unacceptable, outdated vocabulary and concepts has brought the list comfortably into line with community standards and the requirements of the Aboriginal studies resources that we are cataloguing.
  • The expansion of the 'Guidelines for using SCIS subject headings' includes a new section (Section 5), that clarifies the instructions to cataloguers provided under subject headings. The explanations and revised instructions should help minimise the anomalies and inconsistencies on the database that result from misinterpretations of ambiguous notes.
  • The expanded and additional notes and guidelines will also be appreciated by new SCIS cataloguers. The controlled vocabulary nature and structure of the list is easier to conceptualise, and the succinct section on the subject indexing process is a valuable addition.

This is not to say that the fourth edition is perfect. We have found only a few typos and omitted deletions, which is not too bad considering the major changes to the list and the feat of coordination and consensus required to harness the cataloguing expertise and editorial skills of all the SCIS agencies in an inevitably tight time frame.

The typos will be fixed in the fifth edition, along with further revisions of current headings, additions of new headings and other changes.

These will be required as SCIS responds to changes in information technology, education, curriculums and curriculum delivery, community attitudes and client expectations.

SCIS Subject Headings is an ongoing SCIS project - a 'work in progress' that also benefits from input from Teacher Librarians. The information in the expanded guidelines and notes should encourage Teacher Librarians to take advantage of an innovation for the fourth edition -some SCIS agency websites now provide a downloadable blank proposal form for new subject headings. We cataloguers certainly appreciate feedback.

From this cataloguer's point of view the new edition is a successful restructure. It is consistent with international standards, will adapt more easily to change and is no light weight in the arena of information retrieval systems.'

A SCIS unit cataloguer assisting with production

A few months after the release of every big hit movie, we now expect a shorter movie describing how it was made. While not equating SCIS Subject Headings Fourth Edition to Titanic or Star Wars, it still demanded endless attention to design and detail in its production.

The initial information was extracted from the SCIS database authority file by our systems people. This output was broken down into alphabetic sequences, to make it more manageable, and then emailed to the various agencies for comment and processing.

SCIS then hired extra staff, of which I was one, to assist with the project. Various aspects of this work were undertaken by agencies, and the files moved around by email until the final proof copies (which were committed to express snail mail). Thus, our successive 'final copies' contained 'cut and paste' from these electronic documents. However, this demonstration of our computer competency led to some interesting observations -an email never forgets! Given the least opportunity-making the smallest change to text or formatting anywhere in their vicinity, for example, the email contents immediately seized the opportunity to revert to their original Courier 10 point or similar font. We must have selected some passages and told them at least ten times, that they were 9 point Times New Roman -and they would still revert!

As we state in the Introduction (p.xxxvi), 'the revision of a controlled vocabulary is an ongoing process'. The major change in format (from see, see also, xxto BT, etc.) has exposed the logical structure of our thesaurus, particularly in relation to the newly created RT's. In effect, we have essentially the same information, but the 'oddities' that creep in over the years are somewhat more obvious. Revision will indeed continue, and we will keep you informed of the inevitable, on-going manipulations.

The thesaurus has historically worked on the principle of 'literary warrant' -that is, like the huge Library of Congress thesaurus (LCSH), it is based on its catalogued resources. If there is no resource that requires a particular subject heading, this subject heading will not have been established -regardless of the use of this heading with respect to logical structure.

The final print run began on a Sunday, and took several days. Pages were adjusted manually to remove orphan entries and printed in small batches. Despite the fact that every page was then scrutinised by several people some typos were missed in the final print. Some of the bloopers were detected at the printer's proof stage, which resulted in more frantic printing and rush couriers, but a few still evaded the net.  

Barbara Braxton


Palmerston District Primary School

Barbara Shardlow

Cataloguing Section

Curriculum Materials Information Services, Education Department of Western Australia

Rod Barker

SCIS Unit Cataloguer

Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS)