Why SCIS prefers to catalogue with item in hand

By Doreen Sullivan

SCIS cataloguer Doreen Sullivan outlines why we have a preference to catalogue with items in hand, rather than cataloguing blindly. Doreen explains the challenges of determining subject headings from minimal information, and highlights the importance of metadata elements such pagination and publishers.

So you have an item you’d like catalogued — maybe it’s a book complete with an ISBN. That makes it easy to track down information for it, so SCIS should be able to catalogue it without seeing the physical item or digital file, surely? But SCIS has a preference to catalogue from the original, and you may be puzzled as to why we encourage you to send your items in.

SCIS’s preference for cataloguing resources that we can see or pick up lies in providing the most accurate record we can, which increases the likelihood of students and teachers finding and identifying the resources they need in your catalogue.

Cataloguing without the item in hand, or without seeing it on the screen, can mean that we might be taking some stabs in the dark for SCIS and ScOT subject headings, call numbers, and even metadata such as the publisher of a resource.

Subject headings

Consider the following titles: are they fiction or non-fiction?

  • How to disappear completely and never be found by Sara Nickerson
  • I survived the attacks of September 11, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis
  • Goblinproofing one’s chicken coop: and other practical advice in our campaign against the fairy kingdom by Reginald Bakeley

By looking at the title alone, the first one could be either a novel or a factual book. The second one sounds like a memoir. And the last one has to be fiction.

However, if we were to have these items in hand, we’d see that the first one is a novel, which has been nominated for a swag of US children’s book awards. The second one is a novel, too. Think the third one is definitely fiction? Well, if SCIS held it, we would see that the book should be in the non-fiction wit and humour section, 818.602.

You’re probably thinking, ‘But no one should be assigning subject headings from the title alone’. This is true, and we agree. On occasion though, cataloguers only have a bare minimum of information to consult.

Even when we have additional information such as a blurb, it is sometimes not enough. For example, the blurb for Danie Ware’s novel Ecko Endgame mentions the key character, but if you’re unfamiliar with the series, you may not know that Ecko is a cyberpunk assassin — information which affects subject identification.

Cataloguing standards: what you see is what you get

SCIS follows international cataloguing standards that depend on:

• Transcription of descriptive elements from the resource itself — adhering to these standards means we need to record exactly what is on the item. What we see is what you get.
• Subject classification coming from the resource itself.

Pagination and publishers: examples of metadata elements and why they’re important

At its broadest level, descriptive metadata lets users know whether they’re searching for a website, a computer app, a physical book, an ebook, software, streaming media, or a DVD. 


You might think the page numbers of a resource are not so important: isn’t it enough to know it’s a book? Not always. Knowing a book has portraits of Australians in the 1940s might be useful. Knowing an item contains maps can be useful for those interested in history and geography. Users might pause before selecting books such as the 832-page novel The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. And if you’re downloading an ebook or software, it’s useful to know how its size will affect your data limits. This kind of information is hard to determine without a copy of the physical or digital item.


Publisher information is useful to identify the exact edition of a resource. Many resources have multiple publishers. Think about how different the Popular Penguin edition of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned would be from the Harper Press edition: the former has 363 pages, and the latter 446.

But publisher details are also useful for searching. For example, many publishers have a specialist focus, such as VIZ Media for manga. These are just a few reasons why, where possible, SCIS prefers to catalogue from the original item. It provides us with all necessary information to maximise the chances of your staff and students finding, identifying, and selecting resources in your collection. Raring to get items catalogued? You can find our cataloguing services here.

Doreen Sullivan

Cataloguer, SCIS

Education Services Australia