Reading the Map of Knowledge

An art or a science?

(An occasional series in which I go all library school on you and try to explain the arcana of the library.)
In his book Reading the Map of Knowledge: The Art of Being a Librarian, Peter Briscoe writes that “Readers who can remember…myriad references, noting repetitions and relationships, are natural bibliographers.” That is, if we  read consciously, trying to absorb, connect, and analyze, we learn not only our subject matter but we become experts in the literature of our subject.
In the spirit of becoming a walking bibliography, here I present a brief look at subject headings. Why on earth would I do that? Because if you are “all about books,” as I have been accused of being, you probably find yourself in a library from time to time looking for something on a specific subject, and you look upon the density of a good library catalog with a certain yen for the ease of me-type-you-give-answer Googlery. Fear not.
Subject headings are those phrases developed and listed by the Library of Congress and used in library catalogs in the item record. For example, the abovementioned book has the subject headings “Librarians–books and reading,” “Collection development (libraries),” and “Books and reading.” A search under any of those headings will return results including Reading the Map of Knowledge. (If the library owns a copy, that is.)
But who outside the cabals of librarianship understands subject headings? Why not just use keyword searching? Funny you should ask. Keyword searching is in fact a pretty good way to search, if you have other limits like “picture books” or “adult nonfiction.” But poorly limited keyword searching can be frustrating. Witness the patron who came in the other day looking for books on nursing (the kind of nursing where you’re a nurse, not a breastfeeding mother).
Here’s a simple exercise (I didn’t say fun) to help you get to know your library catalog a little better. Do a keyword search for something, anything, and choose one result. Then click on one of the subject headings on that item record and see what comes up. If it’s a well-covered subject, you should get a nice page of books on your subject. Whereas keyword searching may return dozens of tangentially-related results, subject searching returns more specific results. Beware, however: any searching is only as good as the record it has to draw from.
In conclusion, one more quote from Reading the Map of Knowledge: “A book is the distillation of the best thinking its author ever did, an intimate sharing, one human being to another.” Okay, one more: “A library is set up as a gigantic referential system. One things always points to another. It is possible that no search ever comes sompletely to an end.”
And why should it?