Patron-Driven Subject Access: How Librarians Can Mitigate That “Power to Name”

In Brief

Information organization and access is one of the core goals of librarianship. However, as librarians, we have the power to control what language patrons must use when searching for items. This power often manifests itself by limiting access to materials by and/or about oppressed or otherwise marginalized groups, due to how we label those materials. Many librarians, such as Sanford Berman, criticize this language and suggest better language for subject access. But does this “better language” match how patrons search? In this article, I stress the importance of not only an equitable subject access, but one that is driven by our patrons through human subjects research. I will also discuss some strategies for patron-driven subject access, such as tagging systems. Finally, I will briefly discuss the methodology of a pilot study I conducted, which focuses on the language patrons use to search for LGBT topics. My research illustrates one potential method of patron-driven subject heading creation that I hope inspires librarians when doing subject access work.


“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”—Angela Carter

When I was an undergraduate student doing interdisciplinary research about gender, I discovered the relationship between the words we use in libraries and power. I was taking a course about the socio-cultural influence on Japanese anime, and I wanted to examine how gender was being forced on a character in a certain film; however, I had difficulty finding resources about gender or the lack thereof in Japanese culture.. I wondered if other people had trouble doing research in certain subjects, especially those which center the marginalized, because of language. Then my supervisor in the library told me about a librarian named Sandy Berman and about subject headings. I was confronted by not only the major challenges faced by the average patron encountering subject headings but also how these headings reflect the white male hegemony in subject description. These headings were not created with somebody like me in mind. The rest, they say, is history.

That experience led me to my love of cataloging. I realized how crucial the description of materials is to the access and discovery of information. I made it my personal mission in life to make sure that any person could find the information they needed, no matter who they were or what that information was. But providing that sort of equitable access to information is more complicated than one might suspect, especially if one wants to do it with input from patrons. I was shocked that I could not  find a single peer-reviewed study that attempted to learn the language people actually used to search for LGBT materials when I was researching this very topic for a course.

Clearly, this is an area that is a womb of potentiality.

In order to get patrons involved in the process of subject creation and access, we need to first envision what that involvement might look like. It will look different at every institution, but patron-driven subject access (PDSA) could be a way for libraries to begin the process of using our authority to empower the language of our users. Once we decide how patrons could be involved, we need to find ways to make those connections and have their voices heard. To do this most effectively, we need to embrace human subjects research; otherwise, any data will be disconnected from the lived experiences of our patrons. In this article, I will describe my own method of conducting this type of research along with the tensions between patron language and controlled vocabularies I encountered while doing this pilot case study.

I take equitable subject access as a given in cataloging and along with how that can and should happen in partnership with our patrons. When including our patrons in this process, we can help to limit the impact of the exploitative power we hold over how they access materials. There already exist strategies to implement this type of subject access, such as tagging systems, but they are limited and don’t foster relationships between library users and librarians. I will provide an example of how to get this kind of data by detailing the methodology of my original qualitative research, which employed semi-structured interviews. Finally, I will address some of the potential problems when implementing this style of subject access.

The Importance of Equitable Subject Access

Descriptive cataloging, particularly the practice of assigning subject headings to works, has played a crucial role in the way patrons access library materials. When card catalogs were in wide use, the subject of a work was one of the key access points, along with author and title, and collocated materials on similar subjects.

However, in modern online catalogs, keyword searches have become the dominant and preferred way of accessing materials. To quote a 2009 OCLC report, “keyword searching is king … End users want to be able to do a simple Google-like search and get results that exactly match what they expect to find” (Calhoun, Cellentani, & OCLC, 2009). But despite the popularity of keyword searches, subject headings are still vital for the access of information. The same OCLC report found that users appreciated the ability to narrow down their searches through facets (including subject headings), which provide greater precision and recall when doing keyword searches. Faceted searches are just one instance of the role subject headings play, however. Keyword searches pull from indexed MARC records. If the language patrons use to search are not in those records, those relevant items will not be pulled, and subject headings allow more language to be indexed for those searches (Chercourt & Marshall, 2013).

For subject access to truly improve access to information, it must be equitable. An equitable subject access would center the information needs and information seeking behaviors of those whom our systems disenfranchise. The Library of Congress Subject Headings have historically centered the language of white men in power (Berman, 1971). In Power to Name, Hope A. Olson (2002) discusses the power that catalogers have over the access to information, especially when it comes to those who are marginalized. To mitigate the abuse of that power, we must attempt to provide a more equitable subject access.

Since the 1970s, librarians have attempted to provide equitable subject access through updating controlled vocabularies and classification schemes, as well as sharing resources. Berman got the metaphorical ball rolling with his key text Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People (2014, originally 1971), which examines then-existing LCSH and offered corrections. Since its publication, not only have many of his changes been implemented (Knowlton, 2005), but other catalogers and librarians have done similar work (see Billey, 2017; Brooks, Hofer, & Institute for Sex Research, 1976; Capek & National Council for Research on Women (U.S.), 1989; Freedman, 2008; Furner, 2007a; Ganin, 2017; Greenblatt, 1990; Marshall, 1977; Michel, 1985; Michel & Moore, 1990; Moore & International Gay and Lesbian Archives, 1985; Staalduinen, Brandhorst, Homodok, & Anna Blaman Huis, 1997).

As librarians, we can still do more. Instead of using our positions of power and privilege to decide what language should be used for subject access, we should be responsive to the needs of our communities to implement patron-driven subject access (PDSA). Through PDSA, we can mitigate what Hope A. Olson refers to as our “power to name.”

This patron-driven subject access has value even when the interests of the patron might not necessarily match the interests of the institution. In my opinion, the interest of the institution (including the cataloger) should include the interest of the patron. As catalogers, we create metadata for and describe resources so that all users can find them. Even though the interest of a patron might include just labelling an object so that they can find it later (e.g. “to read”), or a label that rates the resource, these actions still have value because they provide access, even if just for unique situations.

Strategies for Patron-Driven Subject Access

Patron-driven subject access simply means facilitating the development of subject headings and other subject access points by and with our patrons. Many library catalogs and discovery layers allow for this already in the form of tagging systems. But PDSA is not and should not be limited to tagging systems, as not every library catalog will have that ability. Tagging also does not guarantee accurate or useful information, and could also exploit the free untrained labor of patrons.

Tagging Systems

Tagging systems are a way for end-users of a catalog or database to label, or tag, an item in a way that makes sense to them. For instance, many people use tagging systems to label books according to genre, or even “to read.” Because of their ability to reflect end-user language, librarians have been comparing the tagging systems of websites such as LibraryThing to Library of Congress Subject Headings (Adler, 2009; Bates & Rowley, 2011). With these comparisons, scholars have demonstrated differences in not only the language used, especially for identity, but also differences in syntax and semantics. LibraryThing even gives libraries the option to incorporate LibraryThing tags into their OPACs and discovery layers, called LibraryThing for Libraries (Voorbij, 2012).

However, if a library cannot or does not want to use LibraryThing metadata along with their own, many Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs), such as VuFind, and discovery layers, such as Primo, allow users to create tags on any resource they find. However, the success of these tags, in my experience, depends on how well they are searchable and how they are advertised. One 2007 article, which discusses a framework of system evaluation for tagging systems in libraries,the “success” of these systems proves to be problematic for several reasons, one being the different uses of the tags by each user and how they are integrated into the catalog (Furner, 2007b). At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, the VuFind OPAC  has been set up to allow items to be tagged, but those tags are not keyword searchable, nor is there an option to search tags. In my experience, tags are most useful for the person who creates them, as they can access their tags within their account.

At the University of Utah, the Usearch catalog uses a Primo discovery layer. If a patron creates an account, they can add tags to any item via a tab under the resource that says “Reviews & Tags,” with an option to “Sign in to Add New Tags.” Although these tags are not yet keyword searchable, there is an option under Advanced Search to search User Tags. When I spoke with my library’s systems team, they said that because tags are not integrated into the main record but instead are extensions, they are not keyword searchable; this separation is useful because some tags may need to be removed due to offensive content (J. Colbert, personal communication, November 2, 2017). Discovery layers at other libraries have a similar function, in my experience.

Probably one of the most famous examples of a library tagging system was that of PennTags. PennTags was a social bookmarking site created for users of the University of Pennsylvania libraries and has been discussed thoroughly in library literature relating to tagging systems (see McFadden & Weidenbenner, 2010; Peterson, 2008; Steele, 2009). However, as of writing this article, it seems that PennTags no longer functions, and their Alma implementation does not seem to allow for user tags, instead allowing users to “Bookmark” items to find later. Perhaps the decline in tagging, especially this robust system, indicates the limits of relying only on tagging systems that rely on patron contributions, or the failure of libraries to advertise this resource and its potential. Indeed, in the database “Library & Information Science Abstracts,” a search for “tagging” and “success” only gives 13 results, with the latest relevant entry being from 2012.

Culturally-Responsive Metadata

I learned of “culturally-responsive metadata” through a presentation by Hannah Buckland at the American Library Association Annual Conference in 2017. Hannah Buckland is the Director of Library Services at Leech Lake Tribal College in north central Minnesota. Because Leech Lake Tribal College has such a small staff and a budget entirely of grants, many people in the library share responsibilities; indeed, Buckland uses this fact to stress how technical services is a form of public services, especially when done with the community that the library serves.  The Leech Lake Tribal College Library was inspired to work with their indigenous faculty, staff, students, and community when a professor requested students search for “Indigenous poetry,” and discovered that this was not the language that the Library of Congress uses. But instead of telling these students to ignore the language of their professor in favor of language created by and for a white colonialist state, Buckland and her colleagues began implementing local headings that were appropriate for this community.

The library only implemented these changes locally (assumed as local headings) instead of submitting them for review at the national level. Buckland frames this as a difference between “aboutness” and “fromness.” While librarians often think of subject headings as descriptive of the “aboutness” of an item, Buckland argues the frame should instead be “fromness.” Because language is tied to culture, and culture is tied to place, headings should address the place from which language emerges. That is, language will change depending on culture and place  Addressing where language comes from is crucial.

Finally, for implementing this culturally-responsive metadata, Buckland recommends a collaborative model of public impact, where libraries and cultural institutions work with the communities they serve as “stewards instead of an overbearing power,” making decisions about metadata with the community (Buckland, 2017). When I spoke with Buckland after her presentation, I asked if she planned to submit this community language to any controlled vocabularies. She stressed that this type of community implementation is only sustainable in small communities, thus forcing true culturally-responsive metadata (and possibly PDSA) to only work on a small scale.

Human Subjects Research in Technical Services

With my methodology, I intend to stress the importance of performing human subjects research when trying to implement any form of PDSA. The scholarly literature contains countless articles which study the information seeking behavior of human subjects. These studies range from first-year students, to lesbians, to women’s studies professors, to disability scholars, and beyond (see Hulseberg & Twait, 2016; Koford, 2014; Sabbar & Xie, 2016; Westbrook, 2003; Whitt, 1993). However, despite the fact that these studies might address how the participants interact with subject headings and how subject access affects their retrieval (see Duncan & Holtslander, 2012; Koford, 2014), they usually come from a public services or reference services point of view, not the point of view of cataloging librarians or other technical services librarians. But occasionally studies involving human subjects to change collection development policies or website/OPAC design can be found.

One study (Koford, 2014) investigates the information seeking behaviors of disability scholars with particular interest in subject headings, defined in the study as any controlled vocabulary or index. The researchers use semi-structured interviews with transcription and coding to collect data. Congruent with my own findings, scholars whose research is more interdisciplinary use subject headings less, as the imprecise and permeable nature of their work conflicts with the rigid controlled meaning of the vocabularies. Scholars whose work is more scientific or legal use them liberally for the same reason: they need to be precise about their search. With this information, we could think about how to allow access to these intangible subjects while at the same time providing that same rigid, precise control over the more solid subjects.

Because this study can be found in Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, it is a perfect example of how technical services librarians can use human subjects research in a similar way to our public services colleagues in order to improve our vocabularies and policies.

An Example Methodology

In the spring of 2017, I completed original research titled “Comparing Library of Congress Subject Headings to Keyword Searches Involving LGBT Topics: A Pilot Study” (Colbert, 2017). My research questions were: what is the language patrons use to search for LGBTQ materials, and how does that language compare to the Library of Congress Subject Headings? This research was conducted using semi-structured interviews. I hoped to not only compare natural language with a controlled vocabulary but also to provide an example of how to gather this language.


This qualitative study used semi-structured interviews, in which I could ask participants to expand on answers to my questions in order to provide more clarity and context. I drew my research participants from the teaching and research faculty of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. My reasoning for this was that, if scholars in this field used language that differed from controlled vocabulary, then surely those outside the field would as well. Four professors agreed to be interviewed. My interviews included ten questions, but I frequently asked research participants to elaborate on certain points. I then transcribed and coded these interviews, drawing out language and reasons for why they use particular language so that I could analyze it within context.

I chose semi-structured interviews as my research method in order to analyze my data within the context of the participants’ lived experiences. To quote Irving Seidman, “at the root of in-depth interviewing is an interest in understanding the lived experiences of other people and the meaning they make of that experience. … The way to meaning is to be able to put behavior in context” (2015, pp. 9–10). Although I would have gathered more data through a quantitative method such as log analyses, the context within which the participants used language influenced how I analyzed the results.

The data gathered through the questions were demographic data, information seeking behavior, the language used when searching for certain concepts, and subjects’ experience with and knowledge of controlled vocabulary. I designed my questions through a conceptual lens: I never asked “what word do you use to search for gay men,” instead asking the participants to describe the language they would use to search for concepts. The epistemology of my research was social constructionism, which states that “people jointly construct their understandings of the world…that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual or in the world of things” (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2009). This informed my decision to ask questions about demographics and information seeking behaviors. Although, of course, each individual participant has their own unique life experience, the way they have interacted with others, their backgrounds, and so many other factors can affect how they signify these concepts. For instance, while a white working class masculine lesbian might call herself a butch, a black masculine lesbian might use the word stud instead.

The hardest part of the entire research process was setting up the interviews. If you or your library plan to use interviews as part of your research, I recommend being prepared to get few responses unless the participants are somehow compensated. Although my call for participants was sent out to every faculty member within the Gender and Women’s Studies department and I even sent out individual emails, only four professors responded to me. Nonetheless, these small groups can give us value as to how and why we need to incorporate evidence-based practice into our cataloging and metadata work; every voice has value.

When planning the interviews, I made sure to privilege and center the needs of the research participants. Because interviews can be such an intimate and vulnerable activity, it is important to make sure that participants feel comfortable. Therefore, I let my participants pick their preferred location, date and time, and even method of recording. My participants technically inhabited a place of power over me, as they were faculty members and I was only a graduate student. However, if you do interviews in your library, you will probably be interviewing your patron base, and as a librarian, you have some power over them in that setting. One of the perks of doing interviews is the ability to strive to equal the playing field. In order to do so, you might explore different approaches to interviewing which take this power imbalance into account.

After gathering data through recorded interviews, I transcribed and coded those interviews. My coding process was to pull out the words the participants used to search, the reasons for those words, and any limitations or anything else I found significant. This is a form of in vivo coding, which creates qualitative codes based on the language of the interviewee. After I pulled out these significant words and phrases, however, I did assign them codes based on their significance, such as “termReason.”

Using semi-structured interviews to gather data about subject usage and conflict allows librarians to form relationships with patrons. Just as reference librarians are privy to how different groups of patrons seek information, so too can technical services librarians be. Even if the data gathered are not technically statistically significant, it proves valuable not only in that any amount of data gathered has meaning, but also in that it works to bridge the gap between librarians and patrons, showing them that we care about how we can make accessing information easier and more efficient for them.

Problems with Patron-Driven Subject Access

As much as I advocate for my idealistic visions of a subject access that is primarily patron-driven, I recognize some inherent issues with this form of subject access. These include the problem of language variation, headings that are too local, and the right for a culture or community to have their information be inaccessible to outsiders.

Language variation is the concept that language is not a stable, fixed thing and indeed will have variation, including in grammar and dialect, across its speakers (Wardhaugh, 2014, p. 6). In particular, sociolinguists note the variation in language that stems from gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, etc. (International L.A.U.D.-Symposium, Putz, Reif-Hülser, & Robinson, 2013; Mesthrie, Asher, & Credo Reference, 2001). For controlled vocabulary, this variation is both its reason for being and the reason it has so many issues. There is nuance and variation based on discipline and individual search styles, for instance. When I analyzed the results of my study, I found that, although Library of Congress Subject Headings, and even the Library of Congress Demographic Group Terms, had the most common terminology shared by all participants, their unique disciplines, areas of research, and lived experiences affected the terminology they used for more specificity and nuance (see Colbert, 2017). If we are to base our subject headings on the language of our patrons, then we are privileging the language variation of those specific patrons, which necessarily marginalizes the language of those who do not participate. As stated from my conversation with Buckland, another possible issue that builds off language variation is that it can only be implemented on a small scale. If language becomes “too local” to a certain place, then it has no value to or impedes access in other communities.

Some groups or cultures, such as indigenous tribes of the United States, might not want outsiders to be able to find their information. Although this issue affects traditional subject access methods as well, we should be aware that the language a patron uses might not be language the general public should be able to use. Even with local headings, unless you implement a system that denies the access to outsiders, the need to remain inaccessible is not fully met. A possible way to accommodate this need is by incorporating the Mukurtu CMS, a content management system designed with these needs in mind, in your library’s collections: “Mukurtu is a grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, narrate, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways” (“Learn – Mukurtu CMS,” n.d.).

The Future of Patron-Driven Subject Access

Despite these issues, patron-driven subject access is a worthy goal for libraries to work towards. Even by implementing simple tagging options in our OPACs and discovery layers, we show an effort to include patrons in the metadata process.

As we move more towards library catalogs that use linked open data, spontaneous opportunities for PDSA arise. In a linked open data environment, different subject or community vocabularies could be combined, allowing for subject description to accommodate different disciplines or even different ways of thinking. For instance, a controlled vocabulary about race could have a term that a controlled vocabulary about anthropology conceptualizes in a different way. When we decenter the idea that for every concept there is one controlled term to describe it, we allow the play of seemingly opposite ways of thinking. And through this play and collision, “new and meaningful pathways to discovery and navigation” are created (Thorsen & Pattuelli, 2016, p. 2). A linked open data catalog allows libraries to complement, replace, or even reject the standards that have been decided for us and our patrons.

In order to create these varied subject vocabularies, subject librarians should do human subjects research with their faculty or patrons to populate the terms. Because linked open data is, as expected, free and open, the problem of localizing could be erased, as institutions across the world would have access to these terms and their meanings. If a library so chooses, they could have a dedicated vocabulary for their institution if going to the subject level is not realistic.

But even if a linked data catalog with shared vocabularies is not yet possible, the act of doing human subjects research and speaking directly to patrons to inform a patron-driven subject access is invaluable. I chose interviewing, and recommend it, as a methodology because of how personal it is and how it allows any data gathered to be placed within the context of a lived experience; indeed, the data exists only in this context. Interviewing allows the technical services librarian to target specific populations that might currently be “problematic” within our current modes of subject access, or they could use the methodology as a way to view subject access from an information-seeking behavior perspective and collaborate with public services librarians to make changes in our systems as needed.

If interviewing is not the appropriate methodology for your circumstances, other forms of human subjects research could be used to to replicate that experience, such as focus groups, surveys, and even research diaries. The method is not what is important. What is important is the move towards including patrons in our subject access decisions and processes, achieved through human subjects research.

Although patron-driven subject access is a possible tool to help improve equitable access to library materials, it is not a perfect solution. More human subjects research in the area of incorporating patron metadata and information seeking behaviors needs to be conducted in order to support this as a standard evidence-based practice. In this article, I have outlined one possible methodology so that fellow librarians have an example, but again, I stress that it is not the specific method that matters.

If librarians can make an effort to center the needs of our patrons in every area of our work, we can begin to heal our long history of wielding power through language in ways that have harmed both our patrons and our institutions.


Thank you to reviewers Emily Drabinski and Ian Beilin for their astute insights, comments, and edits, as well as publishing editor Annie Pho. I also extend thanks to my supervisor, Lorelei Rutledge, and my partner for their comments and support.


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6 Responses

  1. Violet Fox

    Lots of interesting ideas here, Jessica! I’m a little surprised not to see any discussion of how/why we’ve traditionally chosen the terms used as subject headings, literary warrant. Do you see any value in privileging the terminology used by authors (e.g., queer authors) in our vocabularies? Do you see patron-driven subject access as a replacement for or as a complement to literary warrant?

    1. Jessica L. Colbert

      Hi, Violet!

      Very interesting question. I think that the two methods can be complementary, especially on the national scale. However, my issue with literary warrant is who gets to decide what literature warrants the term. We can recall the fiasco surrounding the proposed change of “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants;” LoC stated that the literary warrant is legal language. Literary warrant causes these types of authority problems, as well as problems concerning similar concepts worded differently across disciplines.

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