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Chapter 10. Principles of Controlled Vocabularies and Subject Analysis

Chapter Outline

  • Introduction

  • History of Subject Access in Library Catalogs

  • Subject Vocabularies

  • Cutter's Principles of Subject Cataloging

  • Syntax and Application

  • Subject Authority Control

  • General Methods of Subject Analysis

  • Assigning Subject Headings: General Guidelines

  • Subject Access in Metadata

Key Takeaways

Chapter 10 is an introduction to subject analysis and access. This chapter introduces you to foundational concepts, theories, and practices with a focus on controlled vocabularies, their characteristics, and their use in representing the topics of resources and retrieval by subjects. 


The intellectual content of an information resource is represented by a statement of what the content is about, in other words. The process of determining the aboutness is known as subject analysis. Providing access to a resource based on the aboutness or topic of the content is known as subject access.

Subjects & Classes

The aboutness can be expressed in natural language (summary of the topic) and translated into terminology, i.e., keywords, subject terms or headings, or notation representing a classification class i(e.g., class numbers). Natural language terms are called keywords, standardized terminologies are called controlled vocabularies.

Knowledge Organization Systems (KOS)

An all-inclusive term, knowledge organization systems (KOS) is used to refer to a wide variety of standards and tools developed to support the organization, management, and retrieval of knowledge and information. The KOS types range from lists of synonyms to subject headings, thesauri, taxonomies, classification schemes, and ontologies.


Most lists of subject terminologies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, FAST, and the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, are controlled vocabularies. Therefore, authority control also applies in the standardization of controlled vocabulary terms.


The combination of words and phrases to represent complex topics is called coordination. Precoordination occurs when the coordination of terms or phrases takes place during the development of the vocabulary, either existing in its terminology or by allowing the indexer to create combinations when representing the topics. Postcoordination occurs when single-concept terms exist in the vocabulary and are assigned by the cataloger when representing the topic(s) of a resource, and the combination of terms takes place at the point of retrieval.

Chapter References/Notes

  1. Pettee, J. (1947). Subject headings: The history and theory of the alphabetical subject approach to books. New York, NY: H. W. Wilson Company (p. 151).

  2. Cutter, C. A. (1953). Rules for a dictionary catalog (4th ed. rewritten). London, UK: The Library Associa- tion. (Original work published 1876)

  3. Cutter, 1953 [1876], p. 12.

  4. Cutter, 1953 [1876], p. 6.

  5. Cutter, 1953 [1876], p. 66.

  6. Taube, M. (1952, October). Specificity in subject headings and coordinate indexing. Library Trends, 1, 222. 

  7. Batty, D. (1998, November). Web—Wealth, weariness, or waste: Controlled vocabulary and thesauri in support of online information access. D-Lib Magazine, 4(11). Retrieved from

  8. Chan, L. M. (1991). Functions of a subject authority file. In K. M. Drabenstott (Ed.), Subject authorities in the online environment: Papers from a conference program held in San Francisco, June 29, 1987 (ALCTS Papers on Library Technical Services and Collections No. 1). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

  9. IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. (1998). Functional requirements for bibliographic records: Final report (UBCIM Publications, New Series Vol. 19). München, Germany: K. G. Saur. Retrieved from

  10. Patton, G. E. (2009). Functional requirements for authority data: A conceptual model (IFLA Series on Bibliographic Control Vol. 34). München, Germany: K. G. Saur. Retrieved from

  11. Zeng, M. L., Žumer, M., & Salaba, A. (Eds.). (2011). Functional requirements for subject authority data (FRSAD): A conceptual model (IFLA Series on Bibliographic Control Vol. 43). Berlin/München, Germany: De Gruyter Saur. Retrieved from

  12. Riva, P., LeBoeuf, P., & Žumer, M. (2017). IFLA Library reference model: A conceptual model for biblio- graphic information. Retrieved from


Additional Readings

Here, you will find readings specific to the contents of this chapter.

You may find more readings about similar topics on the Cataloging and Classification Web Resources page

Knowledge Organization Systems (KOS) and Ontologies
Standards and Tools
  • Cataloging Policy and Support Office, Library of Congress. (1984-). Subject headings manual. Washington, DC: Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress. Available (free PDFs) at

  • Subject Cataloging Division, Library of Congress. (1975-). Library of Congress subject headings. Washington, DC: Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress. Available in ClassificationWeb at

  • Subject Cataloging Division, Library of Congress. (1914 –1966). Subject headings used in the dictionary catalogs of the Library of Congress (1st ed.-7th ed.). Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

  • National Library of Medicine (U.S.). (2021). Medical subject headings. Bethesda, MD: U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from

  • Bristow, B. A. (Ed.), Hugger, M., Spires, K., & Fielder, C. (Assoc. eds.). (2022). Sears list of subject headings (23rd ed.). Ipswich, MA: H. W. Wilson Company.

  • OCLC Research. (1998-). FAST (Faceted Application of Subject Terminology). Retrieved from

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