Wikipedia-type disambiguation functionality in LCSH: a recommendation.

Author:CannCasciato, Daniel


If a patron speaks or types the word "Salsa", without further qualification, then a confident definition of the term cannot be achieved. Salsa might be a dance, a musical style, or sauce of Spanish, Italian or Latin American origin. In other words, without some clarification, one is left with ambiguity. The process of clarification is generally called disambiguation. In the work of cataloging, especially subject analysis, disambiguation plays a prominent role in the establishment of terms in the Library of Congress Subject Headings authority file (LCSH).

Disambiguation by the use of qualifiers or other modifications is commonly used when a term can have multiple senses: the salsa example is one type. In LCSH there are three headings:

Salsa (Dance)

Salsa (Music)

Salsas (Cooking); this has a see reference from of Salsa (Cooking)

Additionally, the reason many LCSH terms have qualifiers (e.g.: Ground reaction force (Biomechanics)) is to clarify the context for the term and to disambiguate (clarify in context) its meaning. In the example given, a ground reaction force might be some type of Special Forces military group. That there is no existing heading for such a group or practice at this time does not eliminate the need for the qualifier; it is added just the same. (This practice is covered specifically in the Subject Heading Manual instruction sheet H357.)

However, neither of these examples achieves what a utilization of a clearer disambiguation practice would. The purpose of this paper is to recommend that when RDA tackles subject access, it institute a practice of providing Wikipedia-type disambiguation see-references of all ambiguous terms, rather than the somewhat inconsistent or non-existent practices currently in evidence in LCSH. Further, I propose that it is already possible for LCSH policies to be changed to implement such a practice and that such a change happen. Using Salsa again as the example, a Wikipedia-type disambiguation practice would make a reference presentation to our patrons of:


1 [right arrow] See Salsa (Dance)

2 [right arrow] See Salsa (Music)

3 [right arrow] See Salsas (Cooking)

at the top of a results page to a search query. Enabling and supporting such a presentation of choices and guidance to our patrons assists them, and supports our traditional and our new cataloging objectives.


Cataloging's objectives have remained steady more or less since Cutter first described them. Resource description and access (RDA) carries them through in some manner. (Cf. RDA 0.2.)

To paraphrase Cutter's Objects, the catalog's purpose is:

To enable a person to find a book of which the subject is known ... To show what the library has on a given subject, and ... To assist in the choice of a book as to its character (literary or topical) To paraphrase from RDA's purpose and scope:

RDA provides a set of guidelines and instructions on formulating dat to support resource discovery. The data created using RDA to describe a resource are designed to assist users performing the following tasks: find--i.e., to find resources that correspond to the user's stated search criteria (0.0) ... The data should enable the user to: find resources that correspond to the user's stated search criteria ... find all resources on a given subject ( ... The data should meet functional requirements for the support of user tasks in a cost-efficient manner. ( Very different language is used across the years, but the overall intent (perhaps mandate is a better word) is very clear: connect the patron with the information resources available based on the user's stated search criteria. When that stated criteria is vague, or demonstrates a lack of awareness of the vastness of resources potentially...

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