Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Are We There Yet? toward a Workable Controlled Vocabulary for Music

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

Are We There Yet? toward a Workable Controlled Vocabulary for Music

Article excerpt


For many decades music librarians have struggled with the problems associated with providing subject access to musical works. Most U.S. libraries still use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to assign subject terms for music materials, even though studies have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of these headings as well as their relative lack of use by users, who now rely primarily on keyword searching to locate music. LCSH has frequently been criticized for its inadequacies, particularly the haphazard nature of its syndetic structure, its many inconsistencies, and its practice of inverting some terms while using others in direct order. Another fundamental issue has centered on "about-ness"--i.e., the topic of any given book, which LCSH has handled very well--versus "is-ness", or what any given musical work actually is--in RDA terms, its content.

Because of the criticisms of LCSH for music, members of the U.S. music library community have struggled over the years to rectify the subject-access problems associated with LCSH. This article provides a brief overview of the history of these various endeavors and describes the current work of the Music Library Association, which is presently collaborating with the Music Genre/Form Project Group of the Library of Congress to provide unified, a comprehensive genre-heading list, along with appropriate syndetic structures and encoding. (2) It is hoped that the work of this partnership will result in a thesaurus of genre and form terms that is both practical to apply and easy to use.

Early Efforts at Improving Access to Music

The road to a music thesaurus has included a number of initiatives throughout the years, each building on the work of previous groups and individuals. Shortly after MLA's founding in1931, music librarians began issuing "provisional lists" of subject heading terms for music based on the card catalogues at the Library of Congress. In 1933 the first of these lists was published, followed two years later by the updated Subject Headings for the Literature of Music, 3rd ed. (1935). Although these lists represented a good-faith effort by music librarians at addressing problems with retrieving music, there were complaints about their inadequacies. In a 1948 article in Notes, Helen E. Bush and David Judson Haykin maintained that music subject headings should focus on two fundamental concerns, the user's approach and the language of the heading. (3) The authors proposed, in essence, a standard vocabulary for music that would be organized in a hierarchical arrangement, with a thoroughly faceted, syndetically structured list of terms. These elements, as you can see, represent the foundation for a well-designed thesaurus. Despite the foresighted principles outlined by Bush and Haykin, it would be almost forty years before the music library community turned its attention to the development of a thesaurus in any systematic fashion.

The 1980s: Music Library Association Music Thesaurus Project Working Group

I suppose we can thank J. Paul Getty, the billionaire oilman, Anglophile, and avid collector of art and antiquities, for indirectly sparking early interest in creating a thesaurus of music terms by MLA members. In 1983 the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world's wealthiest art institution, assumed editorial directorship of the Art and Architecture Thesaurus, a project that had begun a few years earlier. The AAT then moved to Los Angeles, and is now maintained by the Getty Vocabulary Program, under the aegis of the Getty Research Institute at the magnificent Getty Center. Inspired by the success of the AAT (while envious of the project's substantial funding), MLA established a working group in 1985 to investigate the feasibility of a similar project for music. In its final report, published in a June 1989 article in Notes, the Music Thesaurus Project Working Group outlined the various concerns with existing subject access to music. …

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