The first section of this chapter reviews the longtime leadership role of the Library of Congress in developing and maintaining cataloging standards for physical resources. The chapter then looks at the implications of the new digital milieu for these traditional cataloging mechanisms. It closes with some observations on how the Library seems to be addressing these changes, arguing that it is not treating them as the strategic issue the committee believes them to be.


The Library of Congress has a well-earned reputation for its leading role in the development and administration of cataloging and associated standards. Before reviewing these standards efforts, it is worthwhile to answer briefly two questions: Why are standards important? What role have they played over the past century?4

Cataloging is arguably among the most expensive tasks in the library. Current estimates range from $50 to $110 for the creation of a single full cataloging record.5 What is responsible for this high cost? While some of the tasks of cataloging—for example, recording a title—are indeed mundane (in the majority of but not all cases), others are intellectually challenging and time consuming:

  • Subject analysis—The usability of library catalogs for finding resources “about” a particular subject depends greatly on the nontrivial task of understanding the content of a resource and tagging it with a controlled subject heading.6

  • Authority control—While the subject of assigning authorship may


The original goals of cataloging as expressed by Charles Cutter at the end of the nineteenth century were to enable readers to do the following: (1) to find all works by a particular author, (2) to find any work by title, (3) to find all editions of a work, and (4) to find all works on a subject. These goals were originally conceived of as applying to works held by a particular library.


Based on testimony to the committee and the personal knowledge of committee members. However, a “full” cataloging record is not generated for many materials; less thorough cataloging records will naturally cost less.


Any user of a library catalog, either in card or online form, is familiar with this subject tagging. For example, the book Avatars of the Word, by James J. O’Donnell, is tagged with the three subject headings Communication and technology—History; Written communication—History; and Cyberspace, which are elements of the Library of Congress subject headings (see <>). The advantages of this tagging are two-fold. A user of the library catalog can search for resources on the basis of the subject classifications, and once a resource is found, related resources (by subject classification) can be located.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement