Descriptive & Subject Cataloging in a Library Media Program

Instructor: Emily Hamm

Emily has B.S. in elementary education and a M.S. in educational technology. She teaches full-time, works as an adjunct professor, and is a freelancer.

In this lesson, we will learn about cataloging, and outlines the difference between descriptive, and subject, cataloging in a school library media center. We will also discuss helpful tools to aid in the cataloging process.

The Borrowers

Imagine that your home was a library. Nearly every item you owned could be borrowed and returned. In order for the borrowers to know what materials were available, and for you, the lender, to know who had borrowed what and for how long, there would have to be an extremely organized system in place. Enter the cataloging system.


Cataloging is a series of procedures that generates and keeps information in an accessible database of library material including, books, journals, DVDs, CDs, etc. The purpose of cataloging is, just as the example implies, keeping track of, and creating a place to, search for material based upon title, author, ISBN, as well as themes, type, and so on.

Taking the introduction example a step further, let's pretend that a client wanted to borrow six serving spoons, ideally made of metal, but she would consider plastic or wood if the others are checked out. Instead of having to go to the kitchen drawer and, by hand, determine which spoons you had, and were available, you could call up your database of household items. As quick as a computer can run, you could inform the client you had three metal serving spoons available, but the others were checked out. Additionally, you could inform her that you do have three additional serving spoons, including wood and plastic, so it would up to her preference to determine what she wanted to check out.

Somewhere along the line, someone had to catalog the spoons, so they were available in the database. They would have needed to enter the fact:

  • the item is a spoon
  • the item is comparably large in size
  • the item is intended for serving
  • the item is made by a specific company
  • the item is kept in a certain drawer

Although few people, if anyone, is keeping a catalog of household items to this extent, this metaphor exhibits how necessary a current, accurate, and thorough catalog system is for materials owned by a library.

Descriptive versus Subject Cataloging

The words descriptive and subject give a hint to their difference. Descriptive catalogingis following a standard rule set to describe the title, author, publication data, physical style of the work, etc... and then placing this information in a bibliographic record. It describes what the work is, not what themes or subjects the work was written about. For example, I might ask a librarian for the book, not the movie, The Outsiders by SE Hinton. This would searchable based on the description.

Subject cataloging, however, is organizing for the bibliographic record by subject, or topic, covered in the material itself. I might ask the librarian for a coming-of-age novel where the gang rivalries come to a head, and the characters learn that injustice happens, no matter a person's socio-economic status. This time, I've asked for The Outsiders, but using subject cataloging.

There is a place for both descriptive and subject cataloging in a thriving library.


In the past, the librarian would serve as a cataloger, or one would be hired to create original entries, for a specific library. However, this led to inconsistencies because a cataloger might not have read, watched, or experienced every work in the library. Thus, especially in the area of subject cataloging, the material was organized differently and sometimes, inconsistently.

In the digital age, much of the descriptive and subject cataloging can be done by an outside source, and simply uploaded into the LMC's database.

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