Mary Dykstra Gets Mad….Real Mad

In her article “LC Subject Headings Disguised as a Thesaurus,” Mary Dykstra makes the case that, although the Library of Congress has adopted thesaurus notation, the LCSH does not constitute an actual thesaurus. Several classmates have pointed out that they would never confuse the LSCH with a thesaurus, but I wonder if their criteria are actually valid. In fact, given the fact that the LSCH notation is identical to the standardized notation implemented for properly developed thesauri, one could easily grasp the implication that LCSH IS a thesaurus. Based on Dykstra’s arguments, it’s pretty obvious that LCSH does NOT constitute a valid thesaurus in either the strictest, governed sense or the looser interpretation of the general public. Dykstra’s argument, which is substantiated by Aitchison, Gilchrist, and Batty, is that a thesaurus deals with terms – not subject headings that are often compositions of terms. She used the example of the subject heading “television and children.” How do you get a narrower or broader term for something that includes two terms? It should also be noted that LCSH was never intended or developed as a thesaurus. Rather than going through the steps required to build a true thesaurus, the Library of Congress chose to adapt an idea to fit over an index that was already developed.

It’s probably a good idea to take a look at the other side of the coin, however, and see just where LoC gets off calling LCSH a thesaurus. David Batty says that “a well-developed thesaurus is based on a recognition of clusters of concepts that share common characteristics.” Get that? He said clusters of CONCEPTS. Based on just applying that one comment, it could be argued that LCSH is a thesaurus. Of course, that’s completely disregarding all the other components are required for a thesaurus, as well as conveniently forgetting about use of TERMS rather than subjects.

I think that Dykstra probably freaked out a little excessively, but I do see her point. If you’re going to dress something up like a duck and call it a duck, you better either make sure that thing is a duck or expect people to comment on the fact that it’s not a duck. And if you start stocking your duck pond with fake ducks and selling fake ducks and trying to convince your neighbors that those dogs dressed in duck costumes are ducks….just get used to the fact that people are going to call you a bunch of names.


Aitchison, J., and Gilchrist, A. (1987). Planning and design of thesauri. Vocabulary control. Specificity and compound terms. Structure: basic relationships and classification. In Thesaurus construction: a practical manual, 2nd ed (p. 4-10, 12-33, 34-60). London: Aslib.

Batty, David. “Thesaurus construction and maintenance: a survival kit.” Database 12. Februrary 1989. p. 461 – 468.

Dykstra, Mary. LC subject headings disguised as a thesaurus. Library Journal. Mar. 1, 1988. p. 42-46.


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