Contemplating Cataloging: Tuttle’s “Aphasia of Modern Subject Access”


Tuttle (2012) describes two of the major cataloging standards, Library of Congress (LC) Classifications (LCC) and LOC Subject Headings (LCSH), as languages, and says that “each language, despite its unique methods, shares the same goal: to distill the aboutness of an item” (p. 264). His article asks, why use both, if LCC and LCSH are supposedly meant to accomplish the same cataloging goal?

The article is divided into two parts. The first provides a historical overview of how we arrived at the two possibly redundant systems of classification. The LOC took Cutter’s dictionary catalog and further developed it, creating controlled vocabularies, at the end of the 19th century (Tuttle, 2012). I previously had no idea it was that long ago. It might explain some of the difficulty in modernizing the systems: They are so old, and much has changed since then.

The second part of the article imagines what the future of cataloging might look like. The author explores both the benefits and the issues inherent in the two systems. He does not necessarily believe that LCC and LCSH are redundant, just because they both appear to accomplish the same goal, but he explores whether or not it might be true, and what it might mean.

Aphasia is used in this article primarily to mean “language disturbance” (p. 270). In the dictionary, aphasia is defined as: “Loss of speech, partial or total, or loss of power to understand written or spoken language, as a result of disorder of the cerebral speech centres” (Oxford University Press, 2018). Tuttle uses the word aphasia because what he is ultimately interested in is language; he uses linguistic theory to examine the classification and subject systems in cataloging. He draws on linguistic scholar Roman Jakobson, who described the function of language as twofold: selecting and combining. Tuttle posits that LCSH performs the selection function of language, while LCC performs the combination function (so perhaps, these two systems are not redundant, after all). If this comparison is true, or accurate, then LCC and LCSH are two halves of one whole, and each is a requisite of its other. If LCC and LCSH each do only half the work of language, that means that if they are used separately, one without the other, then they become aphasic, because they need each other to function properly. This reasoning leads Tuttle to conclude that catalogers use both LCC and LCSH to make the language of cataloging whole, complete, or legible.

Much of what I have observed in cataloging (to be fair, I only took one dedicated course) is preoccupied with selecting the most accurate language to describe an item, or to create its record; but what about considering this process from the user’s end? There is a possible disparity between the accurate description (subject heading, etc.) and what the user might actually use to search for the item. Tuttle goes into detail, describing aphasia on the part of the library user. He identifies ways in which users might experience this aphasia, by which he means, as previously mentioned, a language disturbance. He sees aphasia in this context as meaning that some users might be comfortable (or fluent) using one but not both functions of the cataloging “language” (Tuttle, 2012, p. 272). This seems like a helpful way to diagnose a problem, because if a librarian can identify how, where, and why a user might be having difficulty using the LCC and/or LCSH, then they can help them more effectively. I imagine that the LC’s policy of only selecting the most specific subject headings possible might create retrieval issues for users, many of whom might not be knowledgeable or familiar enough, as non-librarians, to know what to look for on their own. I suppose this is where the help of a proficient reference librarian would come in very handy. But, many users are intimidated, and prefer to search on their own.

This article suggests that LCC is primarily used so that library users can locate physical items within a library (or at least, historically, this was so). Tuttle says that LCC primarily indicates an action (such as the practice of biology), and then a topic within it. However, this creates a problem, because life is not so simple. Often, actions and topics cannot be so rigidly divided. Subject headings were therefore invented as a sort of “third dimension” (Tuttle, 2012, p. 266) that users could utilize to follow a topic or subject across the entire classification system.

An issue that affected the development of both LCC and LCSH is literal/physical shelving. That is one dimension of cataloging that perhaps is easy to forget when working from within a classroom, as we are, but would be very real working as a librarian in the field. I wonder, with the preponderance of digital material, whether this issue may become less pronounced as time goes on. It does not seem likely yet, as so far, many online systems (as the author points out) still require posting in only one category.

The reality is that life is too complex to be reduced to simple hierarchical structures, much less only one categorization. Our human brains are limited, and as such, so are our information systems. Tuttle acknowledges that his union of cataloging history and linguistic theory is only one hypothesis and concludes that the apparent redundancy of two systems (LCC and LCSH) is actually necessary to create a complete structure. My particular conclusion is that catalogers are tasked with the near-impossible goal of reducing all of life to a complex, multidimensional, yet singular language system, that is legible to all users, front and back end. It is a necessary, gargantuan task, and one that I do not envy!


Oxford University Press. (2018). "aphasia, n." OED Online. Retrieved from:

Tuttle, J. (2012). The aphasia of modern subject access. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 50(4), 263-275.

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