How to choose subject terms for zines

by anchorarchivist...

The hardest field to fill out when cataloguing a zine is the Subjects field. This field is for keywords that describe the content of the zine you're cataloguing. Later on, the subject terms will help other people find the zine through searching or browsing in the catalogue. Here are some tips for choosing good subject terms.

Suggested steps to follow:

  1. Look through the zine to try to figure out what it's about. You don't need to read the whole thing (it usually takes too long), but you can read parts of it, like the introduction or the beginnings of articles. Also look at the table of contents if there is one or the titles of the articles.
  2. While you're looking through the zine, write down topics on a scrap piece of paper. Don't limit or edit yourself too much at this stage.
  3. Afterwards, look at your list of subjects. Are there some that can be put under 1 broader subject term? Are there some subjects the zine covers in more depth than others? You generally want to choose 4-6 terms, so look for ones you can eliminate for these reasons.
  4. Now look at the main topics you have chosen and think about whether those are the best words to use for those topics. Refer to some of the tips below for more guidance on this, but think about whether these are the most common words to use to indicate these topics and what words people will search for who are interested in this topic.
  5. Look up the words in the Zine Thesaurus and see what's suggested there. If you find your words there or words that closely represent the topics you've chosen, select those. If none of the words fit your topic, try combining more than one word. For example, if you have a zine about artists' biographies, you may be tempted to create a new subject term called “artist biographies” but instead you can use the existing subject terms “artists” and “biographies.” If that still doesn't work, choose your own words that are not on the list.

Some general rules

  1. Don't use acronyms. Instead write out all of the words and then put the acronym in brackets. For example, "Jewish Defense League (JDL)" and "sexually transmitted infections (STI)." The exception is when the acronym is a lot more well known than the words it stands for. For example, use "AIDS" instead of "acquired immune deficiency syndrome."
  2. Always use the plural form of a word unless the plural form doesn't really make sense. For example, bicycles, capitalism, car repair, childbirth, collectives, dandelions, fat acceptance are all correct.
  3. Try to use nouns instead of verbs or adjectives. However, sometimes you will need to use verbs and adjectives, like "bookbinding," "camping," and "queer."

How specific should I be?

Choose words that are balanced between general and specific. It's important to be general so that our list of subject terms does not become huge and unwieldy. Yet, you also want to make sure that people can find information about specific topics. It depends on the topic, though.

With some topics it's better to be specific. For example, we have a lot of zines in the zine library about feminism and women's issues, so only using a general terms like "feminism" or "women's issues" is often not helpful because that would describe a lot of different zines. Instead, you may want to use more specific terms like "women's health" or "body image."

With other topics that are not as common in zines, it's better to be more general. For example, there may be a zine about different types of marine animals. It's probably the only zine about sea cucumbers, so it would be better to use a general term like "animals" or "marine animals" or "sea creatures" rather than "sea cucumbers."

Sometimes you also need to be more general because people may never think of searching for a really specific term that a zine uses. For example, instead of "radical kids," you could use "children" and instead of "rope-making," you could use "rope."

Another time that it's better to be specific is when a word can mean different things in different contexts. For example, the word "organizing" can mean a lot of different things. Instead you can make it more specific by using a term like "political organizing" or "community organizing."

Think about how the word would look out of the context of the zine you're cataloguing. Imagine a user coming across the term in the catalogue, on its own. Does the term still mean what it means in the context of the zine? If not, you'll probably want to use a more specific term or leave the term out altogether.

How do I choose between different words that mean the same thing?

If there are different words you can use that mean the same thing, check the Zine Thesaurus or search in the catalogue to see if one word has already been chosen over another. It's important to consistently use the same word. For example, if some people use the word "bicycles" and other people use the word "bikes," someone who searches for "bicycles" is only going to find half of the zines in the library about bicycles.

Choose words that are most commonly used by the zine library's community. Sometimes this means choosing colloquial words over more formal expressions, as long as they're still descriptive enough. It can also mean using different words than what's used in the zine itself. For example, use “birth control” instead of “contraception.” Also try to use words that are culturally sensitive.

Do I need to include a subject term for every topic covered in the zine?

No! Some zines cover way too much to include a term for every topic, and some zines cover topics that people would never search for, like "Nazi love triangle" or "midwinter harvest."

It is okay to leave terms out and allow people to discover content serendipitously. If a zine covers a lot of subjects, try to choose general terms that describe a few specific subjects at once. Or if you know there are a lot of other zines in the library that cover alternative menstrual products or vegetarian cooking in depth and the zine you're cataloguing only has 1 page on the subject, leave out these subject terms and instead choose ones that are more unique to this zine or that the zine covers in more detail.

To have fewer subject terms overall in the catalogue, you can try combining terms to come up with something that describes the concept.

Resources for choosing subject terms

Zine Thesaurus
This is a list of all of the subject terms that have been used in the Anchor Archive catalogue so far, grouped by topic. If you look up a word, you will also see other words related to it and this can help you get ideas for subject terms to use. The Zine Thesaurus is available electronically in the catalogue and a printed copy is in the cataloguing folder in the Zine Library.

Try looking up a word here and see if Wikipedia uses the same word or a different word that means something similar. You don't necessarily need to use the same word as Wikipedia but it can still be useful to see what words Wikipedia users are using. Wikipedia can also be a good resource for defining terms you're uncertain about.

Salt Lake City Public Library Zine Catalogue
The Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) is the only zine library besides the Anchor Archive that is cataloguing their zines by subject. Other zine libraries only put their zines in one general subject category and do not attach multiple subject terms to each zine. The SLCPL has done this a little differently than the Anchor Archive, though, by not having cataloguers assign subject terms to zines but rather allowing all users to tag the zines with subject terms. This means that the SLCPL catalogue is less controlled and they may have multiple words for the same topic, which is something the Anchor Archive tries to avoid. Still, the SLCPL catalogue is a good resource for seeing what terms other zine libraries and zine readers are using.