Descriptive cataloging

"Descriptive cataloging" is a well-established concept in the tradition of library cataloging in which a distinction is made between descriptive cataloging and subject cataloging, each applying a set of standards, different qualifications and often also different kinds of professionals. In the tradition of documentation and information science (e.g., by commercial bibliographical databases) the concept document representation (also as verb: document representing) have mostly been used to cover both "descriptive" and "subject" representation.


Among the definitions found of "descriptive cataloging" are:




Why is descriptive cataloging called "descriptive". What is the meaning of the word "descriptive/description" and what is it opposed to?


May be the term is badly motivated? Svenonius (1999, p. 3), for example, writes: "Wilson contributes valuably to the literature on the conceptual foundation of―whatever we should be calling that activity that now goes by the name of descriptive cataloging".


"A description is the result of a process (to describe). It is a kind of representation of something. Like all other representations is a description always a function of both the object described and the subject doing the description. This is well understood in the humanities where representations are mostly understood in the cultural contexts. It is not, however, well understood in the positivist traditions. A description differs from other kinds of representations such as interpretations and evaluations. A descriptions is often believed to be more objective, to be just an enumeration of the quantitative and qualitative parameters which define something. In the empiricist philosophy is this understood as the sum of the objects sensory qualities: that is, what something looks like, sounds like, feels like. In some theories is it supposed that it is possible to provide a complete description, i.e. an enumeration of all the properties that defines a thing. In the former mentioned humanist traditions this assumption is questioned and the properties selected in a given description is selected on the basis of some subjective conditions or pre-understandings." (Wikipedia, February 12, 2006).



Hagler (1999, p. 1999): "In the field of descriptive bibliography, as opposed to library cataloguing, where it is an axiom that there are hardly any fixed rules, the characteristics of the material being dealt with determine the descriptive practices adopted, and consistency implies only the ad hoc application of an experienced judgment. One who works in that field would not applaud the imposition of AACR2, or any particular set of rules, as a single standard required in the name of consistency".


Luk (1996) is an empirical study from the users' point of view concerning what bibliographical data elements to display in OPAC's and how to display them, which suggests a modification of the AACR2.







Bowman, J. H. (2006). The development of description in, cataloguing prior to ISBD. ASLIB Proceedings, 58(1-2), 34-48.


Coyle, Karen & Hillman, Diana (2007). Resource Description and Access (RDA). Cataloging Rules for the 20th Century. D-Lib Magazine, 13(1/2). Retrieved from:


Hagler, R. (1999). The consequences of integration. IN: Svenonius, E. (Ed.). The conceptual foundations of descriptive cataloging. San Diego: Academic Press, Inc. (Pp. 197-218).


Luk, A. T. (1996). Evaluating Bibliographic Displays from the Users’ Point of View: A Focus Group Study. Faculty of Information Studies,  the University of Toronto. (Master thesis).


Office of Library Development, the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. (2004). Trustees' Glossary.


Quality Books, Inc. (2005). PCIP Glossary. Available at:


Sibley, B. P. (1998). Cataloging A-Z. Glossary.


Svenonius, E. (Ed.). (1999). The conceptual foundations of descriptive cataloging. San Diego: Academic Press, Inc.

Vizine-Goetz, D., Weibel, S., & Oskins, W. (1990). Automating descriptive cataloging. In R. Aluri & D.E. Riggs (Eds.), Expert systems in libraries (pp. 123-134). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Weibel, S., Oskins, M., & Vizine-Goetz, D. (1989). Automated title page cataloging: A feasibility study. Information Processing & Management , 25, 187-203.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2006). Description.

[Defined by Birger Hjørland, February 2006].



See also: AACR2 (Core Concepts in LIS); Common Communication Format;  Document Description (Core Concepts in LIS); FRBR (Functional requirements for bibliographical records).





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 18-08-2007