Side by Side: The Use of Multiple Subject Languages in Capturing Shifting Contexts around Historical Collections

Brian Dobreski, Jian Qin, Melissa Resnick


Archival representations strive to convey the original context around historical collections, but perspectives on certain topics and materials may change over time. Such shifting perspectives pose problems for providing appropriate subject access without obscuring contexts or misrepresenting resources in their broader cultural settings. This study seeks to examine these problems through an investigation of historical materials associated with American sideshows, public opinions on which changed drastically from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Using as a case the Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs, an archival collection of digitized images of sideshow performers, we explored a variety of systems of subject representation for major concepts and terms relevant to sideshow performers and activities. Combining keyword extraction and descriptive analysis of current collection metadata (e.g., LCSH) with comparisons to other popular systems of subject representation, we found complex and conflicting perspectives on concepts such as dwarfism, hypertrichosis, and obesity. Results revealed that current LCSH-based subject metadata for these materials tends to reduce historical and demographic context around performers and highlight contemporary medical perspectives. At the same time, original language used in these images is now often seen as demeaning, exploitative, and offensive. Furthermore, neither of these perspectives may match with self-identifying language used in contemporary society. Taken together, however, these sets of terminologies and their relationships may provide a more robust representation of changing perceptions and terminologies over time. Findings from this study reveal the potentials of utilizing a faceted approach and multiple subject languages together to further clarify and contextualize archival collections.

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