Definition of "Form," "Genre," "Physical Characteristics"

Paper written for the Purpose of Discussion by the SAC Subcommitee on Form Data, January 1992

by Arlene G. Taylor

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Go to Appendix I

Go to Appendix II

Is the word "form" useful in this context? Are we going to try to separate "form," "genre," and "physical characteristics" as others have tried to do? That is, how many definitions do we need?

In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary the word "form" has fourteen definitions. Of these, only five seem to have something to do with what we are talking about here:

1a - the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its material

2 - the essential nature of a thing as distinguished from its matter, as a) idea, b) the component of a thing that determines its kind

3 - a) established method of expression or proceeding: procedure according to rule or rote,

b) a prescribed and set order of words: formula

9a - one of the different modes of existence, action, or manifestation of a particular thing or substance: kind 10 - a) (1) orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas): manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning); (2) a particular kind or instance of such arrangement

b) pattern, schema

c) the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art

d) a visible and measurable unit defined by a contour: a bounded surface or volume

In the library community the word "form" seems to have embraced at least the following concepts:
a) function or purpose (e.g., advertisements, questionnaires, documentaries)

b) physical characteristics (e.g., portraits, vellum bindings)

c) tangible object or physical format (e.g., maps, photographs)

d) intellectual genre (e.g., sermons, interviews, case studies, biographies)

e) physical genre (e.g., hymnals, manuscripts, animation, bookplates)

f) structure of internal data (e.g., statistics, directories, bibliographies)

g) viewpoint (e.g., Christian, feminist)

[I would bet that every person reading this will want, at this point, to argue with some of the example terms I chose for the above concepts, which illustrates one of the major problems we face.]

There have been several past attempts in library literature to define form:

Form subdivision may be defined as the extension of a subject heading based on the form or arrangement of the subject matter in the book. In other words, it represents what the book is rather than what it is about, the subject matter being expressed by the main heading. (Haykin, p. 27)

Such a group [of works that cover the whole range of a subject] would still embrace a variety of forms of presentation and arrangement which would make it necessary to break it up into smaller groups on that basis.... To this category of general works belong comprehensive works which present a particular approach, a particular type of data, a particular function or use.... (Haykin, p. 28)

Outer form is physical, as it were, the literary shape in which things are presented; inner form is subjective, the method by which a thing "is presented," or the "special standpoint" from which the thing is viewed. (Sayers, p. 82)

Some headings indicate the bibliographic form of a work rather than its subject content. Most of these are assigned to works not limited to any particular subject or to works on very broad subjects, e.g., Encyclopedias and dictionaries; Almanacs; Yearbooks; Devotional calendars. There are relatively few of these headings. The same headings are often assigned to works discussing the particular forms, e.g., a work about compiling almanacs. In these cases, no attempt is made to distinguish works in the forms from works about the forms. (Chan, p. 61)

Form subdivisions include those indicating the physical or bibliographical forms of works, such as-Bibliography; --Collected works; --Dictionaries; --Maps; .... Traditionally, certain subdivisions that indicate authors' approaches to their subjects are also considered to be form subdivisions, occasionally referred to as inner forms, e.g., --History; --Juvenile literature; --Study and teaching. (Chan, p. 78)

It represents what kind of book it is, rather than what it is about. (Wilson, Robinson, p. 37)

Form terms designate historically and functionally specific kinds of materials as distinguished by an examination of their physical character, subject of their intellectual content, or the order of information within them, for example, daybooks, diaries, directories, journals, memoranda, questionnaires, syllabi, or time sheets. (USMARC Format for Bibliographic Data, Genre/Form field)

Form is used rather broadly to encompass any recognized category of works characterized by a particular format or purpose. (Moving Image Materials. Genre Terms) [Examples from this list: Animation, Commercials, Documentaries and factual works, Game shows]

Perhaps, given the diversity of concepts covered by "form," the easiest way to define it would be to exclude everything that it is not. With the exception of the last two definitions, a common thread in the above definitions is that there are certain concepts that represent what a thing is about, and everything else is "form." This is not quite true, however, at least in LCSH practice. Reading through Lois Chan's Library of Congress Subject Headings: Principles of Structure and Policies for Application, we are reminded that proper names are sometimes used as subject headings or subdivisions, even though the work is not about them. For art works, for example, geographic names are given to indicate place of origin and permanent location; corporate names are given for institutions in which art works are permanently housed. Chronological subdivisions may also be used other than for works about the time period-time period sometimes indicates the publication date. An exclusionary definition, then, would have to read something like, "Everything that is left after one takes out what the item is about, all other proper names, and all other time periods." The problem with this is that many works are about something that we would ordinarily think of as "form" (e.g., works about reference works, works about paintings, etc.)

I believe that the statement first made by Haykin and repeated later by Chan-that form represents what the work is rather than what it is about-presents problems other than the omission of reference to names and dates. It could be argued, for example, that a piece of scientific research is science, rather than being about science, or a book of mathematical formulas is mathematics, rather than being about mathematics. Something is philosophy, or it is history, while other works could be about philosophy or history. Yet these are not terms that most of us would include in our librarian's concept of "form" (which may be different from the user's concept of "form"). Also, a problem with this definition is applying it to something that is many things, e.g., a microfilm copy of a book for children of reproductions of paintings of portraits. It is a microfilm. It is a book (actually, a representation of a book). It is reproductions. It is paintings (actually, a representation of representations of paintings). It is portraits. It is juvenile literature. And then there is the question of whether "style" and "movement" in music and art are covered by either "about" or "is." Wouldn't objects given such terms as headings actually be representations of the results of style or movement?

Wilson and Robinson suggest that we should "...substitute 'kind' or 'genre' for 'form'...." (Wilson, Robinson, p. 38) The Webster's Dictionary definition of "genre" has only two definitions:

1: kind, sort 2: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content <the movie won international acclaim as a masterpiece of the suspense [genre] ...> ; esp.: painting that depicts scenes or events from everyday life usu. realistically

There should be less room for ambiguity here, but the published definitions in the library literature seem to vary just as much as those for "form":

Many headings indicate the artistic or literary genre of the work. They are used extensively in three fields in particular: literature, art, and music. In these fields, the forms of the works are considered of greater importance than their subject content. Examples of this type of heading are: Painting, Dutch; Short stories; Suites (Wind ensemble) (Chan, p. 61)

Genre terms for textual materials designate specific kinds of materials distinguished by the style or technique of their intellectual contents, for example, biographies, catechisms, essays, hymns, or reviews.... In the context of graphic materials, genre headings denote categories of material distinguished by vantage point, intended purpose, characteristics of the creator, publication status, or method of representation. (USMARC Format for Bibliographic Data, Genre/Form field)

Genre may be defined as a recognized category of works (not their physical manifestations) characterized by a particular form, purpose or content. (Genre Terms: A Thesaurus for Use in Rare Book and Special Collections Cataloguing) [Examples from this list: Alphabet books, Cartoons, Expurgated works, Miracle plays, Missals]

Genre headings denote distinctive categories of material: an established class of pictorial types (CARTOONS), a vantage point or method of projection (BIRD'S EYE VIEWS) ... intended purpose (ADVERTISEMENTS; COMPETITION DRAWINGS) ... characteristics of an image's creator (STUDENT WORKS) or a publication status or occasion (CENSORED WORKS; NEW YEAR CARDS). Others imply a subject but also designate a method of representation (ABSTRACT WORKS; LANDSCAPES). Terms denoting artistic movements and styles are not included in this definition of genre. (Descriptive Terms for Graphic Materials, as quoted in Dooley, Zinkham)

Genre is used rather narrowly to encompass any recognized category of fictional works which is characterized by recognizable conventions, i.e., a group of works all of which tend to explore the same themes and use the same plot formulae, character-types and icons. (Moving Image Materials: Genre Terms) [Examples from this list: Gangster drama, Horror drama, Mysteries, Westerns]

Different fields were proposed for genre and publishing/physical aspects, because genre was perceived as an intellectual feature closely related to subject headings, which are part of the 6XX block of fields. The general added entry range of 7XX was considered more appropriate for the physical characteristic headings, because such features as imposition errors and autographs are completely unrelated to a work's subject content and do not necessarily apply to all copies of a work. (Zinkham, Cloud, Mayo, p. 310)

The idea that there are terms that are completely unrelated to a work's subject content and are therefore inappropriate for the 6XX block of fields is an interesting one. Could not this be said of some of the LCSH terms that regularly go into the 650 field (e.g., Forgeries, Gift books, Thumb Bibles)?

The 755 field referred to is for "Physical Characteristics Access." The dictionary defines only the word "physical," not the two word combination:

1 a: having material existence : perceptible esp. through the senses and subject to the laws of nature <everything physical is measurable by weight, motion, and resistance ...> b: of or relating to material things. 2 a: of or relating to natural science b: (1): of or relating to physics (2): characterized or produced by the forces and operations of physics 3 a: of or relating to the body b: concerned or preoccupied with the body and its needs : Carnal syn see bodily, material

Definitions of "physical characteristics" in the library literature have to do with defining the concept for the 755 field:

Physical characteristics name media, production processes, techniques, materials, and features identified by examining the physical object. Examples include lithographs, daguerreotypes, vellum, forgeries, watermarks, and autographs. Unlike form and genre, physical feature terms often refer to only a part of an item and may be specific to a single copy of a work, as in the case of armorial bindings. (Zinkham, Cloud, Mayo, p. 303)

Although the field's name as approved was "Physical Characteristics Access," its use in some special collections reflects its rare book origins, in which physical was understood broadly to denote attributes of a physical object and what can be determined by examining an object, for example, forgeries (printing evidence), autographs (provenance information), Fraktur (typographic information), and engravings (illustration information). Most archivists consider such terms to describe a form of material and, therefore, to be more appropriate to the genre/form field." (Zinkham, Cloud, Mayo, p. 310)

Physical characteristic headings designate graphic materials distinguished by production processes or techniques (ALBUMEN PHOTOPRINTS), production stages or versions (PROOFS; REPRODUCTIONS), instrument employed (PINHOLE CAMERA PHOTOGRAPHS; AIRBRUSH WORKS), markings (WATERMARKS), shape and size (SCROLLS; MINIATURE WORKS), and other physical aspects of graphic materials. (Descriptive Terms for Graphic Materials, as quoted in Dooley, Zinkham)

In addition to definitions, the policies of the Library of Congress in applying LCSH should tell us something about how "form" is viewed. Attached as an appendix to this document is a synthesis of statements regarding "form" from Lois Mai Chan's Library of Congress Subject Headings: Principles of Structure and Policies for Application, Unannotated version, 1990. Perusal of these "principles" and "policies" leads to identification of some of the difficulties. The same term in subfield "a" of the 650 field sometimes can be what the work is about and sometimes can be what form it is in. The same can be true of a term in subfield "x" of the 650 field. Also, there are a number of exceptions to rules about providing for form: only certain types of reference works are given form headings in addition to topical headings; only minor forms of general serial publications are given form headings; except for general maps and atlases, cartographic materials are assigned form headings; in exception to the general practice, syntax and/or terminology distinguish between works of literature and those about the literature; individual works in major literary forms are not assigned form headings, as are other literary works. Another problem is that it is unclear whether "style" in art and music is considered to be "form" or "topic."

I had hoped that bringing together existing definitions and principles/policies would help me focus on what we need to do, but it only presented me with more questions. Are we trying to define "form" in order to fit it into the pattern of "-topic-place-time-form", (which is what triggered the formation of this subcommittee)? Or do we want to define it in order to allow identification of examples of the "form," works about the "form," an representations of examples of the "form"? Or are we trying to distinguish the kinds of terms that should be subject subdivisions vs. those that should be "main" headings? Can we really use the same word [i.e., "form"] (and thus one definition) to deal with the multiplicity of media and also the concept of different kinds of textual representations? Is one of our major problems that we can't distinguish between "topic" and "form" in subfield "a" or subfield "x" of the 650 field?

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