Using Subject Headings in Anime/Manga Research

How does someone go about locating scholarly publications (books, book chapters, journal articles) on topics related to Japanese animation and Japanese comics? Plugging keywords into Google or Bing, the specialized Google Scholar and Bing Academic Search, or scholarly database such as Academic OneFile, Academic Search Premier, or the Film & Television Literature Index can be a good first step. So, they may be good places either to begin the research – without any intention of wading through all of the thousands of results that a simple keyword search will return, or to search for materials that fit very specific criteria such such an an article published in a peer-reviewed journal that, in its own title, uses the title of a particular anime or manga. It is also absolutely important to remember that these kinds of research tools are not always able to search the actual full texts of the publications that they cover, so just because some publications do not come up in either very broad or very specialized searches, it does not mean that these publications do not exist at all.

So, what kinds of advanced search techniques can a researcher use? One that I emphasize – and rely on myself – is to think beyond keywords, and to understand the idea of “subject headings”.

At their very basic, and without going too deep into library/information science theory and practice, subject headings serve to represent, in a common and standardized way, the “aboutness” of a document or other information-carrying object. Or, in simple terms, subject headings provide an immediate way for an information user to see the subjects that a particular book covers. This, then, means that the user is also able to access all other books in a collection that share that subject. And, what do subject headings mean in practice?

Searching simply for the word ‘anime’ in an online catalog (for this example, that of the Indiana University library system) returns more than 64,000 results – again, a fairly meaningless number.

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Adjusting it so ‘anime’ appears as the title of a particular resource is better – now we are down to a bit under 20,000 – but that’s still not really meaningful. What happens if we search for ‘anime’ as the subject? What happens is 32,000 results  – also not helpful.

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But, there is a difference between searching by words that appear in list of subjects, and searching by subject headings. A full subject heading is composed of several parts, and the proper subject heading for resources about anime is ‘animated films – Japan’. And this can be narrowed even further to ‘animated films – Japan – history and criticism’. The first search returns 136 books (out of a total of 269 items; the majority of the balance are actual Japanese animated films), while the second retrieves 71 books – and at this point, we can be confident that this result represents again, if not the entire universe of published material on anime/manga, then a significant percentage of it. Using the related subject headings for ‘animated television programs – Japan’, ‘animated television programs – Japan – history and criticism’ produces similar results. And, the process of using subject headings for searching for books about manga is conceptually similar as well, but does have one nuance – the subject heading ‘Comic books, strips, etc. – Japan’ is ambiguous, and covers both books about Japanese comics – and actual manga. In this context, expanding it to ‘Comic books, strips, etc. – Japan – history and criticism’ is more appropriate.

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What are some of the advantages of using a subject search over searching by keyword or title? The most immediate one, beyond simply using this kind of search to narrow the results, is that it will retrieve items where particular words do not actually occur in the title – as with, for example, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Japanese Animation: East Asian Perspectives, as well as a number of books in Japanese and other languages. In addition, subject headings are “universal” – and can be used to search the catalog of any library system. And the concept of subject headings can be carried over to article databases as well – this is particularly important because, while with books, the words ‘anime’ and ‘manga’ do almost always actually apply to Japanese animation and Japanese comics, in these same words can be used in other, completely unrelated meanings – and are likely to occur in the titles of articles about these.

Of course, subject headings are still only one type of tool that a researcher can draw on. But, they are a tool that any skilled researcher – or anyone who seeks to become a skilled researcher – would be very well advised to learn how to use effectively, and to keep in mind!

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2 thoughts on “Using Subject Headings in Anime/Manga Research

  1. That is a useful hint. I’d only add the caveat that in most catalogues and databases, the subject heading coverage is less than complete: subject headings are still assigned manually, so often there are some (usually older) resources that are missing subject headings (or with obsolete forms of subject headings). Thus, searching by subject heading yields higher precision at the expense of completeness.

    • Martin,

      Thank you very much for bringing this up. And, yes, I absolutely agree with your caveat. The mechanics, politics, and even ideology of subject headings is a major area of study in library/information science – doing into that stuff would take like its own separate blog!

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