ScOT in SCIS - more of the same … or different?


Six months have passed since cataloguers began adding terms from Schools Online Thesaurus (ScOT) to some records in the SCIS database. Rachel Salmond takes a more detailed look at what the change means for information seekers.

In our last issue, we alerted you to the changed appearance of records in SCIS OPAC; now that you have got used to seeing these records, some more background to the change is called for.

Explaining the differences between ScOT and SCIS Subject Headings is a good place to start. Thesauruses get much chummier names than lists of subject headings do. There is something a little cuddly about ATED('a ted') and ScOT sounds friendly enough, thanks to the forethought of the New South Wales SCIS cataloguing agency staff who came up with the name and its approachable acronym.

But there are, of course, other differences of much greater significance to their use in resource discovery systems. Lists of subject headings have a long history, almost entirely within the context of library catalogues. SCIS Subject Headings was developed to help provide subject access in the library catalogues of primary and secondary schools. It has been around since 1983 when the pilot edition was issued. The two sources that were consulted in developing it, Library of Congress Subject Headings and Sears List of Subject Headings, go back much further - to 1898 and 1923 respectively.

Thesauruses are relatively new beasts in subject retrieval. Their pedigree goes back to the late 1960s. They were developed to manage subject access in abstracting and indexing databases, which took a new approach to subject retrieval, known as post-coordinate indexing. More recently there has been a steady expansion in the use of thesauruses in managing electronic information to make sure it is discoverable in a wide range of systems - intranets, extranets, portals, content management systems, learning management systems and the like.

Building ScOT
ScOT is, true to its full title, a thesaurus. It has a structure and a form based on the international standards, Guidelines for the construction, format and management of monolingual thesauri (Z39.19-2003) and Documentation - Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri (ISO2788-1986). It has been developed since 2002 to describe the subject coverage of the Australasian primary and secondary education curriculums. Many people involved in providing services to Australian and New Zealand schools have been engaged in the process of building ScOT initially and in advising on its continuing growth.

The terminology of each of the key learning areas in Australian curriculums (Mathematics and numeracy; Science; Literacy, language and literature; Arts and technology; Studies of Australia; Studies of society and environment) was identified in the initial 'builds' of ScOT. This means that the terms chosen for ScOT should equate with the language that is used in school curriculums. Any variation in language used across different states' curriculums is covered by ScOT's reference structure.

The builders arranged the terms in a hierarchy and carefully mapped the relationships among the terms. For example, 'Concentric circles' is a narrower term (NT) of 'Circles', which is an NT of 'Shapes (Geometry)', in turn an NT of 'Geometric concepts', which is an NT of 'Mathematical concepts', an NT of 'Mathematics'. Turned up the other way, the hierarchical connection between 'Mathematics' and 'Concentric circles' looks like this:

    NT Mathematical concepts
        NT Geometric concepts
            NT Shapes (Geometry)
                NT Circles
                    NT Concentric circles

Compared with the approach taken in the development of lists of subject headings, this is rather more of a top-down approach to identifying the word stock. By comparison, the expansion and revision of SCIS Subject Headings is guided by the principle of literary warrant, which means that terms are added and revised as they emerge from the subject content of materials catalogued for the SCIS database.

This is best explained by a hypothetical example. A new children's story about street racing is sent to a SCIS agency to be catalogued. There is no term for this topic in SCIS Subject Headings, so it is given the heading 'Motor car racing'. However, after a while a number of other works are received on street racing so the term is proposed and accepted as a new SCIS Subject Heading. Through a set of references the new heading is embedded in a relationship with existing subject headings. Its presence in the list is more important than its presentation in a strict hierarchy of concepts.

Using ScOT
ScOT terms look quite different from SCIS subject headings in SCIS OPAC records. Take the subjects given in this catalogue record for a DVD:

Terror tech [videorecording]: civilian / produced and written by Douglas Cohen ; director Donna E. Lusitana.
[United States] : A&E Television Networks, 2003.
Summary: Find out what technology can do to protect you, and how you can use technology to protect yourself.
Subject Headings:
Technology - Safety measures. scisshl
Terrorism - Safety measures. scisshl
Crimes against public safety. scisshl
Terrorism. scot
Technology. scot
National security. scot
Safety. scot

You'll notice that the headings with 'scisshl' after them (the SCIS subject headings) each capture more than one concept. The first links 'technology' and 'safety'. The second links 'terrorism' and 'safety'. The third has three components - 'crimes', 'safety' and 'public'. This joining together, or pre-coordination, of indexing terms was common practice in card catalogues in libraries. This practice, also known as subdivision practice, was carried across to automated library catalogues. It allows for the display of the browsable lists of subject headings that follow subject searches in most library management systems. For example, a search for the subject 'terrorism' might bring up a list of subject headings like this one:

Terrorism - Drama
Terrorism - History - Sources
Terrorism - Psychology
Terrorism - Safety measures

Look now at the four terms with 'scot' after them. Each of these is a concept entered as a separate term selected from ScOT. There is no provision for combining concepts in ScOT when terms are added to catalogue records. The expectation is that the terms will be combined by a resource discovery system after they have been entered into the search interface of that system by whoever searches for information in the system.

Improving information searching
The DVDgiven as an example above would be of use to someone who was looking for answers to the question, 'How can technology help us improve our safety in the face of terrorism?' Both sets of subject headings provide search terms that will help that person locate this DVD. The SCIS subject headings are what we are accustomed to seeing in library catalogues, and the design of library management systems has tended to support the way these subject headings are searched and displayed.

The ScOT set of terms has much more in common with the way that subject terms are presented in the metadata for electronic information in resource discovery systems other than library management systems, such as learning object repositories, portals and intranets. These systems are now lining up in schools, alongside the long-established library catalogue, as gateways to an ever-expanding range of resources to support teaching and learning. The presence of ScOT terms in SCIS records will support practical investigation of ways of making the information seekers' search experience of these various gateways as seamless and as simple as possible.

Rachel Salmond
SCIS Investment Project Manager

Australian Thesaurus of Education Descriptors 2003, Australian Council of Educational Research, available at

Salmond, Rachel 2006, 'New subject headings in SCIS OPAC', Connections 59, available at