To use or not to use – controlled vocabularies for searching online databases

There has been some interesting debate on the Linked-In CILIP Group about the above subject started by Rosemary Obat, from Kisumu, Kenya

Downside of using controlled vocabulary: 

  • Indexers take time to document items hence the most recent may not be indexed.
  • Search engines have improved so much that a controlled vocabulary is not so necessary now.

In between:

  • Time taken to assign indexing terms and keep thesaurus up to date – cost benefit analysis needed
  • May be overtaken by search engines for indexing but still useful as a behind the scenes map of terminology and to help automated tools add value to database content

Advantages of using controlled vocabularies:

  • They pick up different spellings of the same item under one term e.g. English/American and plurals.
  • Text searching doesn’t (generally) pick up mis-spellings
  • You have to be really inventive to think up all the possible text terms – example given of Hash tags on Twitter.
  • If the thesaurus is a good one e.g. for Medline, or Embase then using it as well as text searching is advisable if you want everything on a subject.
  • An example: if you want articles on History education rather than the history of Education a thesaurus will simplify the search.

Do we have a controlled vocabulary for this blog?  No, it would take too much time for such a small database of posts.

Jean Shaw, Phi


About jgreigshaw

I work with Partnerships in Health Information which promotes partnership between libraries in Africa and the UK with an emphasis in African leadership. I have visited Kenya, Mali, Uganda and Zambia though Phi has contacts in many more African countries.
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