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The Over-Explainer: A Bit About My MeSH-Themed Piece in the LSW Zine

December 14, 2009
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I had a piece in the most recent edition of the Library Society of the World[1] zine[2] which addressed a particular MeSH term I found problematic. This post will probably take far too many words to express what I want to get across about that piece and the social issues of controlled vocabularies, so I’m going to relegate some (just some, not all) of the over-explanation to footnotes. Really, I should probably just post the piece and take up the discussion in the comments. Sigh.

Briefly, for the non-librarians and non-medical librarians, MeSH is a controlled vocabulary[3] used in PubMed, the major database for finding medical literature citations. If you need to find articles on a particular medical topic, you often start with PubMed, and if you’re lucky some librarian has taught you to use MeSH terms to build your search, which tell you how a particular issue is talked about and labeled. If there is more than one way to refer to a concept (like “heart attack” vs. “myocardial infarction”), MeSH lets you know which is the right term to use to get the best search results, because that’s the term that has been applied (like a tag) to relevant article citations in that database.

The terms aren’t necessarily completely neutral, though. They’re chosen and placed in hierarchies by people, who have their own beliefs and biases. They can reflect what we believe or assume is positive or negative, what has more or less worth, and in general ideas that are more cultural than medical. I’ve written before about what I believed was an inequity in the terminology of sexuality, one privileging heterosexual sex and disappearing other forms of sexual activity. I’ve also written about the lack of a term for doulas or doula care, the lack of appropriate terminology (now added) for menstrual tampons even years after TSS first surfaced, and other issues.

Sketch of input of "monsters" term into MeSH search box. Followed by drawing of traditional "monsters" including a minotaur, Loch Ness monster, giant octopus, and Cerberus the three-headed dog. Followed by actual "scope note" or definition, "a fetus or infant with such pronounced developmental anomalies as to be grotesque and usually nonviable."So. In deciding to submit something to the LSW zine, I chose to create a piece related to one specific problematic term, Monsters. Yes, Monsters. The piece below provides the current definition[4]. Let’s just say I was more than a little surprised to see such a term in MeSH and in use in that way, and I wanted to express that via the LSW piece. The zine came out a month or so ago, and I haven’t really gotten any feedback/comments on it – not that I thought to include contact info along with it, or should really assume many folks know what MeSH is and are as weirdly interested in controlled vocabularies as a cultural product, although some are. Ahem. Anyway.

Cut to this week, when the list of new, deleted, and changed descriptors for the 2010 version of MeSH were released. “Monsters” has been changed, to “Abnormalities, Severe Teratoid,” defined as “marked developmental anomalies of a fetus or infant.” Yay.

See, that was way too much text for a drawing, an explanation/update, and a “yay.” Hmph.

Footnotes:
[1]The Library Society of the World is a loose affiliation of libraryland types. There is a website, and a wiki, and a Meebo room, and a Vimeo channel, and… well, I like to interact with the LSW via FriendFeed, where my medlib brain can be fertilized with non-medlib ideas.

[2]Yes, a zine, which is printed on paper and comes in the actual, physical mail. Issue 1 was called “Codslap!;” issue 2 is “It Looks Like Someone Set Off a Librarian Bomb in Here.” Steve Lawson coordinates that business, and you can order a copy from him.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controlled_vocabulary

[4] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/cgi/mesh/2009/MB_cgi?mode=&term=Monsters&field=entry

8 Comments leave one →
  1. bevedog permalink
    December 14, 2009 8:37 am

    As the zine editor, I’m glad you wrote this. I think I had a pretty good idea what you were up to in that cartoon, but it’s also interesting to have it spelled out (and good to know that the term is being removed or deprecated or whatever).

    I have a bit of interest in how people have responded to “monsters” and other oddities in history. The book Wonders and the Order of Nature has sat on my shelf unread for maybe 15 years, but perhaps I’ll finally read the chapter “Monsters: A Case Study” now.

    • December 14, 2009 9:46 am

      Thanks, Steve, and let me know how you like that book.

  2. December 14, 2009 9:46 am

    Yes, thanks for the added explanation!

    • December 14, 2009 9:47 am

      Also, my friend Jenna does a sort of LCSH watch on her blog, if you are into following commentary on controlled vocabularies.🙂

    • December 14, 2009 6:32 pm

      Cool, thanks for telling me about that!

  3. A'Llyn permalink
    December 15, 2009 8:29 pm

    I missed the zine, but that’s cool!

    I like the drawing, too.🙂

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