BISAC Basics

Note: As part of a marketing campaign for my proposed classification textbook, I prepared this introduction to BISAC for cataloging students. The original plan was to give it out as a freebie at ALA in Las Vegas to promote the book. Sadly, neither Las Vegas nor the book happened. I am posting it here for the greater public good.


Confession: I love DDC. Before I started to research BISAC I wasn’t very impressed with it. Now I have a healthy respect for it. It’s a good scheme for what it does, but I’m afraid that many people who are promoting it are doing so for commercial purposes.

At the end of this section you will be asked to answer the key question: evaluate BISAC as a classification using the process in this chapter. [note: not included in this excerpt]  That’s what the professional should do.

General Background on BISAC

Ditch Dewey! Undo Dewey! Again and again you will read news reports about librarians who are replacing Dewey Decimal Classification in their collections, all the while making awful rhymes and puns as they do (do-ey!) it. At conferences anti-Dewey advocates will sometimes pitch their alternate systems. More often they will promote a system called BISAC. BISAC stands for “Book Industry Standards and Communications.” It is the subject category system used in bookstores. Because BISAC has become more mainstream in the past decade, you might someday work at a library that will debate whether to use it or not.

BISAC is a list of subject headings that are used to express the topical content of books. In a formal information science context, you would call them “descriptors.” There are over 3000 BISAC subject headings available, and they are arranged under fifty-one major headings. Only the major headings have scope notes and usage information.

The BISAC subject headings are hierarchical strings. Here is an example: PETS/Dogs/Breeds. PETS is the major heading, and it is the hierarchical relationship in the string that classifies the concept. The hierarchy is limited to two or three subdivisions below the major heading. PETS/Dogs/Breeds is the most specific level for Dogs. There are no subject headings for particular dog breeds.

Take a look at all the subject headings under the major heading PETS.

PET000000          PETS / General

PETS / Amphibians see Reptiles, Amphibians & Terrariums

PETS / Aquarium see Fish & Aquariums
PET002000          PETS / Birds
PET003000          PETS / Cats / General
PET003010          PETS / Cats / Breeds

PETS / Cooking for Pets see COOKING / Pet Food

PET004000          PETS / Dogs / General
PET004010           PETS / Dogs / Breeds
PET004020          PETS / Dogs / Training
PET010000          PETS / Essays & Narratives
PET005000          PETS / Fish & Aquariums
PET012000          PETS / Food & Nutrition *
PET006000          PETS / Horses
PET011000           PETS / Rabbits, Mice, Hamsters, Guinea Pigs, etc.
PET008000          PETS / Reference
PET009000          PETS / Reptiles, Amphibians & Terrariums

Here are some things to notice:
• The subject headings are arranged alphabetically under each major heading.[1]
• If a subject heading has subdivisions, there is always a heading ending with “/ General.” Therefore, you see PETS / Birds covering all books about birds, but PETS / Dogs / General for the books about dogs that are not about Breeds and Training.
• Each descriptor has a unique code number, but the code notation is not expressive.
• The code starts with three letters to represent the major heading followed by a six-digit number.
• The numbers of the codes are not related to the alphabetical order of the subject headings. However, they do express the hierarchical level of the descriptor. Compare the code for PETS / Dogs / General and PETS / Dogs / Breeds.
• An asterisk marks a newly-added subject heading.
• There are two kinds of cross-references. One kind leads you to another subject heading under the same major heading. Another kind sends you to a different major heading.

(The information above is from the’s subject headings faq. Accessed 1/8/14)

BISAC in Its Native Habitat

BISAC comes from the Book Industry Study Group’s Subject Codes Committee. The Committee updates BISAC every year, and you can view the current edition online at the BISG website. American and Canadian publishers assign the subject headings as part of a complete metadata record that is used to market the book.

As happens any living classification scheme, the annual update of the descriptors indicates that the scheme is getting more detailed and expanding. BISG guidelines ask publishers to go through the change list every year and update the categories to the most current. If you are using BISAC as a shelf arrangement tool, this is something you must monitor and respond to in order to keep your browsing categories up-to-date.

BISAC also offers “extensions” that target specific audiences. There are “Merchandising Themes” for groups of people, events, holidays and topics. Examples of Merchandising Themes are CULTURAL HERITAGE / Asian / Korean or EVENT / Back to School or HOLIDAY / St. Patrick’s Day or TOPICAL / Boy’s Interest. BISG has recently developed an extension for Regional Themes, and it is discussing a new extension for Common Core. Some of these extensions will have relevance for libraries, but currently only the regular subject headings are included in library catalog records.

Another example of BISAC’s growth is the committee’s development of  “Regional Themes” classification, which allows publishers to add a seven-digit hierarchical code to the record, allowing them to specify the location about which the work is written. The enumerated codes were only assigned to places which have “more than 100 titles” about them. So you will not find many codes in the seventh position, which represents borough/neighborhood/district. The only cities where they are used now are for parts of New York City or Los Angeles.

Example: = Beverly Hills. Los Angeles. California. Western & Pacific States. USA. [Zero is an undefined part of the higher level area. In this case, that’s the continent]. North America.

It may be interesting for you to learn how a major retailer like Amazon uses BISAC. Self-publishers of books on amazon are told to choose “up to 2 categories” from BISAC. In certain sub-categories (Romance, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Children’s, Teen & Young Adult, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Comics & Graphic Novels, Literature & Fiction, and Erotica), Amazon requires “search keywords” to be added. These are Amazon-specific descriptors.

For example, if you choose the BISAC subject heading FICTION/Romance/Paranormal/Witches & Wizards, you must supply at least one of the following keywords: witch, wizard, warlock, druid, shaman. Amazon also has some BISAC-like subject headings of its own. Romance/Sports is an example, and it also requires you to choose one of the following additional keywords: sport, hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball, football, olympics, climbing, lacrosse, nascar, surfing, boxing, martial arts, golf. In Amazon advanced search you can search for the keywords and add the BISAC subject heading from a drop-down list. This gives you additional power for genre fiction searches. To test it, I did an Amazon search and came up with over one hundred golf romances!

In the future you may see publishers using multiple subject classifications in their metadata records, because BISAC is only one of many available to them. Outside of North America, English-language publishers use a different classification called Book Industry Communication (BIC). There are also other national book industry schemes, and there is a new, multilingual, international subject classification called Thema that was released at the Frankfurt book fair in September 2013. Even though North American publishers will continue to use BISAC, it is important for you to remember that BISAC exists in a landscape of international marketing of books.

What to Expect from BISAC Metadata

BISG’s Metadata Committee gives publishers instructions about how to apply the subject headings in their manual, Product Metadata Best Practices. Everything in the human-crafted element comes from the publisher—an editor or a “marketing department associate.” If these people are following the guidelines in BISG’s best practices, here is what you can expect in accepting downstream subject headings from them.

There will be a “main subject.” Beyond that, BISG recommends “no more than three” and that number is confirmed by info from the large publisher Random House. (Andrea Bachofen Via Random House Random Notes) There are guidelines that encourage the most specific fit. Editors are warned not to add general headings as well as specific, and not to assign conflicting exclusive classifications. In particular, you cannot have a book carry both juvenile audience and non-juvenile headings. Publishers should map their in-house categories to BISAC, and most bookstores map their floor plans to BISAC on the other end. With this consistency in place, the headings may be used to identify category best-sellers.

You should remember that there is an absolutely unbridgeable divide between juvenile and adult subject headings in BISAC. As a classifier you must choose between one or the other, if comparable headings exist. You cannot add both of them. The strings and the codes are completely different. JNF015000 JUVENILE NONFICTION/Crafts & Hobbies should not be assigned with CRA043000 CRAFTS & HOBBIES/Crafts for Children or CRA023000/CRAFTS&HOBBIES/Origami.

There is a weird heading called “Non-classifiable.” Non-classifiable is used only for blank books, those decoratively bound things that people buy to use as notebooks or journals.

Where can you get BISAC subject headings for the works in your library?

• Off the Book: Publishers assign BISAC codes to their products according to to their own internal standards, and BISG encourages them to put the headings near the bar code in an easy-to- spot location for bookstore owners as they arrange their stock.
• Increasingly, catalog records may include the codes or the descriptors. The Library of Congress started adding them routinely to Electronic CIP. WebDewey includes BISAC headings as an access method to DDC numbers, so you can switch back and forth at some hierarchical levels.

BISAC in MARC Records

Publishers do not use MARC to encode their metadata. The publishing standard for metadata encoding is ONIX, which must be crosswalked into MARC databases. Some libraries take ONIX records directly from the publisher to load into their catalogs, especially for e-books, which don’t have readily available copy in the library source databases. For new books with cataloging-in-publication metadata, however, the Library of Congress crosswalks BISAC into MARC records.

BISAC and other bookseller codes are added to MARC21 records in field 084. You will not see any of the subject headings in a record when you load it into your local catalog because it’s coded as a classification. However, it is possible to generate the headings on display with the information in the $2 subfield (source of data) and a list of the BISAC codes. (You must agree to the EULA to include BISAC in your catalog). A growing percentage of the total records in Worldcat have 084 fields. 40 million out of 311 million in the database have field 084, which is used for any additional classification scheme beyond DDC or LCC. When 084is used for BISAC, it would be in new releases through downstream ONIX metadata from major publishers.

The 084 field is a small but mighty field that is easy to overlook because it is not easy to decode by reading. However, LC/pcc records do seem to add it if the metadata is readily available. However, it seems unlikely that major agencies are assigning BISAC as a routine part of their cataloging workflow if it must be generated locally or researched on amazon or some other database. Some catalogs strip BISAC as part of their copy cataloging processes so the MARC record stored contains only the library classification field. This is something you must investigate and trouble-shoot if you want to switch to BISAC.

Review the ideas.

Discussion question: Is BISAC a formal classification system, as defined in the previous section? How does it rate on the evaluation?

Working with BISAC: For the following book, evaluate the assignment of its BISAC subjects using the BISAC subject heading list online and information about correct assignment included in this post. Are they correctly or incorrectly chosen by the publisher? If incorrect, what would be better choices?

Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by biologist John Bradshaw presents scientific information about domestic cats to a popular audience.
Here are the Library of Congress Subject Headings found in its catalog record:
• Cats—Behavior.
• Cats—Psychology.
• Human-animal relationships.
• Cat owners.

Here are the BISAC subject headings found in its catalog record:
• PETS / Cats / General
• SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Zoology / Mammals
• SCIENCE / Life Sciences / General

Answer: The last two are wrong. SCIENCE is used for works aimed at professionals, and you would never use the general heading if you have a more specific one because the more general is implicit.
NAT019000 NATURE/Animals/Mammals would be preferred as the second subject heading for this work.

Bradshaw’s other book is The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat 2nd ed.(John W S Bradshaw, Rachel Casey, Sarah Brown (Wallingford: CABI, 2012). It is aimed at his fellow scientists/zoologists/anthrozoologists. Both of Bradshaw’s books are classed the same in DDC and LCC. 636.8 in DDC (cats); SF446.5 in LCC (Animal culture — Pets — Cats — Behavior) Neither DDC nor LCC distinguishes between academic and popular treatments of subjects.

In the example above, also note the difference between the BISAC and LCSH strings. LCSH does not include higher levels of a hierarchy in its headings. With LCSH you search for terms directly and specifically, but cannot see a term’s place in the overall structure of the vocabulary without access to a cross-reference structure. These are issues you want to consider when you include both vocabularies as subject headings in your catalog records.

I end with the same advice that I started with: If your library is seriously considering BISAC as a replacement for traditional library classification and subject access, you must evaluate it critically and carefully, because it is not a simple, universal substitute for library-specific classification.


About Cheryl Boettcher Tarsala

author, researcher, educator in the realms of cataloging, bibliography, and authorship
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