Addressing the Problematic Nature of Cataloging and Collection Development

Given that the idea of Library Science in America started forming in the 19th century, it stands to reason that there would have been problems within the cataloging systems that were created, as well as the ways in which collections development processes were, well, developed. Having said that, it’s not unreasonable to expect that, over the last 100+ years, these systems and processes would have updated with the march of time and progress, right? Well…

The theme of this week’s readings was about developing inclusive collections, something that has become an increasingly controversial subject in recent years. It seems that the idea of dismantling outdated library systems is too much for some people to handle, including Congress itself. As bonkers as that may seem–and I’ll explain that in a moment–many people prefer to hang onto tradition, even when it means excluding a great many people in order to maintain the status quo and avoid much-needed upsets to the ways in which we think about our libraries. As usual, I’ll post the full reading list below but I wanted to focus on two readings that specifically stood out to me.

 In Information Services to Diverse Populations, Nicole Cooke states that:

…the Library of Congress Subject Headings, the Dewey Decimal System, and other classification systems unintentionally exclude, marginalize, and distort information belonging to other cultures (typically belonging to members of diverse populations) because they are not culturally relevant or responsive. (64)

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Managing Diversity. In Information services to diverse populations. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Upon reading this my first thought was “Is this truly unintentional, though?” Especially in light of situations like that which was shown in the 2019 documentary Change the Subject, where a group of Dartmouth students and librarians petitioned the Library of Congress to remove the term “illegal alien” from the Library of Congress Subject Headings in 2016. The LOC appeared amenable to this and made the decision, on March 22, 2016 to

…remove the term “Illegal alien” from the LC Subject Heading (LCSH) system, replacing it with ‘Noncitizen’ and, to describe the act of residing without authorization, ‘Unauthorized immigration’

Resolution on replacing the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Illegal aliens” with “Undocumented immigrants”

Congress, however, had an OPINION and actually got involved, which was almost unprecedented. Congress very rarely involves itself in the day-to-day of the Library of Congress, and changing subject headings was a relatively routine procedure. The subject headings for African Americans has changed continuously over the years, starting with “Negroes” very early on, changing to “Blacks” in the ’70s, with a split-off term “Afro-Americans” in the ’90s, which was later changed to “African Americans” in 2000.

Weirdly enough–or maybe not so weird–the specific use of “illegal immigrants,” a term used to dehumanize and deny agency, was a very large sticking point and on July 10, 2016, the LOC was ordered to continue using that subject heading. Many libraries across the country began creating their own subject headings to bypass this and, as of today, right now, the term is still very much in use within the LC Catalog. So, can we still try to believe that the creation and continued use of certain subject headings is unintentional? I’ve enjoyed reading Cooke’s work, and I support much of what she says, but I can’t agree with this, not this late in the game.

The other reading that stuck in my brain was “LGBTQIA-R: Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Medical Collection at a Public Metropolitan University,” by Blackburn and Farooq. When discussing this concept, of creating a medical collection that puts the focus on LGBTQIA individuals and how important this could be, the authors point out that:

A recent survey by Morris and Siegel (2017) found librarians are more comfortable with LGBTQIA work that is covert (such as reference) rather than overt (such as creating displays). They also found respondents were most familiar with LGBTQIA terms that have existed for longer (e.g. gay, lesbian), and less familiar with newer terms (e.g. genderqueer, cisgender) (Morris and Siegel 2017). (7)

Blackburn, H., & Farooq, O. (2020). LGBTQIA-R: Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Medical Collection at a Public Metropolitan University. Collection Management, 45(1), 3–18.

It’s no secret that libraries often come under fire by their communities for Pride displays. It happens all the time. So I can understand why librarians, especially cis-het librarians, may be hesitant to make overt gestures when it comes to this subject. It isn’t one that (probably) directly affects their life and so they may decide to make their personal comfort a priority. When it comes to a choice between dealing with an angry public making angry phone calls, it’s honestly going to be easier to just avoid it altogether. And you can still quietly, on the downlow, let LGBTQIA patrons know that you REALLY are there for them, even if you’re not openly there for them in a way that lets everyone in the community know that you’re creating a safe space for marginalized groups. You care, you really do, but you care in a less-controversial and confrontation-inducing way, right?

Obviously, being an ally is more than just quietly giving reference assistance and making whispered pledges of your support to marginalized groups. And too, if there are no displays and no indications of allyship, how are patrons supposed to know that they can safely approach their librarians about certain subjects? If a library maintains a consistent type of display that showcases white, cis, heteronormative subject matter, that’s going to let your patrons know exactly how welcome they are.

And when it comes to a subject as important as medical health collections that are specifically targeted at marginalized groups, overt displays and open discussions are paramount to ensuring that the collection is seen and utilized, and that your patrons come to you with their reference needs. And if the terms are “uncomfortable” for you, and makes you want to not discuss them openly with your patrons, you need to take a moment and think about why this might be, and what you can do to move into a place of acceptance and support, no matter what people have chosen to call themselves.

This Week’s Readings:
Allard, D., & Ferris, S. (2015). Antiviolence and Marginalized Communities: Knowledge Creation, Community Mobilization, and Social Justice through a Participatory Archiving Approach. Library Trends, 64(2), 360–383.

Blackburn, H., & Farooq, O. (2020). LGBTQIA-R: Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Medical Collection at a Public Metropolitan University. Collection Management, 45(1), 3–18.

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Managing Diversity. In Information services to diverse populations. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Foster, M. J. (2018). Navigating Library Collections, Black Culture, and Current Events. Library Trends, 67(1), 8–22.

Thompson, B. J., & Baugnon, R. A. (2017). A collaborative digital oral history collection: Building a digital collection of student scholarship documenting Latino Americans in southeast North Carolina. Alexandria, 27(1), 30–40.

Optional Readings:
Beiriger, A., & Jackson, R. M. (2007). An Assessment of the Information Needs of Transgender Communities in Portland, Oregon. Public Library Quarterly, 26(1–2), 45–60.

Vercelletto, C. (2019). HOW DIVERSE ARE OUR BOOKS? LJ’s 2019 Diverse Materials Survey reveals where efforts to build more representative and inclusive library collections are widespread, and where there are gaps. Library Journal

Wickham, M. E., & Sweeney, M. E. (2018). Are We Still Transmitting Whiteness? A Case Study of a Southern, Rural Library’s Youth Collections. Library Trends, 67(1), 89–106.

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