On Radically Renaming Objectionable LCSH

Whether or not the Electoral College and the United States Senate were designed to placate those in slave states, it’s difficult to look at the de facto malapportionment of power in our democracy these days and wonder how much longer we can endure this arrangement. I also can’t help but read the latest headlines documenting widespread abuses of power committed by law enforcement personnel and assume that based on precedent nothing will happen to the “bad apples” involved.

Survival requires change. Is our progress then best achieved by either reforming an admittedly flawed system while working within its constraints, or instead through revolting against such a defective structure and overthrowing those conventions entirely? I suppose it depends on how bad the situation is, as well as the degree to which the status quo is willing to acknowledge its failings by evolving at a reasonable pace.

This question is raised in my profession by librarians considering whether or not it’s worth paying dues to the American Library Association; determining if a commercial vendor should be paid to help provide a particular service, as opposed to helping develop a system for doing so in-house; and, ultimately, as with any other environmental conditions, deciding if it’s worth all those slings and arrows of remaining in your current position.

Libraries also have fairly rigid and consequentially dated classification systems, which raises the question if we should even bother maintaining them anymore. In 2007, the Maricopa County public library system in Arizona led a spate of institutions by ditching the Dewey Decimal System in favor of a more browsable hierarchy originally designed for bookstores.

My library uses LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) for tagging the main contents of each book. Topical search results for items with title words of kids, children, adolescents, etc. may all be obtained by a search for “Juveniles,” assuming that’s the authoritative way to describe them. The purpose of a strict taxonomy would therefore be weakened if catalogers started going off on their own and inventing new descriptors willy-nilly, since the resulting inconsistencies would obviously cause things to get messy in a hurry, to say nothing of the duplicative work those subversive actions would entail.

Ever since the time around when Google’s search engine overtook the Yahoo! web directory in popularity, the advent of natural language processing, full-text indexing, query enrichment, and other advances in ways that search terms are matched with ranked results has brought about a diminished relative value in the use of controlled vocabulary and subject access. Just as the CRT debate has shown how talking about racism makes racists uncomfortable, likewise, any questioning of the continued need for pre-coordinated indexes certainly agitates many a cataloger.

There are challenges with establishing an authoritative list of words whenever you’re dealing with a non-dead language. Substantial upkeep over time is necessary to ensure existing terms do not at any point relay a meaning of inequity and bias, not to mention fail to provide for optimal discoverability. And so, the once sanctioned heading of “Yellow Peril” no longer exists. However, “Indians of North America” and “Microcomputers” are still around.

LCSH terminology is governed by the Library of Congress. There are formal procedures in place for the creation and cancellation of any subject headings under their sovereign control. Additionally, individual libraries may autonomously curate local subject headings to enrich their patrons’ research process.

The proposed renaming of what remains the official term “Illegal Aliens” has long been mired in politicized debates, resulting in the Library of Congress being so far incapable of or otherwise averse to replacing it with a less incendiary label. After announcing plans to do so in 2016, the revision was nixed by a congressional appropriations rider; “Illegal Aliens” remains on the books to this day.

The response from many libraries to this intransigence can be described by a line from the MCU’s Nick Fury: “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.” These organizations have as a result begun the process of independently modifying their catalog records, or at least the display and searchability of those terms within their interfaces to end users, for this and related subject headings.

Oddly enough, a cursory examination of the discourse suggests there is unanimous agreement in the field that this revision is justified, evidently save amongst the very librarians in charge who would be responsible for doing so centrally at the Library of Congress, to say nothing of the cataloging staff in command at the thousands of other libraries which by inaction tacitly cede to the Library of Congress’ stance. So perhaps there is a sampling bias in who has elected to speak out on this now over decade-old controversy.

Regardless, it’s an unprecedented situation. Coming back then to my opening question of reform versus revolt, I don’t see an easy categorical answer here. We certainly shouldn’t want the madness that would be caused by a library having to censor its holdings or descriptions of them every time a patron reported being offended by something. The ensuing collection would be rather slim indeed. Yet I do feel we should have some responsibility to mitigate harm.

In this particular case, the United States Code presently uses the term “Illegal Aliens,” and I would accordingly want someone copying this phrase into our search box to be offered up appropriate results on their topic, at least ahead of records for titles about the Klingons. Any reparative modifications along these lines should not interfere with discoverability, in other words. It should also be noted that this very kind of “behind the curtain” pattern matching is itself the target of much criticism.

As to whether or not displaying a phrase which has been co-opted to more commonly be used in hateful speech against marginalized people, all I can say is it’s a shame how we are left with the only quasi-productive and woefully inefficient option of addressing those disparities on a piecemeal level—a level which has been soundly argued shouldn’t even exist.

Although it remains an open debate of whether or not the need for this revolutionary action crosses the rather nebulous threshold in justification, the cat’s out of the bag. Dozens of libraries have already committed to usurping the authority of the governing body we have previously entrusted with calling the shots when it comes to altering our shared thesaurus of terms.

Slippery slope arguments notwithstanding, there is definitely work needing to be done. If you really want to see some problematic terms in library search platforms, check out the linked PDF in the Ex Libris DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Policy Regarding Subject Headings in CDI (Central Discovery Index) policy page. That said, as we look to jettison inferior methods and unwarranted language, I can only hope we don’t end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Further Reading

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