Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) is, as I suspect most people know, a Teahadist moron. But it takes a special kind of moron to piss off librarians. That’s exactly what she did this morning, with the announcement that she would introduce a bill in Congress, mandating that,
“The Librarian of Congress shall continue to use the terms ‘Alien’ and ‘Illegal aliens’ in the Library of Congress Subject Headings in the same manner at they were in effect during 2015.”
[Link — beware this is from the Blaze, which is Glenn Beck’s shit circus.]
So a little background is warranted. I’m a cataloging librarian, also known sometimes as simply a cataloger. We are not, as a rule, a particularly politically active profession. While most catalogers I know and work with are progressives, there is nothing inherently political (or so we believe) about facilitating users’ discovery and access of documents and other resources in library collections. Of course, librarianship is a public service profession and, as such, advocates for its interests (and the interests of library users) in the public square, particularly on issues of privacy and equal access to information. But we catalogers tend to keep our arguments and advocacy limited to questions of how best to serve our patrons
As a profession our concerns are rooted ultimately in the principles of librarianship laid down by the great early 20th century librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, known to all librarians as “The Five Laws”:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his / her book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The library is a growing organism.
Libraries are not static collections of dusty tomes, reserved for the intellectual elite. They are, as Ranganathan affirms, living organisms that must constantly change and adapt to their environment. And their ultimate purpose is not simply to be a storehouse of books, but to make those books useful to patrons. Now, “useful” can mean different things to different people, but for catalogers, one of the chief qualities of usefulness is simply: discoverability. No matter how “useful” a book may be in terms of its literary or informational qualities, if it cannot be found among the thousands of other books held by a given library, it’s not particularly useful at all.
In order to fulfill this mandate, catalogers maintain library catalogs. Nowadays, of course, the “catalog” is not a single physical unit, say, a piece of furniture filled with catalog cards, but a distributed network of carefully structured bibliographic metadata that enable users to discover books, either by bibliographic criteria (e.g., “I’m looking for a book by such and such an author”), or by topical criteria (“I’m looking for a book about such and such a thing.”)
When it comes to topical discovery, one of the most important tools that cataloging librarians have at their disposal is the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which is a suite of controlled vocabularies that enable catalogers to record the “aboutness” of a given work. Because “natural language” is more or less inexact, the terms in the LCSH serve to cut out some of the noise by selecting certain terms as “preferred” and recording other, “non-preferred” terms as cross references. Sometimes cross-references are used for simple variants: a user looking for books on “embroidering” will be instructed to “See Embroidery.” Other times, variants are used to account for more fundamental differences; for example, a user looking for a book about dogs under the Linnaean binomens Canis domesticus or Canis familiaris, will be directed to the more commonly used (and LCSH-preferred) term, Dogs.
Now, of course, providing subject access is, ultimately, a language game. And language, like libraries themselves, is an ever-changing organism. For this reason, LC subject headings can be subject to change over time. The exact method by which these changes are identified and implemented in the LCSH thesaurus is somewhat complicated and I won’t bother going into it here. But basically there are two major reasons why a subject heading gets changed: First, it no longer reflects generally accepted facts. For example, in 2006, when the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto from a planet to a planetoid, the LC subject heading for Pluto was changed from Pluto (Planet) to Pluto (Dwarf planet). These are, for the most part, uncontroversial changes.
However, another reason why LC terms get changed is not because facts have shifted, but because the meaning (often the connotation) of an English word has shifted over time. Many times these changes are also relatively uncontroversial. For nearly a century, the LC subject heading for all cook books was the rather Victorian-sounding term, Cookery. No one, I think, would argue that replacing it with Cookbooks was not the right thing to do to enhance a user’s ability to find cookbooks in a library collection.
There are times when these linguistic changes can appear more controversial in nature. And it is perhaps no surprise that this occurs with words and terms that are themselves sites of controversy in society writ large. A good example is the LC term for African Americans, which has gone successive changes over the years as the terminology has shifted in society: from Negroes to Colored people, to Black Americans, to Afro-Americans, to the present subject heading, African Americans.
And here is where it gets both interesting and complicated. Although librarians may believe or pretend that LC subject heading simply reflect common linguistic usage in the resources being described (a concept librarians refer to as “literary warrant”), we all know that it’s more complicated than that. To some degree, perhaps small perhaps not so small, the way language is deployed in a library catalog confers a certain level of legitimacy to a given term. A user who approaches the catalog with a topical search and is informed, “For works on Black Americans, see African Americans”, would reasonably assume that the catalog, and the library that supports it, thinks African Americans is a better term (more appropriate, more descriptive, etc.). We aren’t just using the term because its more useful (in a Ranganathanian sense) for discovering resources, but because it’s also a more acceptable word to use in common speech. For this reason, cataloging librarians have over the years shown more concern about what terms we mark as “preferred” and which we consider “variants” or “non-preferred.”
It is important to note here that, whenever we change a heading, the old heading does not simply disappear from the catalog. Rather, it becomes another non-preferred or variant heading. Users will be directed, via cross reference, to the preferred term. This is, in part, to ensure “backwards compatibility”, as it were. But it also reflects the sense, important to any “memory institution” like a library, that the history of a term should be preserved. The history of changes to the term we use for African Americans is an important part of the history of catalogs in particular, and libraries in general.
So what does this all have to do with politics? Recently, the Library of Congress Policy and Standards Division, which is the administrative body that oversees the Library of Congress Subject Headings made the following announcement:
In response to constituent requests, the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress, which maintains Library of Congress Subject Headings, has investigated the possibility of cancelling or revising the heading Illegal aliens. PSD also explored the possibility of revising the broader term Aliens. It concluded that the meaning of Aliens is often misunderstood and should be revised to Noncitizens, and that the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative. The heading Illegal aliens will therefore be cancelled and replaced by two headings, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration, which may be assigned together to describe resources about people who illegally reside in a country. Other headings that include the word aliens or the phrase illegal aliens (e.g., Church work with aliens; Children of illegal aliens) will also be revised. All of the revisions will appear on a Tentative List and be approved no earlier than May 2016; the revision of existing bibliographic records will commence shortly thereafter.
So the term “illegal aliens” will no longer be used within the context of the Library of Congress Subject Headings as a preferred term. Instead, we are providing with a more granular and frankly more accurate set of terms with which to describe the aboutness of certain works.
This is, of course, what has pissed off Rep. Black to the point that she is trying to change the law to force the Librarian of Congress to reverse its decisions.
A few things might be worth noting, here:
1. As always, Republican’s belief that government should not interfere with decisions made by individuals is utter bunkum when it comes to things they don’t like.
2. The decision is not, in fact, being driven by the Librarian of Congress, or really by anyone at LC. Rather it was made “in response to constituent requests”, i.e. American librarians all over the place, who have become increasingly embarrassed by the use of the term in their catalogs. Can you imagine someone, perhaps themselves an undocumented immigrant, coming to the library to research their case, and being told, “Look under ILLEGAL ALIENS”?
3. Black clearly doesn’t understand what the Library of Congress Subject Headings are, or how they function. For example, she seems unaware that the term “Illegal aliens” will still, like ALL headings that have been changed, exist in the catalog as a “see reference”. In other words, any user who comes to the catalog looking for resources filed under the term, “Illegal aliens” will find a helpful note directing them to the preferred terms.
Now, I don’t really think this bill will pass, even through our insane House. It’s just another example of Republican show boating at others expense. But still…. if this pisses you off as much as it’s pissing me and most of my colleagues off, feel free to let Rep. Black know how you feel (Twitter: @RepDianeBlack; website: black.house.gov/...)