Your library can send powerful messages about how you value readers as individuals, especially if your collection acknowledges and respects the diversity of your local community.
In 2019, the documentary Change the Subject shared the story of a group of Dartmouth students who challenged anti-immigrant language in the Library of Congress catalog subject headings. Library of Congress Subject Headings consist of controlled vocabulary terms developed and maintained by the Library of Congress (LC); the thesaurus is the most widely used subject vocabulary in the world. While researching immigration, the Dartmouth College student kept encountering the term “Illegal aliens” as a library subject heading. As a person who had grown up undocumented in Georgia, she was disturbed by this institutionalized form of a racial slur. These activist students requested the library update the term “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants” to reflect more positive language and representation of the people. Their journey took them to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the halls of Congress to lobby for this subject change heading. While their efforts were unsuccessful at the national level their actions helped guide a world-wide conversation about language and inclusion.
Equitable Accessibility to Information
Language matters and it can be used to uplift and inspire or dehumanize and divide. Librarians have worked to make LCSH more inclusive and accurate by replacing offensive or racist terms with language that more fully reflects the identities and experiences of diverse populations. But change at the national level can be slow and in the case of the “illegal aliens” subject heading, can be politicized. In response, and to strive for not just inclusive but anti-racist subject headings, libraries are making the change in their local subject headings. Librarians select resources with consideration for their readers’ culture, language, gender identity, sexual orientation and learning needs. Providing access to a wide variety of resources with authentic perspectives helps citizens understand themselves and their world. When these readers come to the library and search the library catalog, will they discover what they are looking for in the way they search for the materials? How we describe materials impacts how and whether our users can find and use them. Librarians are working to ensure they can.
Libraries Taking the Lead
Organizations throughout the library community are meeting the challenge to update controlled vocabularies to be inclusive and anti-racist. For example, many Indigenous populations prefer not to be referred to as “Indians” and there are many Indigenous communities either completely unrepresented or represented incorrectly within LCSH. Updating this term to “Indigenous people of North America” and working with Indigenous communities on how they referred to themselves, helped Backstage to update our subjects for these communities. The Homosaurus is an international linked data vocabulary of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) terms. This vocabulary is intended to function as a companion to broad subject term vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions are encouraged to use the Homosaurus to support LGBTQ research by enhancing the discoverability of their LGBTQ resources.
Changing the subject involves deliberately talking about another topic. Facilitate the necessary discussion. Update your catalog to inclusive Language that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equitable opportunities. You know your community and you welcome them each day into the library space. Make sure your catalog and subject headings do the same.