Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On praxis and practice

There is this funny thing that happens in the cataloging world sometimes. When someone dies or a person has a significant change to their identity, it is not long before that person's name authority record has been updated. When Caitlyn Jenner made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, her name authority record was updated pretty quickly.

What followed was a debate about how (and whether) her gender should be reflected in the record. The record currently has three 375 fields: one with "transgender woman," one with "female" and the dates associated with that identity, and one with "male" and the dates associated with that identity. This debate has lead to people asking larger questions about the appropriateness of recording gender at all and about whether catalogers should be the ones to assign attributes to people that they might not necessarily assign to themselves.

In some ways, I think this 'should we or shouldn't we code gender' debate is a conflict between practice and praxis. Our practice as catalogers is to use the rules outlined for us in the descriptive standard we've chosen in order to describe an item. Praxis, I think, would be describing an item using both the descriptive standard we've chosen and the critical theory through which we see the world.

In the article "What's gender got to do with it: a critique of RDA Rule 9.7," Amber Billey, Emily Drabinski, and K.R. Roberto look at recording gender in name authority records through the lens of queer theory. In this article, they write:
 For queer theorists, gender and sex are always negotiated and socially constituted; fixing them as RDA asks catalogers to do denies the shifting and contextual nature of gender identities.
The authors make a series of well-considered arguments against recording gender in name authority records that all have queer theory as their foundation. And in the end, the application of queer theory and RDA as a descriptive standard leads them to recommend that gender not be coded in name authority records.

I think catalogers do the best we can to describe the resources we're tasked with describing. Sometimes, though, the work we're given to is beyond the scope of what we can understand by the nature of the language the resource is written in or the subject matter the resource covers. And while it's valuable for us, as a profession, to consider the implications of our decisions, I think we should also acknowledge that for some people, our thought exercises are their lives.

The thing is, while critical cataloging starts with examining the practice of considering why we record gender as an attribute of a person. But it doesn't stop there. We also need to think critically about why we assign subject headings and classification in the ways that we do. Catalogers are not neutral, and to act like we are does a disservice to everyone.

If we want to move toward a more critical theory-based model of cataloging, we have to stop prioritizing cost and quantity over quality when it comes to metadata creation. We have to give catalogers the space to think critically about the work they do and create quality metadata that respects the lived experiences of the people it describes. But we can't do that if we're not given the space and the resources to do this kind of work.

I think a good first step in moving toward critical cataloging would be to think about why you do what you do the next time you create a record. And think about how your bias and your privilege impact the decisions that you make. Knowing what's there, under the surface, is the best first step to changing it.

Stay positive,

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