So...let's talk about this story that circulated last week about the Representative from Tennessee who wants to introduce legislation to force the Library of Congress to reverse its decision to cancel the heading Illegal aliens and, in its place, use the headings Noncitizen and Unauthorized immigration. It seems likely that this proposed piece of legislation is little more than a push for attention by a person who is up for reelection. After all, what better way to make a name for oneself than taking on the bastion of political correctness that is Library of Congress.
I think this story surfaces, again, an issue that I've written about before: the Library of Congress is not the U.S. national library even though we in the U.S. library community treat it as if it were. We use the Library of Congress' thesaurus and classification scheme for subject cataloging even though many in the U.S. cataloging community have been talking for many years about its flaws and working for many years to try to correct "-ist" headings and class numbers.
And while it would be fun to talk more about the problematic nature of treating the Library of Congress as de facto U.S. National Library, I think that there is a more important issue that this story surfaces: cataloging is not a neutral act.
While it's true that catalogers are taught to be objective in how they are taught to describe the objects they're tasked with cataloging, this feels impossible. One could argue that it feels less impossible in descriptive cataloging, because it is easier to be object about, say, the publisher of a book than the subject of that book. But this feeling of impossibility is even baked into our content standards, which leave room for "cataloger's judgment." In some cases, the standards reason, a cataloger will have to interpret a rule and apply it in a way that makes the most sense to them. Which means that even descriptive cataloging --the part of cataloging that is meant to have the greatest chance of objectivity--isn't actually all that objective.
And while it feels like a challenge to talk about objectivity in descriptive cataloging, it feels wholly impossible to talk about objectivity in subject cataloging. If the language itself isn't neutral, how can we be expected to be objective in our application of that language?
I have long thought that in addition to talking about cataloger's judgment, we should also talk about cataloger's bias. So, let's do that. One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives for bias is "an inclination of temperament or outlook, especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment." And when we talk about cataloging--especially subject cataloging--that makes sense to me.
Catalogers bring to bear on the works they catalog a lifetime of lived experience. It is impossible to put away that lived experience in order to describe works in an objective fashion. And it is both disingenuous to library users and unfair to catalogers to continue to perpetuate this....lie. As a middle-class, white, cisgender woman, I can't put away my lived experience in order to describe the things I catalog--nor should I. And I shouldn't expect that my colleagues from marginalized groups to do the same.
So how do we reckon with this? How do we acknowledge cataloger's bias and then move through a flawed system in order to order the objects we are tasked with describing? I think we do it in two ways.
1. Appreciate the lived experiences of your colleagues and your users and think about how this is reflected in your metadata.
My experience with the heading Illegal aliens is different than someone who has lived that experience, which means I should believe them when they say that this terminology is dehumanizing. The same goes with any number of "-ist" subject headings. If someone tells you that the words you're using in your metadata to describe them invalidates their lived experiences, take that seriously. Don't dismiss it because their lived experience is not the same as yours.
2. Educate yourself and your users.
If you are unclear about your place in creating and maintaining oppressive systems, you have some work to do. I wrote before about how you have to understand your place in an oppressive system before you can dismantle it. Read everything you can and have hard conversations with you friends and your colleagues about white privilege and oppression. If you need a starting point for educating yourself, April Hathcock's blog has a lot of great posts on intersectionality and on doing the work.
If you have a relationship with library users, you should use every appropriate opportunity to talk about catalog records and bias and how the material you retrieve when you search is based on biased algorithms. It seems likely that making the catalog as transparent as possible for users will help them find the material they seek while navigating the biased language of subject headings. Emily Drabinski's article, "Queering the Catalog," is a great read when thinking about how to bring users into the conversation about metadata. And anything you can read by Safiya Noble is great for thinking about algorithmic bias.
There are a wealth of tools out there to help you get started in thinking about how to educate yourself and your users. If you have other ideas, feel free to drop them in the comments!
While coming to terms with cataloger's bias is both challenging and uncomfortable, it's unbelievably necessary. We cannot continue to believe that cataloging is a neutral act. And the quicker we move on from that point, the quicker we can help our users identify how to get the best information they need to complete the task at hand.