Tuesday, November 8, 2016

No firm ground, but we ain't sliding

The Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress decided for a second time to reject white privilege as a subject heading. You can read their decision here. The part of their argument that is most salient to this blog post is: Numerous works about white privilege have been assigned the headings Race discrimination and Whites--Race identity, and the meeting wishes to continue that practise.

It is both completely understandable and completely perplexing that the PSD would reject this heading despite the fact that literary warrant exists. On the one hand, if the PSD believes that a combination of existing subject headings is sufficiently describes a concept they can make the argument against adding another subject heading to the thesaurus. On the other, it seems like the combination of subject headings that the PSD points to in their decision misses the mark.

When reading this decision, it seems like the PSD fundamentally misunderstands the concept of white privilege by deferring to the headings already being used. The idea of white privilege implicitly touches on discrimination and race identity to the extent that the privileges extended to white people as a result of their identity further margainalizes people who aren't white. But white privilege is not explicitly about either of those things. April Hathcock wrote a really great blog post about this which I think it well worth your time. In her post she writes " Privilege isn't about discrimination; it's about the automatic benefits and advantages that come from living in a system set up to value the lives, ideas, and expressions of one group over all others. You may be a staunch antiracist, but if you are white, you are steeped in WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is a reality of living in the systemic bias of our society."

Thematically related to this discussion of white privilege and systemic bias is Jarrett Drake's keynote address at the Digital Library Federation Liberal Arts Pre-Conference titled "Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts." In this address, Drake states
I doubt many of you here know about this history of black college and universities in this country, and I have that doubt for many reasons. The first is that most of you are white and can afford to be ignorant of blackness. The second is that many of our library and archive consortia--this one included--excludes our librarians, libraries, archivists, and archives at black colleges and universities, so even when you think you are immersing yourself within the field of librarianship, you remain blissfully unaware that there is a whole different world out there to which you are functionally illiterate. This unawareness is both a product and a reification of systemic racism, and it doesn't require racists whatsoever.
Both Drake and Hathcock point out that even those of us who believe that we are antiracist still benefit from our whiteness and that white privilege affords us the luxury of being able to be ignorant about aspects of blackness. Further, Hathcock argues that the decision not to name white privilege explicitly and add it to the thesaurus perpetuates systemic racism both in libraries that utilize the thesaurus and in the larger arena of subject cataloging.

Working both inside and outside of a system is important when thinking about how to create a more equitable and inclusive library catalog. While asking the Library of Congress to both change its most problematic subject headings and to add new headings to address issues of importance to our users is a key component of pushing back against the systemic racism inherent in our metadata creation standards, I would also argue that we can work outside of/around the system to add subject headings to records which both reflect the lived experiences of our users and the values to which we claim to adhere.  There are a lot of existing subject thesauri and the MARC standards allows you add a term from a thesaurus other than LCSH in field 650. Library of Congress publishes a list of source codes and has at the bottom of the document an example of how to construct a 650 field using one of these alternative thesauri. Additionally, the MARC standard allows you to utilize fields 69x for locally constructed thesauri that aren't on the source code list. So while LCSH is the (seemingly) most widely used thesaurus for published material, it doesn't have to be the only thesaurus a library uses to describe the about-ness of a resource. A particular community of practise could create its own thesaurus and use that to provide access to headings that the Library of Congress has chosen not to address.

I should note that this isn't a new idea. There's a reason that cataloger's love Sanford Berman.

I know I write a lot about how I think we should think about how much we rely on repurposed metadata and on how we should localize our cataloging practises to better meet the needs of our users. And I think that the use of alternative thesauri is a good place for us to do some thinking. As luck would have it, there are a lot of people in technical services librarianship already thinking hard about these issues. As April notes, Jenna Freedman and Netanel Ganin stand out as people whose efforts in this arena should be acknowledged. I am so, so grateful all of the people who speak so bravely and so boldly about the lived experiences of our users and who hold us accountable for the ways in which we fall short of doing right by them.

Stay positive,

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