The Racist Problem with Library Subject Classifications

This month, I was inspired by my fellow HLS contributors, Lauren, Aubrey, Kerri, Alyssa, and Conrrado, to attempt to critically examine the ways in which anti-Black racism and other prejudices intersect with librarianship. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to check out their posts this month, as they raise excellent points about intersectionality, allyship, and racism in libraries. 

In reflecting on what I wanted to write about this month, I recalled a conversation had in my information infrastructures course last semester. During a unit on cataloging, we discussed the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and how wildly inappropriate many of them are. I decided to dig into the archives of HLS to see if anyone had written about the issues with subject headings and, bingo! Sarah Hume wrote about the issues with the LCSH and the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) way back in 2015! 

Reading Sarah’s posts encouraged me to look into some of these classifications myself at a very basic level; and you can clearly tell that library cataloging and classification centers white and western perspectives. I should note that I am by no means a cataloging expert, but a lot of what I found appears to be obvious, even to me.

Let’s take language classifications for example. In the DDC, language is classified in the 400s. Of all of the 400-499 classifications (note: there are 15 unassigned numbers), English, German, and Greek each have eight classifications dedicated to each language, and French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin each have seven classifications dedicated to each language. Meanwhile, “other languages”, East Indo-European and Celtic languages, Afro-Asiatic languages, Altaic, Uralic, Hyperborean, and Dravidian languages, languages of east and southeast Asia, African languages, North American native languages, South American native languages, and Austronesian and other languages only have one classification number dedicated to each (490-499, respectively). See a pattern there? Western European languages have highly specific classifications, while the majority of non-white and non-western European languages are all lumped together; even if they span an entire continent (see 496: African languages).

Unfortunately, a similar pattern exists when looking at the Library of Congress classifications for languages. Subclass PA is dedicated to Greek and Latin language and literature, PC is for Romance languages (Romanian, Italian, Sardinian, French, Catalan, Spanish, and Portugeuse), PD is for Germanic and Scandinavian languages, PE is for English, and so on. Of the twelve subclasses dedicated to languages, seven are dedicated to European (western) languages. Non-western languages do not get this same courtesy. “Oriental languages,” (holy outdated terminology, Batman), Indo-Iranian languages, all languages from Eastern Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and Hyperborean, Indian, and “artificial” languages are each lumped together into four classifications (PJ, PK, PL, and PM, respectively). Not only is it racist to lump all non-western languages, usually spoken by POCs, into generalized categories (I mean, seriously? Why are all of the languages from three different major regions of the planet lumped together?); but it’s also incredibly problematic that the term “artificial languages” is categorized with non-western languages, othering them and implying that the non-western languages are not real and should not be taken seriously.

And that was just looking at the language classifications. 

The discussion of LCSH in my information infrastructures course stemmed from a place of understanding how the system works in order to help patrons find materials. However, one of the key issues inherent in these prejudiced systems has to do with patrons finding materials on their own, sometimes having to use outdated and/or offensive language when performing research (see the conversation in Library Journal from a few years ago about the term “illegal alien”). Not to mention how difficult it might be to perform research about a specific group of people while also maintaining an intersectional perspective, as these strictly categorized classification systems don’t really allow for that kind of thinking. (Shoutout once again to Sarah Hume for bringing this up in her post on the DDC in 2015.)

The efforts at Dartmouth regarding changing the term “illegal alien,” led by Melissa Padilla are not the only efforts made to change outdated and offensive language within the LCSH. Violet Fox’s Cataloging Lab is “a wiki where people can collaborate to construct subject heading proposals” to petition the Library of Congress to change a subject heading’s terminology. In fact, on the Library of Congress’s website, when exploring the subject headings, there is a form on the right hand side of the page you can navigate to if you want to suggest a change in terminology.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am not a cataloging expert. If there are other efforts out there to change library classification systems, tell me about them in the comments below! In the meantime, next time you are doing research, take time to look at the controlled vocabulary used and pay attention to the implications of those terms.

P.S.

Wear a mask. 

Trans Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.


Jane Behre is an MLIS student at the University of Maryland. At UMD, she is the coordinator for the First Year Book Program and a member of the Research & Teaching Fellowship’s 2021 cohort. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from Barnard College, Columbia University, and worked professionally backstage for two years before deciding to make the switch to library science. Within the field, her interests include academic librarianship, research & instruction, and information literacy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for her friends and family, listening to podcasts, and, of course, going to the theater.

Photo by Xiaoxia Xu on Unsplash

6 replies

  1. Some additional sources on this important topic:
    ======
    On Equal Terms: A Thesaurus for Nonsexist Indexing & Cataloging
    Joan Marshall, Neal-Schuman, 1977.

    Sanford Berman (1971), Prejudices and Antipathies, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

    Knowlton, Steven A. (2005). “Three Decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A Study of Changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. 40 (2): 123–145. pdf is here: https://www.sanfordberman.org/biblinks/knowlton.pdf

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post, Jane. Library classification systems like Dewey and LCC/LCSH do center whiteness and Western viewpoints, and it’s important to understand why they continue to do so beyond their historical origins. A brief introduction to the underlying principle of these systems (literary warrant) is available at: https://ddc.typepad.com/025431/2019/10/how-do-the-editors-decide-which-concepts-get-a-dewey-number-an-explainer.html. If we don’t like the results we get from relying on literary warrant, how should we choose what concepts should be represented?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for reading my post and for the resource. You bring up an excellent point! I hadn’t heard of literary warrant before and I’m glad I know about it now. I definitely don’t have an answer to the question you posed, but I’m interested to see where the discussion will take us!

      Like

  3. Também observo que na CDU e na CDD os números ultrapassados que refletem diversos preconceitos continuam a existir apesar das revisões periódicas, o que me leva a pensar que o problema está na falta de representatividade das minorias nos grupos de revisores. Quem não está no grupo de menor poder social terá que fazer um esforço imenso para se lembrar das minorias.

    Like

  4. Glad to hear my article inspired you! This one was a great read. We just spent a week talking about this in my Indigenous Contexts in LIS class two weeks ago, and I did my first assignment for that course on this issue as well.

    Like

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