25 May 2021

The Politics of Subject Headings

Guest post by Ailbhe O'Rourke, MLIS student graduating in Summer 2021.

In February 2014, a group of students from Dartmouth College stumbled upon the subject heading “illegal aliens” in the Library of Congress database. With the support of their campus librarians, the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and DREAMERs (CoFIRED) submitted a request to the Library of Congress to revise the heading “illegal aliens” and replace it with the term “undocumented immigrants”.

Since the early 2010’s, the term “illegal alien” had been widely acknowledged as a racist and outdated phrase. By 2014, news outlets and politicians had dropped the expression from their vernacular and the term had been phased out of public discourse. In 2016, the Library of Congress announced the intention to replace the term "illegal aliens" with "non-citizens".

However, in this instance, the symbiotic relationship between LoC subject headings and U.S. politics became apparent as Senator Diane Lane moved to block the proposed change. This was the first incident of the House of Representatives blocking a LoC subject heading amendment.

One might ask how a presiding U.S. government can have authority over the manner in which subjects are catalogued. The question is all the more pertinent considering the American Library Association describes itself as content- neutral, unbiased and nonpartisan. Library of Congress subject headings are in ubiquitous use across the world. It is concerning that this institution, which welds such power across in both the U.S. and internationally, is at the mercy of the House of Representatives.

A brief history of the LoC within the context of U.S. politics

Politics and the LoC have an uneasy relationship dating back to the post- war years. During the Cold War, librarians fought to retain the “right to read” amid increasing attempts at censorship by the U.S government. The post-war climate was one of paranoia and fear. As the USSR continued its expansion across eastern Europe, American society was on high alert and feared that communist interlopers had infiltrated their society. The U.S. government was eager to censor any material that could be considered communist- this did not pertain only to socialist literature, but anything written by an author who had been accused of having communist sympathies. 1948, the ALA sought tostrengthen the Library Bill of Rights to preserve intellectual freedom andmaintain the “right to read”.

In the early 1950s Senator Joseph Mc Carthy commenced a series of senate hearings investigating “anti-government activities”. The era of “McCarthyism” had begun. Riding a wave of populism and fear- mongering, the charismatic Mc Carthy conducted hearings, ideally targeting well-known victims that would garner a lot of press. In a pre- twitter era, these hearings were headline grabs; no more than publicity stunts, aiming to capitalise on a fraught nations’ post -war paranoia. Rarely were any of Mc Carthy’s accusations proven or prosecuted.

Two of Mc Carthy’s right-hand men, Roy Cohn and David Schine, were sent on an overseas tour to ensure that European libraries had removed books from perceived “communist” authors. Cohn and Schine were instructed by Mc Carthy to remove and burn books by authors that had been “blacklisted” as a result of refusing to testify during Mc Carthy’s Senate hearings, however a directive then changed these instructions to removing and storing these books in a place where their corrupting influence could not be felt.

In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower had been elected president. He was no fan of Mc Carthys, but needless to say he had been quite happy to capailtise on the controversial figures’ popularity to win the Presidency in the previous year. As a retort to Cohn and Schines enthusiastic auditing of European libraries Eisenhower made his position clear, saying:

“Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”

Coincidentally, this speech took place at Dartmouth College, where the conflict between librarianship and politics would reignite sixty years later. Mc Carthy’s reign was brief but impactful, and by the late fifties his senate hearings had fizzled out. However, the long-term affect upon the library as a tool to reinforce political ideals would continue to be felt in the decades to come.

The Delta Collection

For author Melissa Adler, a browse amongst subject headings would reveal outdated social attitudes entrenched within the LoC catalogue. Headings related to homosexuality had been historically classified under “sexual deviation”, harking from the days when queerness was universally accepted to be a symptom of psychological illness. She looked for “homosexual” or “bisexual” within subject headings and found the subject heading “Paraphilias” occurring within the cataloguing of books about LGBTQ issues.

As well as policing personal politics, in post- war U.S. the government attempted to police sexuality. In common parlance, the words “communist” and “homosexual” were interchangeable terms, and a relentless fear of the perceived “other” permeated social discourse. (In fact, Mc Carthy would become a victim of his own methods when his opponents heavily implied that he had a sexual relationship with Roy Cohn.)

And so, the Delta Collection was born. Housing materials deemed too obscene for the public, including books such as Lolita and Ulysses, titles within this collection were assigned subject headings such as “sexual perversion”. Books such as Kharmasutra and Fanny Hill as well as books about birth control and sex within marriage were amongst the books assigned to this collection in the late 1880s. However, during World War 2, the Delta Collection took on a patriotic role as political materials deemed as anti- American were also added to the collection. “This climate no doubt altered the very nature ofthe Delta Collection from being a repository of the cultural record to being apolitical actor in the post-war era, one with increasing significance asMcCarthy’s policies and rhetoric came to dominate.”

One can trace the evolution of social progress through the changing LoC subject headings relating to sexuality. From 1898- 1972, books that contained LGBTQ material were catalogued under “sexual deviation”. From 1972 to 2007, “sexual perversion”. And from 2007 to this date, “Paraphilias”. “Homosexuality” was added to the sub heading in 1946, reflecting a newfound social awareness of homosexuality in popular culture. “Lesbians” was not added until 1974. “Homosexuality” was cross referenced with “sodomy” and “social pathology” until 1972.

Renowned cataloguer and trailblazing librarian Sandford Berman, in conjunction with the Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Liberation, were instrumental in petitioning for the changes that occurred in 1972. The changes that Berman facilitated removed connotations between homosexuality and mental illness. In 1975, in a gesture a progressive gesture that was ahead of its time, the ALA and LoC issued a statement advocating for minority groups to be permitted to describe themselves, rather than submitting to the descriptions of psychologists or politicians.

Looking to the future- the role of the cataloguing librarian

In the spring of 2016, the House of Representatives ordered the LoC to continue using “illegal aliens”. This was the first time the House of Representatives had intervened in a planned subject heading change. Politically, 2016 was a fraught time of transition. Promising a wall between Mexico and the U.S., Donald Trump had become president. Brexit was looming across the Atlantic. Both of these incidents had been enacted by a rising wave of emboldened racist discourse.

This means that the intervention by government in the subject heading change was a symbolically significant event. Just as the ALA had had apprehensions of what loomed on the horizon in the late 1940s, this decision sent shockwaves through the world of librarianship. Much as the subject heading “sexual deviant” had sought to reinforce social norms in the post -war years, by preserving “illegal aliens”, Republicans sought to control the language in which undocumented immigrants were discussed. History seemed to be repeating itself. Trump further evidenced the power of language and the intent of the U.S. Congress by resurrecting the then defunct term “illegal aliens” during campaign rallies. By resurrecting this term, both Trump and the Republican party sought to spread fear and create a sense of “othering” much as Mc Carthy had sixty years previously.

Still, the librarians rebelled against the U.S. Congress. Harvard and CSU library replaced “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants” within their own library systems. Over forty other libraries have followed suit with the same course of action. As of April 2021, “illegal aliens” remains a subject heading within the LoC.

Much has been said and written about the librarian’s role in fighting the rising tide of “fake news”. It is increasingly impossible for librarians to remain unbiased and nonpartisan in the multi literacy age, however looking back at history once may be forgiven for wondering if they ever truly could be.

Less has been said about the way information is catalogued, and how it can have long term ramifications for democracy, human rights and social progress. The LoC subject headings of any particular era are a snapshot of cultural norms and social attitudes- language is how we shape the world around us. But in the case of LoC subject headings, language can also be wielded as a weapon and instrument of oppression.

21 May 2021

A Review of IFLA Library Publishing Special Interest Group Virtual Open Programme: Library Publishing: A Catalyst for Change, October 15th 2020.

Guest post by Dr Johannah Duffy, Head of Library Services, Marino Institute of Education. Johannah has a strong interest in Library Publishing, Open Access, Research. Scholarly Communications, History, Cultural Studies & Learning

Attending the event was an insightful experience in seeing what so many information professionals and librarians are working towards in their own regions, countries, and libraries.  The expansion and increased access to information will inevitably create greater opportunities for the library community around the globe.  Organisers of this event, The IFLA Library Publishing Special Interest Group, advocate for the expansion of library services to include a library publishing service. A significant element of library publishing is the desire to advance open access as well as to meet local needs related to the creation and dissemination of scholarship. This webinar comprised of seven short presentations on library publishing case studies and collaborations. The diversity of the presentations, in terms of geography and diverse experiences made for an informative webinar with presentations from the Philippines, Russia, Nigeria, Germany, Turkey, Canada and the United States.

The case studies and collaborations included Jason Coleman, Karen E Dowling and William Lopez of the University of Michigan, who gave a powerful talk 'Collaboration & Commitment: Publishing Diverse Academic Scholarship for the Public Good'.  With a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, their goal is to help faculty share their expertise and research capacity with the public, through purposeful efforts focused outside the academy.  To facilitate this initiative, Michigan Publishing Services provide a suite of publishing-related services to help increase the visibility, reach, and impact of scholarship.

Dr Agnieszka Wenninger and Kathrin Ganz’s fascinating talk on 'Library Publishing & Editors – A Promising Partnership Based on OA', highlighted the invaluable role that librarians play in supporting editors and the overall publishing process. It powerfully captured open access literacy, advice on impact, typesetting, dissemination and more.  While, Selin Can Cemgil’s insightful presentation entitled 'Yilmaz Akkilic City Research Awards and Publications: A Library Publishing Example from Turkey', showcased the power of collaboration. This impressive presentation on how the Yilmaz Akkilic City Research Awards and Publications in Turkey has stimulated an extensive amount of high quality library publishing output provided an impressive example to us all. 

Library Publishing as an essential function in today’s information world: Models and Sustainability Plan by Academic Libraries in Nigeria’ by Dr Ngozi Blessing and Dr Aishat Egbunu, portrayed a robust example of models and sustainability of library publishing in Nigeria. This inspiring presentation articulated the possibilities but also the challenges that must be surmounted in relation to library publishing. It gives an excellent recommendation that library publishing should be taught to students. 

Gianina Cabanilla’s stimulating presentation on ‘An analysis of a publishing business plan for the UP College of Law, Information and Publication’, stressed sustainability, scalability and visibility. Ekaterina V. Nikonorova and Ekaterina A. Shibaeva of the Russian State Library, provided an excellent overview of their extensive and impactful Library Publishing Program.  I particularly enjoyed the focus on open access and transparency in Dr Ursula Arning’s presentation on ‘PUBLISSO Publishing and Advice Services’. This appears to be a primary and critically important imperative across library publishing programmes. 

This Library Publishing: A Catalyst for Change webinar highlighted that Libraries need to move beyond traditional roles of purchasing and distributing scholarly literature, librarians need to strategically position themselves and take ownership of improving access. As a direct result of Covid-19, there is a new level of urgency to transform the communication scholarly communication process and there are enormous opportunities for an expanded and inclusive library publishing service which addresses access to knowledge and literature.  The rich discussions of this event will stimulate the drive to make library publishing a mainstream service within libraries.   The clear message from this open programme is that libraries need to include publishing in their services, advocate for open access and serve our communities and societies.  If you have the chance, consider attending future IFLA Library Publishing Special Interest Group’s events to see the true scope of libraries and librarians.

The recording is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIo_Ckq6ZHI

For more information, see: 

IFLA Library Publishing Special Interest Group


Library Association of Ireland Library Publishing Group

5 May 2021

NORF Open Research in Ireland webinar: Open Access

As part of a webinar series on Open Research in Ireland, the National Open Research Forum (NORF) presented a webinar focused on Open Access to research publications on 4 May 2021.

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NORF has been developing a National Open Research Landscape Report to summarise progress and challenges in each of the strategic areas of Ireland’s National Framework on the Transition to an Open Research Environment. Against this background, speakers discussed national strategies for Open Access in Ireland, France, and Denmark, and highlighted key challenges and issues such as bibliodiversity.

Speakers included the chairs of NORF’s Working Group on Open Access (Susan Reilly, UCD & Niamh Brennan, TCD), Marin Dacos (Open Science Advisor, French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation), Hanne-Louise Kirkegaard (Senior Advisor, Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science) and Karen Hytteballe Ibanez (Senior Officer, Technical University Denmark).

Introduction to NORF – Daniel Bangert (Digital Repository of Ireland)
Open Access in Ireland – Susan Reilly (University College Dublin), Niamh Brennan (Trinity College Dublin)
Open Access in France – Marin Dacos (Open Science Advisor, French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation)
Open Access in Denmark – Hanne-Louise Kirkegaard (Senior Advisor, Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science), Karen Hytteballe Ibanez (Senior Officer, Technical University Denmark)

The recording of the webinar can be found {here}.

Webinar slides are available below:




In case you’re interested in the previous webinars, those materials are linked in the event pages:https://norf.ie/index.php/events/