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Since the early 2010’s, the term “illegal alien” had been widely acknowledged as a racist and outdated phrase.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.


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