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Exploring Bias and Library of Congress Subject Headings

I am currently wrapping up my first year as an MLS student at Emporia State University, with a concentration in archives. A sense of curiosity, a love of learning, and a passion for research led me to libraries and archives as a career. I am drawn to the idea of working for universal access to information and knowledge, and I intend to work to disrupt systems of oppression in our institutions. In Spring of 2021, I took a required course in my program that introduces students to basic concepts in cataloging and classification. While I had already chosen a concentration that fills most of my elective credits, I wanted to learn more about cataloging. The cataloging project, part of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ 50th Anniversary Internship program, was the perfect opportunity to further develop my knowledge of descriptive work, while incorporating ethics of social justice.

For this project, I had the pleasure of working with Heidy Berthoud, Head of Resource Description, and Amanda Landis, Library Technician. We started with materials relating to ideas of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) within Smithsonian Libraries and Archives library collections and examined the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) being used for those materials in library catalogs. We then considered where there were gaps in the assigned headings which did not fully convey the meaning of these works, or where subject headings being used were inappropriate or outdated. We would then draft proposals for new subject headings, with the goal of improving accuracy and inclusivity within LCSH.

People working in Card Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. [Between 1900 and 1920] [Photograph]. Library of Congress.
As intern for this project, I conducted research needed to justify proposals and provided an additional critical eye as we searched for issues. I took particular interest in issues of gender and sexuality within LCSH, performing research to determine the relationships between terms as the hierarchy of LCSH exists at present. This led me to discover that a common sexual orientation, pansexuality, is currently absent from LCSH. I performed the research to draft a proposal for pansexuality as a new heading. I also performed research to support a change in the heading “sexual minority culture,” hoping to update it to “queer culture” (this heading exists in addition to “gay culture” and “lesbian culture”).

Mapping sexuality terms as present in LCSH [screenshot]. River Freemont.
Through this project, I learned a lot about the process and politics of proposing headings. There are an extensive number of complicated rules for constructing proposals, but it is also important to be mindful of how LC prefers things to be done, even if they are not requirements. Consistency within LCSH is a common factor in rejections, as well as the impact a change would have on the larger system. It can take over two months to receive a ruling on your proposal. Heidy even arranged for us to attend an editorial meeting of the LC Policy, Training, and Cooperative Programs Division (PTCP), where decisions are made about new headings or revisions to headings.

It is important to consider that headings are approved based on works being cataloged, not anticipation of some future need for a heading. So, an important part of writing proposals is to provide literary warrant – justifications for headings that consist of published works where the term is being used – which shows the PTCP that experts in the field agree that your heading is the preferred term. Something this brought up for me is the validity of lived experience. How can we privilege the voices of those whose lives are affected by the language used to describe them? Potential solutions to this issue that I found were choosing sources that interviewed subjects or contained personal anecdotes, as well as considering the positionality of the author or the publication.

There are issues with access to this process. In order to perform this work, we really need to have access to tools such as RDA Toolkit, OCLC Connexion, Classification Web, or Cataloger’s Desktop. These are costly tools that not everyone wishing to do this work will have access to through their institution. There is an overrepresentation of university, research, and national libraries, as well as vendors, in the decision-making process. Conversely, there is a lack of representation from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), public and school libraries, and international libraries. During our work on this project, Heidy was able to consult a colleague with insider knowledge, but not everyone will have that kind of connection.

Heidy also introduced me to Cataloging Lab, a project started by Violet Fox. It is a website “designed so that people who are familiar with LCSH and experienced with the…proposal process can assist those who want to do the research to make changes”. I was inspired by this project because it is increasing access to the process, facilitating collaboration, and sharing knowledge in order to make positive changes in a difficult system. Anyone can join and post their proposals, receive knowledgeable input, and assist others with research.

I found the iterative nature of the process was a challenge with this project. It was necessary to keep in mind that we might not see immediate results from our efforts, but we are contributing to change, and others can come along and build off our work. Another significant challenge was overcoming my inclination toward introversion, and developing confidence in myself as a professional. It certainly paid off in the end, however, as the connections I made were my favorite part of this experience.

I particularly enjoyed attending Smithsonian Library and Archives meetings, such as the National Museum of Natural History’s Collections Task Force. I loved learning about different projects underway at the Smithsonian and learning about what librarians do for the Smithsonian community. Heidy facilitated a lot of conversations with different folks around the Smithsonian, some librarians, some not. These conversations helped to inspire me, give me direction for my education and future career, and increase my confidence as an emerging professional. I loved being a part of the Smithsonian community. The people I met were so kind and welcoming, and I especially enjoyed working with Heidy and Amanda.

River Freemont’s internship was part of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ 50th Anniversary Internship program, with funding provided by the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian National Board.

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