For a long time I've been wondering if adhering to Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH) is worth the effort. I get the power of controlled vocabulary, and I respect that no one massive body is going to get headings my version of right all the time. The problem is that in my work in particular, describing zines, LCSH are not as powerful as I'd like them to be. There often aren't terms readily available or the ones that are don't employ culturally appropriate language.
As I said, I've been thinking about this for a while now. Something happened yesterday (that I'll get to soon) that prompted me to focus on the issue and possibly take action. I conducted a scientific survey on Twitter:
With six people (representing thousands, I'm sure) registering their opinions, the answer was a non-definitive "stick to it." Among the "other" voters was a suggestion from sister zine librarian and for-real cataloger Violet Fox that as someone who contributes a lot of zine records to WorldCat (currently about 4,000), that I have a responsibility to zine catalogers who might copy my records, so I should "Use LCSH (except for perhaps the most egregious offenders)."
The problem is that I'm feeling the egregious offense really hard just now. Library of Congress deciders recently had the chance to unfuck a fucked up LCSH, complete with a mandate from the American Library Association, and they blew it.
This has to do with the heading Illegal aliens, which the Library of Congress lists as new in 2003 (though a reference below makes me unsure of that date). They added Illegal aliens in literature in March 2009, Children of illegal aliens in March 2011, and Children of illegal aliens--Education in August 2011. I guess the US executive and legislative branches have been pretty immigrant hostile this century, so maybe the LC deciders were just adhering to the culture from on high.
A typical LC excuse for its offensive headings is that their job is to serve members of Congress, so the headings they choose reflect Congressional language and culture. If a typical (i.e., a member of all the dominant groups in America: rich, white, Christian, male, heterosexual, cisgender) member of Congress is more likely to look for materials using the phrase "illegal aliens" than "undocumented immigrants" (which is not even a cross reference), then that's the term that must be employed. Must be. But here's the deal: academic and research libraries in the US and around the world use LC's mighty thesaurus. More people outside of Congress than inside, so shouldn't external library patrons' needs have weight at all?
A proposal to change the heading to Undocumented immigrants was rejected in December 2014, mostly citing legal language.
Illegal aliens is an inherently legal heading, and as such the preference is to use the legal terminology. The U.S. Code, Title 8, Aliens and Nationality, uses the terminology "illegal aliens."
This very excuse gets at why I'm thinking of dropping LCSH from my cataloging practice. Changing things one heading at a time (on the rare occasions you succeed) is not meaningful when the system is problematic. We shouldn't be using the U.S. Code as a warrant if it's xenophobic. Warrants cited for many headings come from sources that reflect publishing industries that reinforce dominant cultures, and with them systemic oppression. The works I'm cataloging, zines, are usually created by women, and young women at that. They are often created by queer women, and in smaller numbers they're by women of color, people outside the gender binary, and women with disabilities. The zines are typically informed by an anarchopunk political and social ethos that I would venture to say is not highly represented in the House of Representatives. The composition of Congress is not LC's fault. I do think they could claim a little more agency to be reflect US culture than they are, even if I don't expect them to entirely adopt zine girl sensibilities and send out their monthly updates on Hello Kitty stationery.
The US's other most powerful library entity, the American Library Association (ALA) recently got into it, regarding the illegal aliens heading:
Tina Gross submitted the Resolution on Replacing the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens” with “Undocumented Immigrants,” written in collaboration with others (and with input from Sandy Berman), to the Social Responsibilities Round Table(SRRT), which voted to bring the resolution forward for consideration by ALA Council. Members of REFORMA,EMIERT, and SALALM helped spread the word and garner support. The resolution was also supported by the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), the Intellectual Freedom Round Table(IFRT), and SAC, and it passed at ALA Council nearly unanimously on January 12, 2016.
So, in January, ALA's governing body, representing its 60,000ish members urged LC to replace Illegal aliens with Undocumented immigrants. This week LC followed half of that urging, striking Illegal aliens from its thesaurus and replacing it with…
My read is that they couldn't lose face, reversing their decision from December 2014, so they chose alternatives to the preferred term of the people being described, terms that are not quite but nearly as offensives as "illegal aliens." These terms feel like a slap in the face. Good on you for being defiant, LC, but you're defying the wrong people.
I already supplement LCSH in zine records with keyword rich, vernacular summaries, due to the inadequacy of the fixed headings, both in general, and for my specific purpose.
So, am I done with Library of Congress subject headings? I might be, but I'm also caught up in having used them for a long time, and in fact enjoying the game I play, simultaneously critiquing and employing LCSH.
Finally: kudos to Tina Gross, Jill Baron, and everyone who advocated for ridding the catalog of "illegal aliens." And thanks for Dinah Handel and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez whose tweets alerted me to the fact that the change wasn't to an acceptable alternative. (I'm a lazy reader and took the SALALM headline "Petition to change LC subject heading from 'Illegal Aliens' to 'Undocumented Immigrants'" to be good news.)