As usage and vocabulary change and develop over time, language once deemed unobjectionable can become offensive and loaded. In response to shifts in usage and changed awareness, library catalogers at George Washington University are working to make the language used in the catalog more reflective of today’s community values.
Many terms now considered demeaning, outdated, offensive and otherwise inappropriate—often involving race, sexuality and gender—were once standard subject headings in library catalogs. Today, use of the word “Oriental” to denote Asian persons is seen as outdated and offensive. While the titles of works in a library’s collection can’t be changed, catalogers can update subject headings for such works to “Asians.”
Reparative cataloging is intended to make libraries more welcoming and inclusive for persons mischaracterized or rendered invisible by the traditional catalog. It is also meant to make the library’s holdings more accessible to people who might not search for an outmoded term such as “miscegenation.” The subject heading in the GW catalog for works that might formerly have been found under “miscegenation” is now “interracial relationships” (not “interracial marriage” because not all such relationships can be categorized as “marriage”).
Since GW is one of nine area institutions in the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC), catalogers at Gelman Library work cooperatively with peers at other local university libraries to make the catalog more inclusive. Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation and vice provost for libraries and information technology, strongly supports their effort.
“We believe that everyone in the GW community belongs in this library,” Henry said. “We have to make sure that we are reflecting the values of our community in every way, one of them being our catalog, where people search for information using terms they know.”
Students and other community members are able to flag terms in the catalog, said Jen Froetschel, metadata services librarian.
“On any GW library website, there’s a button users can click on if they want to report a problem or accessibility issue,” Froetschel said. “If they see a term that is offensive or that they think is wrong, they can report it there. We do take that seriously, and we do look at it.”
In order to make it possible for libraries to share records about items in their collections, they use controlled vocabularies in the catalog. The majority of subject headings used in the catalog come from the Library of Congress (LOC), by far the world’s most used system. Problems sometimes arise, Froetschel said, because the group of people who developed these vocabularies historically was fairly homogenous.
“They don’t quite reflect the diversity of our patrons,” Froetschel said, “and they often include language that is either outdated or just outright offensive.”
Even at the Library of Congress, subject headings are sometimes changed to reflect current usage, which is normally routine and noncontroversial. According to Matthew Bright, GW’s director of resource description, a proposed change in 2016 resulted in an unusual political reaction from conservative legislators. The LOC changes many headings every year and most pass without controversy.
“They wanted to change ‘illegal aliens’ to, I think, ‘undocumented immigrants,’” Bright said. “And Congress stepped in and said, ‘no, you are not allowed to make that change to the heading.’ And so a bunch of individual institutions stepped in to deviate from the Library of Congress subject heading and create their own term.”
Because WRLC libraries use a shared catalog, Bright said, there needs to be coordination among members of the consortium to agree on any changes. Regular meetings are held to facilitate consensus. Rather than being bound by Library of Congress standards, libraries are free to reflect local standards in their cataloging vocabularies.
“There are a lot of controlled vocabularies because Library of Congress is pretty broad, and a lot of times you need something more subject-specific,” Froetschel said. “Getty does arts and architecture. National Library of Medicine developed its own, because Library of Congress isn’t specific enough.”
“There are different vocabularies that we could use instead of Library of Congress subject headings,” Bright concurred. “One that was developed quite recently that we have started to use is called the Homosaurus. It’s focused on inclusive LGBTQ+ terminology. The Library of Congress has a subject heading of ‘sexual minorities,’ which is very broad. Homosaurus offers more specific terms like bisexuals, lesbians, gay men, two-spirit people, women who have sex with women, men who have sex with men. ‘Sexual minorities’ could include a whole lot of things that aren’t actually related to gay people.”
Many proposed changes reflect the effort now under way to have the people being described by a subject heading decide what that heading should be.
Within the past five years, Froetschel said, the drive to increase diversity, equity and inclusion within the library profession, and specifically within cataloging, has gathered momentum. While people may have been aware of bias in the catalog before the profession was moved into the digital world, it would have been much harder and slower to update a catalog under the traditional analog system, when individual cards would have to be changed by hand.
“People from across the country are working together to update terms,” Froetschel said. “There’s a group of people working together for African American subject headings. There's a group for gender and sexuality. Everybody’s sort of working together because across the profession, it's such a broad problem.”