Editor’s Note: Our two-part guest blog series on Library of Congress Subject Headings and social justice was co-authored by Netanel Ganin, Metadata Coordinator at Brandeis University and Catherine Oliver, Metadata & Cataloging Services Librarian at Northern Michigan University. Thank you both for your wisdom!
Almost every metadata expert has to contend with that great bulwark, the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), at one time or another. They are used by many information organizations across the Anglophone world, despite their flaws, because of their remarkable comprehensiveness- love ‘em, hate ‘em, or simply catalog with ‘em, they are quite an achievement. Comprehensiveness, however, is in the eye of the cataloger, and there are times when this great vocabulary is simply not descriptive enough for our needs. The good news is that they can be augmented- and anyone can do it.
Why go to the trouble? When patrons come to the library or the archives, whether in person or online, they deserve to see themselves represented equitably and equally in the description of our resources, just as they deserve to find themselves represented in the resources themselves. In fact, a lack in the first will often result in the erasure of the second- if the metadata in a finding aid or a catalog record does not use terminology the patron recognizes, or uses terminology the patron finds harmful, the patron is less likely to discover and use the collections. And while local practices are valuable and can enrich metadata, submitting a term to the larger vocabulary has the salutary effect of standardizing it (simplifying matters for frequent users) and making it more useable for metadata creators who may not have the knowledge or time to create local headings of their own.
All vocabularies (and the LCSH is no exception) reflect the biases of their creators, contributors, and maintainers. Although many terms have been added and changed since its inception in 1897, there is no getting away from the fact that LCSH often centers and treats as the norm (thus unremarked) the white, male, Western, Christian, cishet, abled experience. For example, consider the number of headings that specify African American or Women but the relative paucity of headings that specify White or Men, especially when dealing with the professions. We have headings for African American cartoonists, Women cartoonists, African American guitarists, and Women guitarists, but no headings for White cartoonists or Men guitarists. Rather, the terms Cartoonists and Guitarists are to be applied to resources that present themselves as “general,” even if all the exemplars in the resource are white men. Unless the resource explicitly calls itself something like “Collective Biography of 10 Men Who Shred,” no subject heading for Men guitarists would be proposed. White people and men are taken to be the norm in the LCSH, and few attempts are made to note them.
The good news is that, over the years, some offensive headings have been removed and some needed headings proposed, often because of outside pressure. While not every attempt has been successful, and many have been bitterly controversial, the opportunity is there (a fact not many realize). This post will demonstrate how to propose new headings to the LCSH. It is important to remember two things: firstly, that the Library of Congress maintains ultimate control over this vocabulary, and all headings go through a multistep approval process; and secondly, that all headings must be justified by literary warrant– that is, there must be a published work of which at least 20% deals with the topic. (This is slightly different from the Society of American Archivists (SAA) definition of the term, which simply states that there must be textual justification for a term.) The difficulty here, of course, is that since archives handle unpublished material, it may be difficult to find literary warrant for a heading. You may need to sleuth around and find published works that use the term you want to propose.
On to part two: How to propose!