Student Snippets A Window Into The Daily Life & Thoughts of SLIS Students

Subjects, Categories, & Classifications in LIS

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a panel discussion called Contested Subjects: The Politics of Library Classification at Amherst College. The speakers were Emily Drabinski (on whom I have a professional crush), Kelsy Shepherd, Alana Kubmier, and John DeSantis. They were all fantastic panelists, and I would highly recommend viewing the discussion once the recording is available. It’s going to be posted on their Facebook page when it’s ready. 

The topic was that the library, particularly the library catalog, is never really a neutral space. The panel started with John DeSantis, a librarian at Dartmouth with an insider’s perspective, talking about the recent “illegal alien” Library of Congress subject heading controversy. For those of you who don’t know, a group of students at Dartmouth started the movement to change the “illegal alien” subject heading. After the initial rejection by the Library of Congress, more people began to weigh in and advocate for a change in terminology. A new proposal with the additional changes was proposed, and some politicians soon became involved, a few even spoke out against the changes.  

It was really interesting to hear Mr. DeSantis’ perspective of the conflict and his detailed view of the controversy. Personally, I found one of the most interesting things about this controversy is when people are surprised at how much hubbub came out of it. I’ve heard several folks be surprised about the politicians’ involvement for instance, remarking on how strange it was to have everybody all up in the library world’s business over a subject heading. (Although not in those exact words. “All up in my business” is one of my fave phrases so that’s how I’m paraphrasing)

Certainly a lot of the politicians’ involvement was just politic-y positioning, but there is something here to think on. There was such a big hubbub because subject headings are kind of a big deal. Do we (librarians, catalogers, decision-makers) only reflect the culture of the day in the subject headings designations, or are we influencing that culture? Of course, this is not a new debate in the library world. But, it’s something I’m thinking about a lot right now, especially because I was already thinking about labels in general right around the time I started library school.

From my meager, one-person perspective, it seems as though there’s a lot of labels happening right now. You know how culture/society seems to kind of go by pendulum swings? For example, “I love kale!” and so people respond with: “Kale sucks, bacon for life!!” but on a grander and more historical movement kind of scale. This might also have to do with me moving out of the South, moving around the country and then being in New England for a while, but a few years ago I started interacting more with labels. I remember the first time I learned words like demiromantic, pansexual, and non-binary. It felt so awesome. I felt like the world had opened up a bit, like I now had words I could use to really describe certain things about me, in easy ways that other people could quickly understand (or at least look up on their smart phone and then understand). Plus, it gave me a little sense of community. If these words exist, then there are other people who want to use them to describe their stuff; I’m not alone! 

I enjoy thinking about subject headings this way too- because just as with the labels I mentioned above- they’re there to describe things, and on a big aboutness concept level. These descriptions help other people understand what they’re about- they communicate that aboutness. And they collocate things- just like I felt like there was a community of like folks out there for me when I first discovered some new-to-me labels. 

Glory, glory halleluiah labels! Exceeepppttt….

After I embraced certain personal labels – I had my own little pendulum swing of response. Maybe I don’t want to be stuck in that label. Maybe I don’t want you thinking you know me just because you know a little bit about my sexuality. Maybe I want to change. Maybe I don’t want to fit in a little box with a label because I’m a whole person. Maybe I don’t want you assuming things about me based on a word.

I’ve gone back and forth a lot about labels in general. The thing is we do need categories in life to function in society, and we do need subject headings in our catalog (if you disagree, that’s a whole other debate that would be fun to have sometime). They have purpose and often they make things a lot easier. Yet, they are social constructs. The problem is not always with the labels, but with the assumptions people make based on labels and with the value that we apply socially to things that are in truth arbitrary. 

So, if you were expecting me to reach some conclusion in this post or provide all the answers- sorry folks. I’m a newbie at this stuff, and as you can probably tell at this point, I’m the type of person who will debate with herself until the cows come home.  The good news is that a lot of awesome librarians and also awesome non-librarians have been talking about the topic for a long time. The only conclusions I’ve come to are that subject headings do matter, they matter to more than just librarians, and they should matter to more than just librarians. Money is just a social construct too, but it matters quite a lot to folks. So, let’s keep the conversation going and support movements like the one the Dartmouth students started to evaluate subject headings, even if it is a big pain in the rump to make changes. 


Oh and PS, It’s Halloween time, and I love Halloween. So here’s some pics of my last few Halloween costumes: 


 Can you tell I like wordplay?