Duke University Libraries Technical Services Division’s (DULTS) Resource Description Department has recently composed and adopted a Statement on Inclusive Description, which begins:
The Resource Description Department of Duke University Libraries Technical Services acknowledges that the creation and management of metadata are not neutral activities. We further acknowledge that the framework of national and international standards in which we work has served to uphold white supremacy, marginalization of sexual orientations and gender identities, and colonialism, among other forms of oppression. While we will continue to work within the parameters of national and international standards and organizations, we pledge as creators and managers to make metadata more inclusive …
The metadata that describes the millions of resources Duke University Libraries makes available to users dates back to the early 20th century, and as society has changed, so have cataloging practices. In 2020, we have perspectives on inclusion and representation that perhaps our predecessors did not have in previous decades. Our Statement on Inclusive Description is our pledge to do better, not just as we move forward but as we look at some of our old metadata and think of ways to improve it.
Limitations of Cataloging Standards
Most academic and public libraries in the United States—and in many other countries—use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as their main thesaurus to provide subject access to works in their collections. Medical libraries, by contrast, typically use Medical Subject Headings—MeSH–or a combination of MeSH and LCSH. Library of Congress Subject Headings are what most Duke University Libraries catalog users are accustomed to seeing, with familiar patterns like these:
- Salvador (Brazil)—Social life and customs—19th century.
- Art, Japanese–Edo period, 1600-1868—Exhibitions.
- X-Men (Fictitious characters)—Comic books, strips, etc.—Periodicals.
Library of Congress Subject Headings are not, however, always ideal, and can present some obstacles when trying to catalog inclusively. There is often a presumption of whiteness and maleness in LCSH; its default is frequently “straight, white, cis-gendered male,” and anyone that doesn’t fit into those categories can be seen as exceptional. For example, the LCSH “Chemists” is used for works about chemists of all genders and for works limited to male chemists; a work about female chemists gets the LCSH “Women chemists.” (There is no heading “Male chemists.”) Similarly, the assumption seems to be that “American literature” is written by straight white male authors: if a work is about any other subset of Americans as authors, the headings must be modified: “American literature—Women authors” or “Gay men’s writings, American,” for example.
Library of Congress Subject Headings also include some vocabulary that may be considered outdated, inaccurate, or offensive. You may have heard about the political controversy that arose when the Library of Congress considered a proposal to change the heading “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants.” The change was blocked, and “Illegal aliens” remains the authorized LCSH even though many find it offensive. There are other terms in LCSH, again often dealing with marginalized groups, that some find questionable, such as “Problem children” and “Eskimos.” There is a process to propose changes and additions to LCSH, but it is extremely involved, can take a very long time, and can be blocked by external factors, lack of consensus on what a better term would be, and diminished staffing at the Library of Congress.
Finally, there are some areas in which Library of Congress Subject Headings just aren’t very good, such as terminology for LGBTQ people and culture. The default LCSH heading for anyone or anything non-straight is “Sexual minorities,” a term which may technically be accurate, but which certainly isn’t in common usage and also presents LGBTQ folks as an anthropological Other. Meanwhile, the term “Female impersonators” for the entertainers we all know and love as “Drag queens” is, if we’re being generous, quaintly outdated. And LCSH just doesn’t get specific at all for LGBTQ cultures and subcultures, making it difficult to provide appropriate access for works about them.
Making Library of Congress Subject Headings Work for Us
So, if Library of Congress Subject Headings are problematic, why do we continue to use them? Well, for most subjects, LCSH is pretty good. For many disciplines, it is extremely good. More importantly, it’s an internationally used standard. Most cataloging in the English-speaking world and beyond is done cooperatively—that is, libraries contribute bibliographic description for works they acquire to the WorldCat database, so when another library gets the same book (or DVD or anything else), they can just use the record that’s already in WorldCat rather than creating their own. It makes everything go faster: trying to catalog every monograph, periodical, map, streaming video, and e-book we receive from scratch to our own exacting standards would be an impossible task. Terms in LCSH are the international standard, and libraries have agreed to use it as our common language when describing what works are about and then sharing description of those works.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we are limited to out-of-the-box LCSH. There are several ways we provide enhanced access to our resources by bending LCSH or by using other vocabularies altogether. In addition to actively participating in the process of proposing additions and changes to LCSH mentioned above, Duke University Libraries staff also provide more inclusive description in other ways. Perhaps most obvious to the user is our public catalog, which we share and develop with our colleagues in the Triangle Research Libraries Network (Duke, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Chapel Hill). DUL staff are able to customize what displays to the public, so even if the underlying metadata is standard LCSH, we can choose to make alternative terms both visible and searchable. For example, instead of the standard LCSH heading “Poor,” which reduces people to a financial status, we have chosen to display “Poor people.” Even though “Illegal aliens” remains in our behind-the-scenes metadata, library user see “Undocumented immigrants” when viewing the catalog. Continuing to use standard LCSH allows us to accept bibliographic records from other libraries without having to make manual changes to them locally, but our Search TRLN public catalog empowers us to display alternative terms our users say they prefer, or that we know through analyzing data, that they are more likely to search for.
In DULTS, when we create original cataloging records, or when we enhance shared records in WorldCat, we also work intentionally to make sure our description is inclusive and accurate, especially for works by and about members of marginalized groups. For example, as we describe the Edwin & Terry Murray Comic Book Collection with our colleagues in Rubenstein Library Technical Services, we make sure to provide specific subject access to works about women, African Americans, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and other non-“cis white straight male” characters. “Superheroes” may be the default Library of Congress Subject Heading for caped crusaders, but we make sure users are able to go beyond Superman and Batman by adding more descriptive subject headings like “African American superheroes” and “Women detectives” so characters like Storm, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones aren’t lost in the shuffle.
We have also begun exploring specialized thesauri to supplement Library of Congress Subject Headings when LCSH just isn’t specific enough to accurately describe a work’s contents. One controlled vocabulary we’ve begun using is Homosaurus, which calls itself “an international LGBTQ linked data vocabulary.” We’re able to enhance access to works by and about LGBTQ folks by using specialized terms from Homosaurus that LCSH just isn’t able to convey, such as “Bigender people,” “LGBTQ sports clubs,” “Transgender people of color,” and—yes—“Drag queens.”
Making our cataloging more inclusive takes time, but we think it’s worth it. We also realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Until the majority of other libraries that contribute cataloging to shared databases like WorldCat start taking similar approaches, not all of our resources will be cataloged as thoroughly and thoughtfully as we might like. But the principles we lay out in our Statement on Inclusive Description are a start. As we incorporate these tenets in newly created descriptive metadata going forward, we will also explore ways to enhance and improve our old records en masse in hopes of someday providing better, fairer description of all the millions of resources Duke University Libraries make accessible to our users. It’s a huge job, but we are committed to making it happen. It’s the right thing to do.