Replacing longstanding subject headings is an ongoing part of library work. Language is dynamic; it evolves with time and cultural shifts. By continually updating the language surrounding particular subject matter, librarians ensure that subject headings in catalog records and finding aids reflect current terminology and do not perpetuate legacy harms. This work is central to Knowledge Access and Resource Management Services (KARMS), which facilitates access to the Libraries’ collections by organizing, describing, and making content findable in catalogs accessible around the world.
KARMS has formed an interdepartmental working group of archivists and catalogers to consider changes to descriptive catalog text. You can see the Authorities Working Group’s efforts reflected in the Libraries’ catalog, where, based on its research and internal feedback, it has changed the subject heading “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants.”
“Our ideals as a profession encourage us to empathize with people,” said Weatherly Stephan (pictured), head of Archival Collections Management and chair of the working group. “If a community has been harmed by previous descriptive practice, we should do something about it.”
In a similar spirit, in 2016 the Library of Congress (LoC) announced that it was canceling “Illegal aliens” and replacing it with two headings, “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.” Congress pushed back and the change was never made, but activists have continued to press forward. The working group is considering various strategies to sign on to such petitions, but for now it is keeping its subject-updating work local, focused on ways to remediate the usage of harmful headings within our local practices, metadata, and access and display technologies.
Everyone who uses the Libraries catalog can help with this local work, said Weatherly. “Let us know if you see harmful language in a catalog record by filling out the Harmful Language Report form. Your suggestions can help us to understand these issues better and find solutions.”
For more information on the Authorities Working Group, see Changing The Subject: Addressing Harmful Subject Headings in the NYU Libraries Catalog, and Righting (and Writing) Wrongs: Reparative Description for Japanese American Wartime Incarceration, a blog post by Shannon O’Neill, Curator for Tamiment-Wagner Collections, and Rachel Searcy, Accessioning Archivist in ACM.