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Petition to change LC subject heading from “Illegal Aliens” to “Undocumented Immigrants”

Here’s a little backstory behind the recent news that the ALA Council approved a resolution to change the subject heading “Illegal Aliens” to “Undocumented Immigrants”:

In February 2014, a broad-based coalition of student activists at Dartmouth College carried out a series of protests on campus.  These students co-authored a document called the “Freedom Budget” which proposed change in eight different areas of campus life.  Among the points was a provision for the removal of offensive language from the library’s discovery systems – most notably, the subject heading “Illegal Aliens.”  This point was raised by a subgroup of student activists, the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers (Co-FIRED).

A group of Dartmouth librarians met with Co-FIRED members and over the course of discussion, alighted on the thought of the students and the library jointly undertaking a proposal to change the subject heading through Dartmouth’s membership in SACO, the Subject Authorities Cooperative of the Library of Congress.  Together they gathered research and prepared the proposal.  It was submitted to the Library of Congress in July 2014.  Unfortunately, the proposal was eventually denied.  The Library of Congress Policy and Standards Division, the body which considers SACO proposals,  gave the following explanation of why the proposals were not approved:

“Undocumented immigrants [and five related proposals]

This proposal was made to change the wording of the existing heading Illegal aliens to Undocumented immigrants.  Illegal aliens is an inherently legal heading, and as such the preference is to use the legal terminology. The U.S. Code, Title 8, Aliens and Nationality, uses the terminology “illegal aliens.”  In addition, the 9th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary includes the headword “illegal alien” with a cross-reference from “undocumented alien.”  The Legislative Indexing Vocabulary used by the Congressional Research Service follows suit by authorizing the heading “Illegal aliens,” with a reference from “Undocumented aliens.”  The meeting also notes that in some legal systems, a person may be an undocumented alien without being in a jurisdiction illegally; general works on undocumented legal aliens are covered by the heading Aliens. Finally, Immigrants – the proposed broader term for the revised heading – is not an inherently legal heading.  Mixing an inherently legal concept with one that is not inherently legal leads to problems with the structure and maintenance of LCSH, and makes assignment of headings difficult.
All of the above argue against revising the heading. A UF Undocumented aliens was added to the record in 1993 to provide additional access, and reflects the fact that the common terminology is fluid.  
The proposals were not approved.”

In this case, the principle that LCSH terms for groups of people should not be pejorative is in conflict with LC’s stated need to use the terminology that appears in the U.S. Code.

Having recently been appointed to the CaMMS Subject Analysis Committee (known as SAC, the charge of which is to “study problems and recommend improvements in patterns, methods, and tools for the subject and genre/form analysis and organization of library materials, including particularly classification and subject headings systems”), Tina Gross contacted John DeSantis, the Dartmouth cataloger who had worked on the proposal, to ask if it would be helpful to raise the issue with SAC. At the SAC meeting at ALA Annual 2015, the committee agreed that a larger discussion was warranted. At the Midwinter 2016 meeting, SAC voted to form a working group charged with investigating and providing a report.

Also at Midwinter 2016, Tina Gross submitted the Resolution on Replacing the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens” with “Undocumented Immigrants,” written in collaboration with others (and with input from Sandy Berman), to the Social Responsibilities Round Table(SRRT), which voted to bring the resolution forward for consideration by ALA Council. Members of REFORMA, EMIERT, and SALALM helped spread the word and garner support. The resolution was also supported by the Intellectual Freedom Committee  (IFC), the Intellectual Freedom Round Table(IFRT), and SAC, and it passed at ALA Council nearly unanimously on January 12, 2016.

Jill Baron and Tina Gross

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3 Comments for “Petition to change LC subject heading from “Illegal Aliens” to “Undocumented Immigrants””

  • Frederick Garrett says:

    It should be undocumented immigrants

  • Francisco Vargas says:

    Thank you Jill and Tina for your great work. Having had the chance to be at the CAMs Meeting at Midwinter I truly appreciate your efforts to move away from this very offensive term.

    Francisco

  • Sarah Walsh says:

    The term “Illegal Aliens” is outdated and unwelcoming. We need to change our cataloging to reflect a better national character.


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