Docu-menting Bibliographic Bias in Subject Headings: From Dartmouth College to the Library of Congress

Panel 2, May 11, 2016, 11:00am-12:30pm
Moderator: Ana Luhrs, Lafayette College
Rapporteur: Orchid Mazurkiewicz, Hispanic American Periodicals Index

Panelists: Jill Baron, Dartmouth College
Oscar Cornejo Jr., Dartmouth College
Tina Gross, St. Cloud State University
Claudia Anguiano, California State University, Fullerton

Jill and Oscar presented “Dropping the I-Word: Coalition-Based Student Activism and the Library.” Jill described the recent announcement from the Library of Congress (LC) that they would replace the subject heading “Aliens” and “Illegal aliens” with “Noncitizen” and “Unauthorized immigration.” The initiative for this change originated with a group of student activists at Dartmouth. Their original request for the removal of “Illegal aliens” as a heading was rejected but, thanks to the activism of Tina Gross, a resolution from the ALA led LC to reconsider and announce these changes. The response to this announcement from outside the library world has been both positive and negative and has come to represent much more than a change in a subject heading but, rather, larger issues around immigration and race in the United States.

A video, produced by Jill and two of her Dartmouth colleagues, about the student campaign to “Drop the I-Word” was played. Oscar, a student at Dartmouth, recounted the process from early meetings with Jill to the development of Dartmouth’s Freedom Budget which included a demand to drop the use of “Illegal aliens” from the library catalog. Jill described her eye-opening experience with a Latina student while using the catalog. The student’s reaction to seeing “Illegal aliens” helped her to realize that it wasn’t just an outdated and unfortunate term but had become something pejorative with the power to hurt; that it had become hate speech. The students and the library decided to work together to petition LC for a change in terminology. The proposal was rejected based on the use of the term “Aliens” in the US legal code. Nevertheless, the students continued their activism. Jill spoke of the need for librarians to be vigilant; that we have an obligation to know our users, to listen to their concerns, and to be disruptive when needed.

Tina Gross followed with the presentation “Please @librarycongress, Change the Dehumanizing Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens” #LCSH #DropTheIWord #NoHumanBeingIsIllegal.” Tina described the long history of criticism of problematic subject headings, including the influential work of Sanford Berman. When she heard of what was happening at Dartmouth she was thrilled that the students were so engaged but disappointed in LC’s denial of the petition. She noted that making changes to LC headings is not always as simple as making a SACO proposal; even well-researched SACO proposals are not always approved. Around the same time that the LC petition was rejected, she was appointed to the CaMMS Subject Analysis Committee. She raised the issue there and a working group was formed to investigate.

There was a turning point in the process after Tina tweeted about the question of the “Illegal aliens” subject heading during a 2015 LITA Forum keynote presentation by Mx A. Matienzo on the risk of problematic naming practices in cataloging carrying over into linked data. The response to the tweet was amazing and she realized that this was something people really cared about. She and various allies began a tweeting campaign leading up to the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January 2016. She submitted a resolution to ALA to urge LC to replace “Illegal aliens” with “Undocumented Immigrants.” Many people were involved in spreading the word and the resolution passed almost unanimously. LC quickly responded and agreed to replace “Illegal aliens” with the new terms noted above. This was followed almost immediately by congressional backlash with the proposed HR4926, the “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act.” This act would force LC to retain the headings “Aliens” and “Illegal aliens.” Tina noted that the US code as a source for terminology can be problematic. Many terms now deemed inappropriate and/or offensive remain in the code. Up until the last few years, the terms “lunatics,” “Orientals,” and “Negro” were still in use in the code; legislation has recently been enacted to remove them from the US code. She concluded by noting that a core value of librarianship is serving all of our users with dignity and respect and we must recognize that this is a political act.

Claudia Anguiano presented her “Subject-Heading as Step towards Social Justice: Undocumented Student Activism and Racial Consciousness through Language Practices” via a pre-recorded presentation. While previously at Dartmouth, she was one of the faculty advisors for the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers student group (CoFIRED). As a communications scholar her work with the students prompted questions for her about the relationship between co-curricular civic engagement, immigration activism, and linguistic change. She studies the rhetorical dimensions present in social movements and the way language is connected to social change. She noted that societal institutions are strengthened when young people turn their critical gaze upon these institutions and participate in efforts for change – which is exactly what CoFIRED did.

Racist nativism is still very present in the current immigration discourse and immigration remains contested in both the political and public spheres. We need to understand the ways that undocumented students resist these exclusionary structures; their attendance at elite institutions doesn’t shield them from inequity and exclusion within these institutions. Claudia described Critical Latino Communication Theory as a means to insert racial consciousness into our understanding of discourse in the public sphere (the media, legal institutions, educational institutions); to problematize the major forces of socialization and oppression that can be applied to the language we use to describe immigrants; and to understand the experiences and activism of these students.

She described how CoFIRED became a platform for activism and institutional change, built partnerships with different campus offices, and established a space where students could meet and share experiences. As a part of this process, they discussed the rhetorical power of the language being used to describe undocumented immigrants and how illegality becomes a powerful rationalization tool justifying harsh treatment and restrictive policies. With librarian guidance they put forward a proposal to change the subject heading “Illegal aliens,” a collaboration that became pivotal to the eventual success of the campaign to remove the heading. These student activists harnessed the power of language to make change and counteract anti-immigrant sentiment.

The presentations were followed by a brief question period. Barbara Tenenbaum (Library of Congress) noted that no-one had raised this issue with her (as a staff member within LC) during her many years of attendance at SALALM and that no-one had contacted her during the campaign. She stated that no-one within the division ever uses this term and, had she been contacted, she could have acted as an ally and advocate within LC. On the other hand, it is the library of congress and there are political issues that have to be dealt with; many political points have been scored at the expense of the library over the years.

Oscar thanked her for her support and her remarks. He noted that the student group worked for change within the system as they understood it. They followed the process—sending in the proposal—that they understood as the appropriate means for affecting change. Tina noted that she did contact the Hispanic Division during the process, although she’s not at liberty to say more about the conversation than that. Nevertheless, the point is not to vilify individuals within the Library of Congress and she recognizes that they have to maintain a delicate balance in their work. But those concerns aren’t the ones that people outside LC have to adopt. Our concerns are to advocate for our students.

Adán Griego (Stanford) acknowledged the courage of those who undertook this campaign and noted that it was probably better that the pressure be seen as coming from outside the Library of Congress rather than from within. He was surprised and excited by the speed at which LC responded to the ALA resolution.

Rafael Tarragó (University of Minnesota) noted that, besides the problematic nature of the term “Illegal aliens,” there was also a practical need to change the term as people generally didn’t understand the legalistic meaning of the term “aliens.”

Tim Thompson (Princeton) described this as a teachable moment and an illustration of the pervasiveness of whiteness in our institutions that blinds us to the presence of racist language within these institutions. This is an opportunity for SALALM to reflect on how we might take more of an activist and leadership role. He expressed hope that we can maintain this dialogue with students and asked whether there are other issues that we could work on. Oscar asked that we support the efforts of the Freedom University in Georgia (https://www.facebook.com/freedomuniversitygeorgia). Georgia is the only state that bans undocumented youth from qualifying for in-state tuition as well as from attending the top five state institutions – essentially a form of modern segregation. SALALM members could help get the word out about the student efforts to pressure the Board of Regents to end these bans.

Paloma Celis Carbajal (University of Wisconsin-Madison) noted that SALALM is writing a letter to the House Appropriations Committee to support LC’s actions. It will be presented at the Town Hall to be voted on by SALALM members and then taken to the Executive Board.

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