November 12, 2012
I have just done an interview with Grace Agnew, who will be teaching a class for Library Juice Academy in December called, “The Mechanics of Metadata.” It’s a technical skills class that I think would be good for a lot of academic librarians who want to learn the nuts and bolts of cataloging in digital libraries. Grace talks a bit about her background as well as describing the class in detail.
January 15, 2010
Colonel Morris Davis was fired from his job at the Congressional Research Service for opinion pieces he wrote about the military commissions system (he is the former chief prosecutor for the Guantánamo military commissions). The ACLU is suing the Library of Congress on his behalf in this free-speech case.
This is the second time recently that the Library of Congress has been on the wrong side of a high-profile lawsuit. The other was transexual Diane Schroer’s lawsuit over not being hired to work at the Congressional Research Service after she announced that she would begin living as a woman. (Schroer won the lawsuit.)
June 4, 2009
Library of Walls
Foreword by Davin Heckman
My first experience of what would become Samuel Gerald Collins’ Library of Walls came several years back, when I was an editor for the journal Reconstruction ‹reconstruction.eserver.org›. My editorial curiosity was piqued by the title of an article that Collins submitted for consideration in a special issue of the journal on “Technology and Historiography,” guest-edited by Haidee Wasson. The title: “Reading Over the Shoulder of the Future at the Library of Congress.” In one phrase, the writer had managed to tie my scholarly interest in “futurism” and “information” to my post-9/11 concerns about “surveillance” and “democracy” and to ground it in the unsexy Library of Congress. At a time when I was reading submissions on video games, TV, and comics (all things that I write about, by the way), I was stunned by Collin’s willingness to take on such a daunting subject. In those few words, I had been taken in by his ability to find a node where disparate discursive lines converge to form a site of meaning that could provide insights into the larger cultural landscape. After wading into the first few paragraphs I was blown away.
When I got the chance to read an early draft of Collins’ completed manuscript, I leapt at the opportunity, expecting a more fully-fleshed out discussion of the ideas explored in the article. Instead, it was much, much more. The experience was something akin to watching a reality show featuring Jorge Luis Borges, Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Virilio in the Library of Congress—surreal twists of perspective, profound insights into mass media, piercing critiques of power, solid sociocultural observations, and dire warnings about the future—twisting through a maze of stacks and fiber optic cables at the heart of the American political establishment. This is no mere book about libraries (though it is that, too), it is an ambitious investigation of the Information Society itself—its mythology, economics, and politics.
Ultimately, the strength of Library of Walls rests in the utter appropriateness of its topic. The temporal situation of the archive, both as an attempt to account for a history of the present as required by a future that does not exist yet and as a fragmented account of the past, offers a compelling account of the process of culture as both historically rooted and up for grabs. It is culture in the “future perfect,” determined but not overly so, free but not without limit. And the Library of Congress is the archive par excellence. It tells a valuable story of American history, but, more importantly, it maps traces of the new world order, the neoliberal priorities of an emerging global marketplace, and the practices of the new economy. Fortunately, Collins is able to connect these dots with creativity, skill, and originality.
Collins maps sweeping changes in the Library’s vision and management against changing attitudes towards knowledge and public life and technical innovations. Each period of expansion of the Library of Congress is characterized by an attempt to anticipate its place in society against succeeding information revolutions. In each case, Collins is careful to ground the potentially mystifying field of information in material practices that make such revolutions possible. Budgets, building construction, library use, and human labor all factor into Collins’ analysis of the ideologically-loaded idea of “information.” Coupled with his predilection for critical theory, science fiction, and new media, Collins’ training as an anthropologist and his hours of careful ethnography provide a perspective that subverts the naive utopianism propagated by commercial interests, reminding readers that information is not a simple product detached from the people that create, organize, consume, and reproduce it. In Collins’ formulation, information is intimately linked to human subjects, a point which is too often lost in our current fascination with the many dazzling new media technologies.
Especially telling is the attention Collins devotes to the dramatic changes afoot in the Library since the 1980s—both in terms of the rapid rate of technological change and its impact on archiving, organization, and distribution and shifts in the political landscape which began in the Reagan era. Against the rise of technology, Collins maps the minimization of labor. Consistent with industrial trends like outsourcing, downsizing, and deskilling, the Information Society ethos of the Library’s management seeks to free information from the human hands that build the archives, the eyes that interpret its meaning, and the minds that will subsist on the symbolic order of its future. In its place, this new order offers information detached from any democratic purpose or historical context, information as a consumer good. Collins notes that this Information Society, though it seems swathed in the postmodern notion of relativistic, post-political egalitarianism, is heavily laden with ideological assumptions and real consequences for working people. In Library of Walls Collins obliterates the neoliberal fairytale of liberty through consumerism, and illustrates its contradictions through the definitive record of American culture.
Thankfully, Collins is not the only scholar who has identified the cracks in the edifice of power. But with his awareness of his discipline’s troubling imperial legacy alongside its invaluable ethnographic tools, Collins the anthropologist provides a unique perspective on the cracks in the edifice. And through his topic, “a library of walls,” Collins succeeds in identifying the edifice itself with staggering accuracy.
April 11, 2009
Library of Walls: The Library of Congress and the Contradictions of Information Society
Author: Samuel Gerald Collins
Published: April 2009
Printed on acid-free paper
“The experience [of reading this book] was something akin to watching a reality show featuring Jorge Luis Borges, Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Virilio in the Library of Congress—surreal twists of perspective, profound insights into mass media, piercing critiques of power, solid sociocultural observations, and dire warnings about the future—twisting through a maze of stacks and fiber optic cables at the heart of the American political establishment. This is no mere book about libraries (though it is that, too), it is an ambitious investigation of the Information Society itself—its mythology, economics, and politics….
“Ultimately, the strength of Library of Walls rests in the utter appropriateness of its topic. The temporal situation of the archive, both as an attempt to account for a history of the present as required by a future that does not exist yet and as a fragmented account of the past, offers a compelling account of the process of culture as both historically rooted and up for grabs. It is culture in the ‘future perfect,’ determined but not overly so, free but not without limit. And the Library of Congress is the archive par excellence. It tells a valuable story of American history, but, more importantly, it maps traces of the new world order, the neoliberal priorities of an emerging global marketplace, and the practices of the new economy. Fortunately, Collins is able to connect these dots with creativity, skill, and originality.”
— From the Foreword by Davin Heckman
In Library of Walls, Samuel Collins engages the heterogeneities of information society at the Library of Congress through ethnographic fieldwork, suggesting that “information society” is best understood at the locus of conflicting modalities imbricating text, space, work and life. During the 1990’s, the Library of Congress was beset with challenges to its traditional roles in cataloging and scholarship while at the same time re-inventing itself as a library “without walls.” The “order of books” was threatened on several fronts: in the explosive growth of accessions, in the challenges of online materials and different container types, and in fundamental disagreements about the role of the Library vis-à-vis the nation. But rather than analyze these as separate etiologies, Collins sees them as the expression of an inherently Janus-faced information society that limits information and forecloses debate even as it multiplies avenues of access. Collins considers multiple sites at the Library-its spaces, its artifacts and organization-as contested sites where varied actors negotiate information, knowledge and nation amidst an institution whose own shifting priorities synecdochally mirror the ambiguities and unease of contemporary society. What Collins’ research suggests is that the technologies of reading (books, catalogs, web pages) must be understood in the context of their contradictory production, an ultimately salutary intervention in an era where, surrounded by our variously networked techno-fetishes, it is difficult to see information society for what it is-a chimera of shifting configurations of technology, social life and cultural meaning. However many books are digitized and however accessible information becomes in the digital age, Collins urges us to examine the powerful exclusions concealed in the umbra of these technological revolutions.
June 7, 2008
Thomas Mann’s Foreword to David Bade’s Responsible Librarianship: Library Policies for Unreliable Systems:
There is a kind of ‚Äúcode word‚Äù situation that has developed in the library profession in recent decades; it is manifested in an appeal to a set of beliefs that, while largely unarticulated, is nonetheless socially endorsed without a perceived need for argument or evidence. The evidence is assumed to be there; after all, when enough people share the same assumptions that support networks can be appealed to, those social networks functionally take the place of what, in other situations, would require considerable explicit justification. Were the ‚Äúcode words‚Äù actually based on the ‚Äúscience‚Äù part of ‚Äúlibrary science,‚Äù then their adherents would have to realistically consider the possibility of falsifying evidence, of counter-examples, of whole bodies of literature to the contrary, and of the possible‚Äìperhaps radical‚Äìincoherence of their beliefs when situated in larger contexts of other beliefs known to be true via other tests. What matters with the ‚Äúcode word‚Äù mind set is not whether one examines possible falsifying considerations; what matters is simply whether one ‚Äúgets it‚Äù or not. Fashion replaces argumentation.
Perhaps the most insidious of the ‚Äúcode‚Äù beliefs in the library profession today is the oft-repeated statement ‚ÄúWe should not let the perfect stand in the way of the good‚Äù; or ‚ÄúThe perfect is the enemy of the good.‚Äù This assertion has various implications in practice. Most frequently it means that, particularly for library catalogers, ‚Äúthroughput time‚Äù or ‚Äúspeed‚Äù in turning out records is now to be considered ‚Äúthe gold standard‚Äù of quality. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 23 [3/4], 1997), it is further assumed that ‚Äúindexer consistency studies‚Äù demonstrate that trained catalogers don‚Äôt agree with each other in any event, in the supposedly-perfect products they have been (vainly) trying to produce up to now. And therefore, it follows, consistency‚Äìi.e., standardization, categorization, authority work, cross-referencing, etc.‚Äìis not a realistic goal to pursue in the first place; instead, we just need more transcribed or harvested keywords taken from books themselves, that can be relevance-ranked (not standardized) by machine algorithms; or we just need more ‚Äútagged‚Äù keywords added to records by the general public, whose collective folk wisdom can replace (not supplement) subject experts who have actual knowledge, not just of the book (or other work) in hand, but of the larger context of its subject relationships to other works that are within, or related to, its own field. Neither relevance-ranking nor democratic tagging by non-librarians, of course, is expensive; neither requires thinking by library personnel. Neither requires any expensive professional work. Whether the needs of the library‚Äôs users‚Äìparticularly academic and scholarly users‚Äìare met by such processing procedures is irrelevant, because ‚Äúthe code‚Äù also assumes (without argumentation) that the very goal of cataloging is no longer to show ‚Äúwhat the library has‚Äù‚Äìthat is much too parochial a focus when there is an entire Internet out there with billions of things in it‚Äìbut is, rather, to provide ‚Äúsomething quickly‚Äù‚Äìand provide it especially to remote users outside library walls who are further assumed not to need any training or education in how to go about finding what they need. (The ‚Äúunder the hood‚Äù software manipulations of whatever keywords they type into ‚Äúa single search box‚Äù will handle those problems for them.) Traditional library-access mechanisms will obviously not ‚Äúscale up‚Äù to dealing with billions of records; so it follows that they must be simply abandoned (rather than having them continue to deal with a much more manageable subset of all informational records, such as the set of pesky books that keep being published each year.)
So: where do we go from here? I suspect many librarians will have visceral feelings that something is wrong with ‚Äúthe code‚Äù they hear so frequently repeated. Perhaps instead of endlessly repeating these assertions we should actually look at the evidence, either in their favor or falsifying them. That‚Äôs where David Bade comes in. Bade, a cataloger at the University of Chicago‚Äôs Regenstein Library, is a genuine scholar in the library profession. And he has done something that is rarely seen in library literature: he has read widely enough to examine library science as a whole in the context of related disciplines. He has immersed himself in the literature of high reliability organizations, human error studies, ergonomics, reliability engineering, and joint cognitive systems. He brings to bear a knowledge of philosophy, history‚Äì-and even farming!-‚Äìin his considerations of what actually works in libraries, and for what purposes. What he offers in this book is a coherent integration of what is, demonstrably, established knowledge from a wide variety of relevant fields, weighted not by machine algorithms but rather by a fine professional discrimination based on decades of actual experience in doing the work of librarianship. He combines the perspectives of a 30,000 foot overview with the necessary corrections that must be made, extensively and routinely, at ground level. A sure sign of a real scholar is his or her ability to provide concrete examples from that ‚Äúground level‚Äù experience, with an extended analysis of their further implications, not just out-of-context individual sentences cherry-picked from user surveys devised by people lacking that experience, who may have therefore failed to ask the right questions to begin with. Bade‚Äôs extensive quotations from the literature he has researched‚ÄìN.B.: extended quotations from, not just superficial footnote citations to‚Äìprovide the rest of us with a coherent patterning and integration of knowledge that the library field so desperately needs at present. Bade offers not the ‚Äúsnippets‚Äù of information that quick and dirty searching offers, but a deep understanding that comes from his rare combination of very wide reading and very extensive personal experience, not just with the intentions, but with the results of the systems he‚Äôs talking about.
‚ÄúThe perfect is the enemy of the good‚Äù? Perhaps, after reading this timely and much-needed study by David Bade, the library profession might actually consider a counter-proposition: ‚ÄúThe even greater enemy of the good is the slipshod, the incompetent, the superficial, the incomplete, and the demonstrably incorrect.‚Äù
March 22, 2008
Just for the record at this point; perhaps commentary later…
Final Report of the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control
‚ÄúOn the Record‚Äù but Off the Track: A Review of the Report of The Library of Congress Working Group on The Future of Bibliographic Control, With a Further Examination of Library of Congress Cataloging Tendencies, Thomas Mann’s response.
Thomas Mann’s response, which I think represents the views of many of his colleagues at LoC in the Library of Congress Professional Guild, is inspiring a lot of support right now among progressive librarians. There is talk about responding via ALA or by petition. I’m sure it’s being discussed on other blogs, but I’ll maintain a record here as well.
June 16, 2007
New essay by Thomas Mann, “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries” (June 13, 2007). PDF, 41 pp.
ABSTRACT: The paper is an examination of the overall principles and practices of both reference service and cataloging operations in the promotion of scholarly research, pointing out important differences not just in content available onsite and offsite, but also among necessary search methods. It specifies the differences between scholarship and quick information seeking, and examines the implications of those differences for the future of cataloging. It examines various proposed alternatives to cataloging: relevance ranking, tagging, under-the-hood programming, etc. The paper considers the need for, and requirements of, education of researchers; and it examines in detail many of the glaring disconnects between theory and practice in the library profession today.
AFSCME 2910 urges readers of this essay to make their voices heard by writing to the Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control. This advisory group will make recommendations to Library of Congress management which could determine the future of LC cataloging policy.
In particular, LC management is positioning itself to change its practices in two major ways: 1) LC is moving away from its practice of requiring subject expertise in its catalogers; and 2) it is questioning the practice of creating LC Subject Headings in precoordinated subject strings (see pages 21-27 of Mann’s paper). Without precoordination, the existing cross-reference structure, the linkages of LCSH to LC Classification, and the possibility of browse displays of subdivided headings in online catalogs, would be lost.
PLEASE MAKE YOUR VOICES HEARD on these issues by writing to the Working Group BY THE DEADLINE OF JULY 15, 2007. You may contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or you can fill out a web form at:
or you can mail your letters to:
Dr. Jos?©-Marie Griffiths
Dean and Professor
School of Information and Library Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CB#3360, 100 Manning Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3360
The Working Group needs your input. Please speak up and encourage your colleagues to respond as well.
The Library of Congress Professional Guild
AFSCME Local 2910
Mail stop 9994
Room No. LM G-41
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20540
Fax: (202) 707-1873
“Opinions expressed are those of the authors, and are not official statements by the Library of Congress.”
February 16, 2007
Dear Friend of the Library of Congress,
We are sending you this message because the Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME Local 2910, needs your help.
For over thirty years our union has worked with management to forge a constructive relationship at the Library of Congress. Together we have built a modern and progressive workplace committed to the highest principles of librarianship. Everybody has gained, including the public we serve.
Today, the Library of Congress has chosen to betray that relationship. Through its Office of Workforce Management, the Library has struck at the very heart of the Guild by seeking to put union representatives on enforced leave or Leave Without Pay until we provide confidential information about our Guild representational activities.
The Library wants us to change the way we submit our bi-weekly reports to management by forcing us to describe specifics of conversations held with employees in the Guild office. If we were to submit to this demand, we would undermine the confidentiality of employees and impair our ability to represent our colleagues at the Library of Congress.
Guild officers and stewards always account for our use of official time for representational activity but we object to demands that go beyond the reporting practices of our federal union colleagues in the Executive Branch. Under the guise of “accountability” the Office of Workforce Management is attempting to chill communications with employees, curtail official time for Guild representatives, and restrict the Guild’s ability to develop and implement progressive policies and practices at the Library of Congress. Furthermore, efforts by management to coerce union officials by docking their pay is considered by many to be union-busting.
These actions should have no place at the Library of Congress, or in any workplace in America. Please visit our website at http://www.guild2910.org and read about our efforts to preserve representational rights at the Library of Congress.
We urge you to express your concern by signing the statement below:
Dear Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress:
As the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and as the research arm of the U.S. Congress, the Library of Congress should embody the values of pluralism and democracy. Employees who participate in labor organizations, or who — as officers or stewards — assist their colleagues in the workplace, should have the right to do so without fear
of penalty or reprisal.
Library of Congress Professional Guild www.guild2910.org
LM G-41, Mailstop 9994 email@example.com
Washington, DC 20540
Please cut and paste this statement and send it to our email address. You may also fax it us or send us a letter.
And if you visit our website we invite you to read 2 essays by our members:
“More on What is Going on at the Library of Congress,” by Thomas Mann, January 1, 2007,” and
“Eliminating Series Authority Records and Series Title Control: Improving Efficiency or Creating Waste? Or, 12 Reasons Why the Library of Congress Should Reconsider Its SARs Decision,” by Gary M. Johnson, January 11, 2007.”
On behalf of our executive board and stewards, we thank you for your support,
Saul Schniderman, Cataloger
Melinda Friend, Archivist
Guild Chief Steward
The Library of Congress Professional Guild
AFSCME Local 2910
Mail stop 9994
Room No. LM G-41
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20540
Fax: (202) 707-1873
“Opinions expressed are those of the authors, and are not official statements by the Library of Congress.”
January 21, 2007
Thomas Mann at the Library of Congress has written an update to his critical summary of changes there: More on What’s Going On at the Library of Congress, published through the Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME 2910.
The cover page lists these topics in the 24 page document:
- Series authority records
- Integrating the Web into Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs)
- The Increasing Importance of Precoordination in LC Subject Headings
- Maintaining a balance of OPAC and Web functions rather than forcing a transition
- The pre-eminent importance of the book format for scholarship
- The University of Chicago Task Force Report and its concentration on scholarly users
- Misuse of body counts as determinative of importance
- The proper goal for the Library of Congress and other research libraries
- Misreading the evidence on interindexer consistency
- The integral need for reference service
- Proper and improper reliance on remote storage
- The continuing need for onsite books shelved in subject classified arrangements
- The larger information universe and its several component parts
- “Under the hood” programming for “seamless one-stop shopping”?
- The continuing need for reference librarians
- Dumbing down the capability of scholarly research: LC management’s dismantling of
cataloging and classification
Thomas Mann’s work on these issues of course has implictions beyond LoC, as he is addressing changes within the profession as a whole that deserve more critical attention and thought than they usually get. Those like Mann who are critical of many of these changes are often described as “traditionalists,” as though what is motivating them in their resistance is simply a generalized discomfort with change and a desire to maintain tradition for its own sake. Mann’s arguments are worthwhile reading for anyone in librarianship because they tie these questions of change to the basic values and goals on which the profession is still based and show the rational thinking behind the “traditionalist” perspective.
This article was today’s “Library Link of the Day.”
September 29, 2006
There’s a brief article in Counterpunch about the National Book Festival, which features our very non-warlike First Lady. It is intended as a happier source of news than the complete disaster we have created in the Middle East, from which news consumers and election-hopeful Republicans would understandably like some relief.
The main things that Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman point out in this article are that the “National Book Festival” is heavily corporate sponsored, that it is not a transparent operation at all but handled by a PR firm, that the books celebrated are all vetted by the organizers of the affair and don’t include anything critical of the government, and that though it is advertised as a Library of Congress event, Library of Congress staff have little or nothing to do with it.
August 9, 2006
Many Library Juice readers who are familiar with Sanford Berman’s work on LC subject heading reform have read or heard the name Barbara Tillett. Barbara Tillett has for many years been the chief of the Library of Congress Cataloging Policy and Support Office, and thus has figured into Berman’s career-long crusade to reform LC’s subject headings with the aim of making them fairer and more accessible. In his inspiring accounts of his crusade to rid LCSH of its Eurocentric, sexist, insulting and obscure subject headings, the person of Barbara Tillett often figured in as an obstacle to enlightened progress (never as much as the sheer weight of the great bureaucracy that is LC, but as a heel-dragging bureaucrat and defender of the old guard nonetheless).
My own feeling, in listening to these accounts, is that people like to be inspired by stories that have a hero and a bad guy, but that reality is always more complex. I’ve often wondered what Barbara Tillett would have to say in answer to some of Berman’s more convincing arguments (many if not most of which have indeed, over time, convinced LC), and have felt that the discussion about subject headings and cataloging reform among progressives has been a little poor in the absence of LC’s own point of view regarding the various questions that have come up.
Barbara Tillett has agreed to let me interview her about subject heading reform and new developments in cataloging. In the following interview we will discuss some general issues around subject heading reform as well as some specific cases, including the case of the “God” subject heading, which remains as it was when Berman first discussed it in his first book, Prejudices and Antipathies.
First of all, Barbara, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start by asking you for an explanation of the process of subject heading reform from your point of view, with reference to some of the issues involved and to Sanford Berman’s activism. What would you like people to understand about it?
Thank you for this opportunity! As you know the Library of Congress Subject Headings were originally developed for LC’s own collection over 100 years ago. As terminology changes and new topics appear, we update the subject heading terms based both on recommendations from our own catalogers, from about 300 partners in the SACO Program (Subject Cataloging Cooperative Program of the Program for Cooperative Cataloging), and from contributors worldwide. We are very grateful to all the contributors for recommendations. As more users beyond LC began using our system, we provided documentation to describe our principles and policies so others could follow the same practices as our own catalogers, and also to provide consistency among LC’s catalogers and those contributing to our cooperative programs. We have a standard process for submitting new proposals for changes and additions to the subject headings that is described in the Subject Cataloging Manual as well as on our Web site: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/. And the SACO information for submitting proposals can be found at: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/pcc/saco/saco.html.
The general rule for assigning subject headings is to give one or more subject headings that “best summarize the overall contents of the work and provide access to its most important topics.” At LC this means we focus on “topics that comprise at least 20% of the work.” Other institutions may be able to provide more extensive subject analysis and reach topics in articles and news clippings (as Mr. Berman finds), but we rely on the catalogers discovering terminology in the materials they are cataloging. We also check to see how much we have on a given topic in order to possibly be more specific. Additionally, the use of free-floating subdivisions helps us make headings more specific in a consistent way.
One aspect of “subject heading reform” means keeping the LCSH vocabulary updated, and we’ve been doing that since the beginning of LCSH. We constantly maintain the subject headings and try to keep the controlled vocabulary current with today’s topics and terminology without changing headings too quickly to terminology that is ephemeral. Sometimes we add the ephemeral term as a cross-reference, for example, we recently added “Culture wars” as a reference under “Culture conflict.” We are keenly aware of the impact of any changes on the resources of the Library of Congress catalogers and the resources of our users. At the same time we continuously make changes we feel are important to maintain the currency and viability of LCSH.
In the past, it was especially noticeable that changes were not made quickly. For example, the change of “European War, 1914-1918” to “World War, 1914-1918” was made only in 1981. As Mary Kay Pietris noted in a recent email, “For the many years that the list was published infrequently and set in hot lead type, we couldn’t respond to change quickly. When we first automated in the 60’s, the system was clunky. When the card catalogs were closed in 1981, we were able to make more changes because we didn’t have to worry about changing the cards, but the authority work and changing of headings on bib records was still time-consuming and complicated. We didn’t get any sort of global update until 2005, ?¢‚Ç¨¬¶so we are better equipped to make changes than we were even 25 years ago, but it still isn’t easy.”
We also are aware that the meaning and connotations of words change over time and vary from culture to culture, so we have made adjustments where terminology once considered appropriate is no longer considered acceptable. We hear from many communities about changing perceptions with terminology and respond as we feel is appropriate to each situation. For example over the years we have changed:
Australian aborigines to Aboriginal Australians (in 2003)
Cripples to Handicapped to People with disabilities (with the latter change in 2002)
Gypsies to Romanies (in 2001)
Negroes to Afro-Americans to African Americans (the latter change in 2000).
We have just changed “Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975” to “Vietnam War, 1961-1975.”
Our primary users are the US Congress and United States citizens, but we are certainly interested to also address the needs of global users to the degree we are able. The current set of headings reflects the work of hundreds of catalogers and varying philosophies over time, so we are aware that there are inconsistencies, but also cautious about making changes.
Another aspect of “reform” is changing practices. One major step to such reform was the Airlie House meeting on subject subdivision practices held in 1991 after which we changed headings and practices to try to meet the goal of more consistency in terminology and in the order of subdivisions, based on the consensus opinion at the time. The identification of form subdivisions came from the Airlie House meetings and took several years to implement following changes in the MARC format. Another changed practice from 1974 was the introduction of free-floating subdivisions to enable users to construct more specific subject heading strings without having to “establish” each combination. After Airlie House we tried to “tame” the whole free-floating practice to have it be more consistent and rational.
What Mr. Berman may see as his “reform” movement, we see as the normal process of maintaining a controlled vocabulary. Every day we address new and changed headings coming from our catalogers and our SACO Program partners and others worldwide, who use the same procedures as our own Library of Congress staff. No grandstanding is needed, no lobbying of members of Congress or fellow librarians, just the simple act of submitting a formal proposal with evidence that the new or changed heading is needed to catalog library materials. We welcome that assistance.
Would you explain the concept of “literary warrant” as it is involved in establishing a new subject heading? I recall seeing, in some of the materials that Berman distributed to friends, examples of articles where the expression he was advocating as a new subject heading was used.
Literary warrant deals with the need for the use of a subject heading as evidenced in the materials cataloged by the Library of Congress and our partners as well as choosing terminology found in current literature and the language, construction, and style used in LCSH. We document the justification for establishing a subject heading in the subject authority records.
In looking at the new ideas for Subject Headings that Berman has advocated, I’ve noticed that they usually fall into one of two categories of justification: fairness to the people being described, or not wanting to use language that is arguably insulting (e.g. “Romanies” instead of “Gypsies” or “Hansen’s Disease” instead of “Leprosy”), and wanting to make works accessible by using ordinary rather than technical or official language (e.g. “light bulbs” instead of “electric lamp, incandescent,” which took a while to change).
Can we turn this around to how we see this rather than how Mr. Berman sees it? Most of our correspondence contains helpful and constructive suggestions – what criticism we receive is simply not as he characterizes it. There is no onslaught of letters and emails and faxes from outraged librarians or researchers. For the most part, public criticism comes from Mr. Berman or other individuals he has urged to write to us. We’re more inclined to react favorably to constructive suggestions than to coercive techniques such as petitions, hostile articles in the library literature, emotional attacks, or letters of complaint to members of Congress. Methods such as these are almost always counterproductive, whereas more cooperative and positive approaches usually produce good results.
“Fairness” to whom? We want to be informed of headings that some may now consider outdated or offensive, but one group’s or one person’s viewpoint is not always the general consensus. As noted above we must weigh the impact of change, and test the current literary warrant and appropriateness of terminology in today’s society. This involves checking the Web and other current news media to verify terminology that may appear on a new book and checking authoritative sources to assure the suggested new term is acceptable. Often we work in consultation with special interest groups or those who are most knowledgeable about a particular field. For example, in changing “Australian aborigines” to “Aboriginal Australians,” we relied on the guidance and expertise of the National Library of Australia. When we were contemplating changing “Handicapped” to “Disabled,” it was the forceful advocacy of people and organizations in this field that convinced us that “People with disabilities” is now the appropriate terminology, and that “Disabled” is considered by many to be as offensive as “Handicapped” because it puts the emphasis on the condition rather than on the people. Before we made the change from “Gypsies” to “Romanies,” staff members from CPSO attended a seminar on the topic at the Holocaust Museum and consulted closely with a renowned expert and advocate in this field. After we changed the heading to “Romanies,” we received complaints from several individuals and a few organizations that opposed our discontinuing usage of the term Gypsies. This is a good example of how there can be differing and conflicting viewpoints that we have to weigh when making subject heading changes, and how difficult it is to please everyone.
“Accessibility” in terms of using ordinary language, for what audience? We have children’s headings for that audience, and otherwise LCSH is targeting the US public and our Congress. We rely on special thesauri for special audiences, like MeSH for technical medical language to meet the needs of doctors and others in the medical profession, and NASA’s thesaurus for aerospace engineers. In demonstrating that a new term is now “ordinary language” or that an old term is now referred to using a new term in “ordinary language,” we’d use evidence from the materials we are cataloging. Additionally we do consult newspapers, the Web, and respected authoritative sources – this is back to avoiding ephemeral terminology as main headings – but considering such terms for references.
Sanford Berman has written about one subject heading that he has found controversial that particularly interests me, and I find it a little disturbing that it hasn’t been changed. I’m referring to the subject heading for “God,” which is still used for the Christian God as well as God without referring to a specific religion, while God in other religions are identified specifically by their religion (e.g. “God, Muslim”). Why isn’t the subject heading for the Christian God, “God, Christian?” Having the Christian God referred to by the subject heading “God” without subdivisions in the U.S. government’s official classification of all things in effect establishes an official Christian perspective for the United States. An argument based on common usage would be based on the assumption of a Christian population, while the United States is a country of great religious pluralism. Can you tell me if this is an issue that has been discussed at LC, and if it has, what are the considerations at present that have prevented this SH from being updated, or work in favor of its being updated? Can you summarize the discussion within LC?
Because the term “God” refers not only to the Christian God, but also the concept in general, it gets very difficult to clean up 100 years of past practice, but we think we’ve found a solution using class numbers in combination with reports we think we can get…all this is still to be explored. We now have some global update and other computer assistance capabilities for the massive changes this will entail.
As we now envision it, there would still be the “God” heading alone for the concept in general and comparative terms. We’d follow our practice for other religions to set up “God (Christianity)”. For the concept of “God” from the perspective of denominations for any religion, we’d use a subdivision for the denomination under the appropriate “God” heading. This would involve the least disruption to existing headings, and yet still require re-examining hundreds of authority records, as well as many thousands of bibliographic records. We do not take such steps lightly and certainly not without a lot of checking. However, we agree it is long overdue, and I’ll keep you posted as we progress in our explorations.
Wow, that is great news. I’d like to talk about one other subject heading that bugs me. When I checked recently, “Zionism” was a broader term for “Jews – Politics and Government.” As a Jew who is interested in politics and government but who is not a Zionist, and as someone who is interested in the Reform Jewish opposition to the original Zionist project, this bugs me.
Zionism used to be a BT (broader term) for Jews – Politics and government, but as of 2005 they are now “related terms.” (See the Weekly List 49, 2005*). In 1986 we converted to the MARC authority format and began distributing subject authority records. At that time we adopted the standard thesaural notation of BT, NT, RT (broader term, narrower term, related term) in place of our see and see also references (x and xx), and converted our existing records using computer algorithms. We continue to adjust where the computer algorithm resulted in a flip that was inappropriate.
*The 27th edition of LCSH (2005) has Jews–Politics and government as a NT under Zionism. On Weekly List 05-49 for December 7, 2005, the relationship between the two headings was revised. BT Zionism was cancelled from the record for Jews–Politics and government and replaced with an RT Zionism. Jews–Politics and government was added as an RT under Zionism.
Thanks, that’s gratifying and interesting. In general, would you say that LCSH inevitably reflects politics in some way?
The Library of Congress is the national library for the United States and to some extent we reflect US policy (for example using Burma not Myanmar). We follow Congressional perspectives and those of our State Department to a degree but also apply our own sense of appropriateness and seek to find suitable alternatives to avoid conflicts when we can. An example of that is our establishing the heading Cyprus, Northern to recognize the region without getting into the political status issues of recognizing Northern Cyprus.
Thanks very much for taking the time to explain these issues from LC’s perspective.
August 8, 2006
The Committee on House Administration is taking up some of the controversial questions related to proposed changes in cataloging practice at the Library of Congress, and ALA has submitted testimony criticizing LC for announcing some of these changes without sufficient discussion with the library community. (Admittedly, the Calhoun report was merely a presentation of an idea, not an announced plan, but it does suggest the overall direction of at least some decision-makers within LC.) ALA’s testimony also pointed out that a reduction in the quality of cataloging done by LC would shift the burden onto the cataloging staff of local libraries.
Library Juice has given some attention to the controversial proposed changes at LC. See:
July 22, 2006
The Library of Congress Professional Guild (AFSCME 2910) recently published a paper by LC librarian Thomas Mann entitled, “What’s going on at the Library of Congress?” (PDF) The paper addresses a number of controversial decisions and statments from LC in recent months and years, including The Calhoun Report, the decision to stop producing Series Authority Records, the decision to accept electronic files for preservation of works that were not “born digital,” a decision by the Copyright Office which could reduce the quality of LC’s cataloging by not looking at the actual deposited items, and continual reduction in cataloging staff. Mann’s point of view is that LC’s program for entering the “digital age” is irresponsible and short-sighted.
I found this item on Kathleen de la Peña McCook’s Librarian 2 blog.
April 21, 2006
This major announcement from LC just began circulating yesterday. It may have serious implications for access to works by series.?Ç¬† Some Library Juice readers are more up on cataloging issues than I am.?Ç¬† What do you think about this?
The Director for Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Announces the Library of Congress’s Decision to Cease Creating Series Authority Records as Part of Library of Congress Cataloging
April 20, 2006
The Library of Congress has determined that it will cease to provide controlled series access in the bibliographic records that its catalogers produce. Its catalogers will cease creating series authority records (SARs). The Library considered taking this step over a decade ago, but decided against it at that time because of some of the concerns raised about the impact this would have. The environment has changed considerably since then–indexing and key word access are more powerful and can provide adequate access via series statements provided only in the 490 field of the bibliographic record. We recognize that there are still some adverse impacts, but they are mitigated when the gains in processing time are considered.
As the Library was considering introducing this change, it was heavily swayed by the number of records that included series statements. Using statistics for the most recent year with full output of records appearing in the LC Database (fiscal year 2004) gives a sense of the impact on the cataloging workload:
Total monograph records created: 344,362 Total with series statements: 82,447 Total SARs created: 8,770 (by LC catalogers); 9,453 (by Program for Cooperative Cataloging participants)
As a result of the Library’s decision, the following explains what catalogers will and will not do, related to series.
What LC catalogers will do:
* Create a separate bibliographic record for all resources with distinctive titles published as parts of series (monographic series and multipart monographs).
* Give series statements in 490 0 fields.
* Classify separately each volume (i.e., assign call number and subject headings appropriate to the specific topic of the volume). (Imported copy cataloging records will have series access points removed and series statements changed to 490 0.)
What LC catalogers will not do:
* Create new SARs
* Modify existing SARs to update data elements or LC’s treatment decisions
* Consult and follow treatment in existing SARs
* Update existing collected set records
* Change 4XX/8XX fields in completed bibliographic records when updating those records for other reasons
The Library’s rationale includes:
(1) Eliminates cost of constructing unique headings; searching to determine the existence of an SAR; creating SARs; and adjusting 8XX on existing bibliographic records.
(2) Maintains current level of subject access.
(3) In some instances, increases access because more titles will be classified separately
(4) Maintains current level of descriptive access other than series. Uncontrolled series access will remain available through keyword searches.
The Library will be working with affected stakeholder organizations–OCLC, RLG, the Program for Cooperative Cataloging, and the larger library community to mitigate as much as possible the impact of this change.
The Library will implement this change on May 1, 2006. The Cataloging Policy and Support Office is revising affected documentation to be reissued to reflect these decisions.
April 14, 2006
The Library of Congress Professional Guild writes…
In “The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools,” Karen Calhoun recommends the elimination of Library of Congress subject headings and the establishment of “fast turnaround” time as the “gold standard” in cataloging.
In his critical review of the Calhoun report, Thomas Mann, a veteran reference librarian and author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, argues that, if implemented, the recommendations in this report would have serious negative consequences for the capacity of research libraries to promote scholarly research.
Read Dr. Mann’s essay on the AFSCME 2910 (LC Professional Guild) website at http://guild2910.org/AFSCMECalhounReviewREV.pdf