This may be old news to some, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of play.
At IFLA, the Lithuanian and Latvian delegations were planning to present a resolution condemning Cuba for imprisoning dissident “independent librarians.” Robert Kent & Co. floated news of this in advance and pressured ALA Council to instruct ALA’s IFLA delegate to support this resolution. (The resolution did not come up for a vote, but ALA’s delegate had made it clear that he would not support it.)
Here is what Lithuania’s delegation wrote to ASCUBI President Margarita Bellas:
“We are terribly sorry for this missunderstanding. Hope you do understand that our intentions were to help you. We had no idea the Mr. Robert Kent is acting without your knowledge.”
Lithuania’s delegation withdrew their resolution, apologizing for having been misled by Robert Kent.
Knowledge of this situation is generally shallow and prejudiced.
Here is the Lithuanian delegate’s letter to Hungarian colleagues:
Fw: Resolution on Cuba for the IFLA
De: “Emilija Banionyte”
Fecha: Tue, 8 Aug 2006 11:36:52 +0300
CC: “Vida Garunkstyte” , , “LBD” ,
Dear Hungarian colleagues,
It is very strange you got our resolution – we did not send it to anybody, but IFLA. Did you also get the withdrawal of the resolution?
Let me explain the whole situation.
Last year during the IFLA conference in Oslo we were approached by American journalist Robert Kent. He wanted us to support his initiative to sign the resolution to free Cuban librarians that had no freedom, some of them were even imprisoned. He had the draft text of the resolution. But we did not sign it in Oslo, as we had to consult our library community. After we returned back after IFLA Mr. Robert Kent wanted to know immediately what our library community thinks and started bombarding us with letters. What we did not do – and this was our greatest mistake – we did not consult Cuban librarians themselves. Our library community after some discussions supported the resolution and we signed it and sent to IFLA headquarters. The text was written by Mr. Robert Kent – we only signed it. Find attached.
After a coulpe of months we were approached by the President of the Association of Cuban Librarians Ms Margarita Bellas. Her letter simply shocked us (find attached). We started corresponding with her and found out that lots of things Mr. Robert Kent claimed were not true. While Mr. Robert Kent claims Ms Margarita Bellas is lying, as she is acting under the influence of the revolutionary regime and she has to lie. To prove this Mr. Robert Kent started the whole compain – I am receiving various letters from various people. Your letter is one of his compaingn – now he is acting with the hands of some other “former soviet” librarians currently living in the “free” US.
All this seems rather strange.
Our sincere intension was to help Cuban librarians, therefore we signed the resolution. The initaitive was not ours, but Mr. Robert Kent’s. As we found out, that Cubans themselves do not need this help and this is a political game, we decided to withdraw our resolution and we did it. IFLA is informed about it via e-mail and fax.
We are very sory about all this mess. Somebody started some political game with our hands. Because of lack of experience and because of honest approach to our collegues we did believe and got involved into it. In the future we will be much more careful about such situations.
We have got invitation from Cuban colleagues to come and visit their country and see how things are there, how libraries and librarians are working. We are going to meet them at IFLA in Seoul and talk in person.
I hope I managed to explain the whole situation in short. Should you have more questions, please do not hesitate to ask.
Lithuanian Librarians’ Association, Vice-President
Vilnius Pedagogical University, Library Director
Studentu 39, LT- 01806 Vilnius, Lithuania
tel./faks. +370 5 2750340; mobile +370 698 88192
This letter and a larger thread is published in Librinsula.
How many public statements in support of Cuba’s “independent librarians” are similar to Lithuanian librarians initial information-poor decision? How many public statements in support of Kent’s cause, by Left intellectuals and others, are based on similarly quick decisions, in the absence of independent research? I hope that some of the Left intellectuals so frequently cited by activists who agree with them on scarcely anything else will follow Lithuania’s lead and actually talk to Cuba’s librarians about the situation. Opposition to the Cuban government in this situation is too convenient and low-cost to resist for many Leftists under pressure, but the real facts demand otherwise.
The Nation magazine posted a web-only article yesterday by Joseph Huff-Hannon titled, “Librarians at the Gates,” which takes an admiring look at American librarians. It discusses librarians’ responses to anti-immigration legislation (with a link to REFORMA’s website); our responses to the USA PATRIOT Act, responses to censorship attempts, four paragraphs about the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and attention to both sides of the Cuban “independent” library movement, with a quote from Mark Rosenzweig at the end of the article.
(The article got one important thing wrong that should be pointed out. It states, apparently repeating an assertion of Robert Kent’s, that “Library associations around the world have drafted forceful statements of condemnation [of Cuba for arresting ‘independent librarians.’]” This is simply false – library associations, with only a very few exceptions, have avoided taking a position in support of the “independent librarians.” Thanks are due to Ann Sparanese for pointing out this error in the article.)
The Nation, back in the early part of the 20th Century, used to publish reports from ALA’s annual conferences, showing a definite interest in the professional issues of librarians at the dawn of the modern library movement. It is very gratifying to see the magazine make a return to that tradition.
Joseph Huff-Hannon also had an article published in In These Times earlier this year, with a byline of Buenos Aires, titled, “Locating Argentine Memories,” about the Archive for Permanent Memory (Archivo Permanente Para La Memoria), where the terrors of 1976 and 1977 are documented, researched, and memorialized. Huff-Hannon is a translator and a writer with an intimate understanding of the importance of libraries for justice and social change.
Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.
I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.
Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”
Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.
It is potentially very useful, however, in demonstrating the power over a debate that you enjoy if you define its terms and control the information that’s brought to bear. That’s a principle that any librarian doing information literacy instruction should understand deeply.
Links to Procon.org’s issue sites are showing up all over Wikipedia as “see also” resources. So far Wikipedia editors don’t appear to be wise to the site and its strategy of disguising bias; at first glance it seems very much in line with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy, which is all about providing balanced views (and a first glance is all that many people have time for when checking the edits of pages they’re watching on Wikipedia).
Don’t be fooled by this site. I encourage librarians to use it in information literacy instruction as an example of a biased website. A website can have all of the features students are traditionally taught to look for to establish reliability and still be propaganda. This site is an example of why we need to go a little deeper in our teaching about how to evaluate websites and how to detect bias.
It’s a sickening deception.
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.
RESOLVED, that the Progressive Librarians Guild support sister and fellow librarians in Indianapolis, Indiana in gaining union representation. Below is PLG’s position and letter of support:
Progressive Librarians Guild
Rider University Library
2083 Lawrenceville Rd.
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
August 8, 2006
Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library
P.O. Box 211
Indianapolis, IN 46206-0211
Dear Indianapolis-Marion County Library Board:
* Library Board Member Gregory Jordan
* Library Board Member Louis Mahern
* Library Board Member Gary Meyer
* Library Board Member Peter Pizarro
* Library Board Member Mary Lou Rothe
* Library Board Member Sarah Taylor
The Progressive Librarians Guild, a national organization of public, academic, and special librarians, urges the Indianapolis-Marion County Library Board recognize the request for union representation made by its library workers. It is our understanding that a majority of these workers have expressed support for a union, and the next proper step is to verify the majority support and begin negotiations with the workers’ union.
Collective bargaining is not only a right, it is a reasonable and fair practice. Libraries work better when staff has a voice in library policies that directly affect them as employees. Library workers are marginalized enough as it is; very often union representation is the only mechanism they have to assure equitable treatment and respect on the job. Please don’t deny these workers that opportunity.
Progressive Librarians Guild