3 Replies to “What to do…What to do?”

  1. I think that updating search terms and subject headings is a really important discussion. It is even timely! This past summer, the Library of Congress wanted to change the subject heading “illegal alien” because the term has taken on derogatory connotations, and the LOC felt that it shouldn’t be used anymore as a subject term. Congress didn’t like the idea and added an amendment to a bill preventing this change which said that the LOC must keep language used in laws, like the phrase illegal alien.

    At the end of the day, controlled vocabularies, used for searching, are about providing access to records. By employing derogatory or offensive language in access tools, I believe that an institution inhibits access because researchers might be less apt to use that terminology when searching for materials. A word might be used in the documents, but that doesn’t mean a researcher would think to use it while searching. I think language like this is sort of a hot topic, so to less politicize it, I think this would be similar to cataloging a book by Chaucer or Shakespeare using the English they wrote their work in. Cataloging a book in Middle or Early Modern English would greatly narrow access, and I think trying to retain language that has become derogatory or even simply gone out of style or changed makes searching similarly difficult.

    I’m not sure that institutions need to preserve their search tools because they’re a piece of history. It would be nice to document and for society to preserve it somehow, but I don’t think outdated systems or language should be preserved by actively using them. Take the card catalog. I think it is important to maintain the memory of the card catalog, but I don’t think we necessarily need to keep that system active in order to preserve it. Our access tools need to change with the times because we are providing access for people living in the changing times. It is one thing to change the documents or leave things out of history; it is another thing to update a finding aid or subject heading.

    More as a fun fact: I thought I provide a link to a librarian who has actively worked on updating subject headings, Sanford Berman. I discovered him while browsing in Wikipedia and was rather struck by the title “radical librarian.” I think his work is important to this discussion.

    1. I think this is a very important discussion, and I completely agree with you Ben when you said that using offensive language inhibits access. We use words we are familiar with when searching for records. I mean, unless we’re shady, racist individuals, most of us wouldn’t think to use derogatory language in a search unless it were directly relevant to the topic. But who exactly is deciding what constitutes derogatory language?

      What I saw as the heart of the readings this week is that we cannot build these access tools and preserve them without first consulting and working with the people to whom the records relate. I wonder if the LOC or Congress discussed changing the subject term “illegal alien” with anyone who had at one point entered the country illegally. Granted, any illegal alien now probably wouldn’t come forward to voice their opinion, but if at any time there was an opportunity to open up a dialog with the people to whom the term refers, I would hope that conversation would take place. Christen’s experience with the Mukurtu Project and the Koorie Archival System are great examples of information professionals opening up that dialog, and I hope that in the future we can follow their example.

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