Like museums, libraries are not neutral





OXFORD, England – On November 12, 2021, the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress announced that the headings “foreigners” and “illegal aliens” would be replaced with new headings “non-citizens” and “illegal immigration” . Library of Congress subject headings are assigned to library resources to help users access articles on similar topics, but, as this example shows, they are not always entirely neutral and can even be dehumanizing. . The Library of Congress decision to change these two headings is the culmination of a long battle waged by librarians who believe that the systems that govern library materials must also ensure social justice. While this change may represent a movement into what is an inherently conservative system and institution, the term “illegal” here is not without its problems and some would have preferred to use the term “unauthorized”.

I only recently entered the world of subject headings and other, sometimes confusing, standards for library metadata. I am now working as a cataloguer, specializing in material in Arabic and Persian, in one of the most prestigious libraries in the UK. While my experience with library information management systems may still be limited, it didn’t take long for me to spot the gaps and biases within these systems. Unfortunately, I was not surprised to find that, like many other institutions that preserve and disseminate knowledge, the library is far from apolitical. When I wrote a Twitter feed expressing my outrage and frustration at this status quo, he garnered much more interest than I expected.

While the Library of Congress serves as the research library for the United States Congress, it also has a much larger role internationally: as a provider of standards for the description and cataloging of library materials. These standards include the subject headings already mentioned, but they also include a classification system that helps libraries organize their collections by subject. Of course, any classification is a potentially political act. Knowledge organization systems will always carry the political, cultural, racial, gender and class biases of the institution and the broader socio-political contexts that cultivate them. The corner of the library I deal with – books in Arabic and Persian – is no exception to the rule of being the victim of such prejudices.

One of the first examples that struck me was the way in which ethnographic studies of Afghanistan are classified. Works on “Pushtuns” can be classified under the call number DS354.58. “Other parts of the population” in Afghanistan, however, are classified under the separate mark DS354.6: “Tajiks”, for example, as DS354.6.T35; while the “Hazāras” fall under DS354.6.H3. These benchmarks implicitly create a hierarchy of knowledge associated with these peoples and, therefore, by extension, with the peoples themselves. This is just one example of the many structural inequalities that are built into the LC classification system, contributing to the further marginalization of already marginalized groups. The continued persecution of the Hazara people by the Pashtun-majority Taliban is painfully relevant here.

Not surprisingly, the ranking around the history of Palestine is no exception. Classifications from DS101 relate to the history of “Israel (Palestine).” The Jews. “Specifically, historical events are often presented from an explicitly Israeli perspective. The rating for the events of 1948 is only mentioned with a hint of the end of the British Mandate and the declaration of independence of the State of Israel through the title “Republic, 1948-.” The Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 are simply referred to as the “Arab War, 1967/1973”, simultaneously positioning the classification as a point view of Israel and removing from the classification Israel’s role in the conflict.

As I pointed out in my original thread, one of the most nefarious examples of social injustice that I have encountered so far can be found among the references of Arabic literature (itself under the title general of “oriental philology and literature”). Within a section of the classification system for the history and criticism of Arabic literature, a group of ratings is used to classify works by certain groups of authors. These include “Bedouin authors”, “Christian authors”, “Druze authors” and, again dehumanizingly, “blacks”.

These are specific examples, but the broader ways in which the history of Islamic cultures is approached in the classification system are equally problematic. In general, the odds correspond to dynastic periods. This approach to history can be particularly damaging when applied to the region commonly referred to as the “Middle East,” as it has long been viewed as a region torn apart by a series of dynasties punctuated by battles. Within institutions that teach “Islamic” history, there has recently been a movement away from teaching the history of the region as a long series of dynasties’ ascents and falls. Equally problematic, Afghan history is largely encompassed by the title “military history”.

The removal of the dehumanizing sections of “aliens” and “illegal aliens” by the Library of Congress is a small sign of movement. However, the examples I have given here are by no means exhaustive – they are just the tip of the iceberg. It is important for me to note that I am, of course, far from the first person to draw attention to this problem. Librarians around the world, but particularly in the United States, have been pushing for change within the Library of Congress for decades. There are movements, such as Critlib (“critical librarianship”) that are dedicated to introducing principles of social justice into libraries or the practice of cataloging. If the Library of Congress is to adhere to these same principles, it must radically review its classification system. In the meantime, library workers and users should be aware of the injustices inherent in this system. The library is not neutral.

At the Museum of Latin American Art, Gabriella Sanchez asks each spectator to become aware of the way in which he makes associations according to his prejudices.


Did you say public engagement?


The piece is attributed to “anonymous Navajo women,” working on looms.


The funds will support gallery renovations, energy efficient updates and the creation of a new permanent space dedicated to Brooklyn history.




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