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Clashing between politics and language with Library of Congress subject headings

By Kevin Cretsos

The Library of Congress subject heading “Illegal aliens” has stirred up controversies of politics between the American Library Association and Diane Black, Republican Representative of Tennessee. In January, the American Library Association suggested changing the term “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants.” The justification for this change is that the term, “Illegal aliens” is considered offensive and dehumanizing to certain groups of people. But this decision has prompted Diane Black to introduce legislature to prevent the Library of Congress from changing this heading through the bill entitled: “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act."

Politics aside, Library of Congress changes are intended to improve access for users. The heading “Cookery” was recently changed to more specific headings like “Cooking” and “Cookbooks.” My guess is that this change was made because who in their right mind would think to search under a term like “Cookery”? In other examples, headings are meant to be more user-friendly and less confusing. The heading for the Old Testament used to be “Bible. O.T.”, but this was recently changed to “Bible. Old Testament” to help people from having to guess the abbreviation.  Most subject heading changes are made to connect related subjects and persons with one another. For example the names of “Kent, Clark (Fictitious character)” and “Kal-El (Fictitious character)” are both linked to “Superman (Fictitious character)." Since all these names are the same person, the cross-referencing helps link these similar terms together in catalogs so that the resources be found more effectively.

As a library staff member that is directly involved in managing subject headings day-to-day, I see that Library of Congress headings changes reflect the cultural implications of our language. For example, the Library of Congress changed the heading “Negroes” to "Blacks" in the 1970's and then to "Afro-Americans" in the 1990's. Three years after that, the heading was changed to “African Americans," which is used currently. Before the era of civil rights, African Americans were also referred to as “Colored people”, but as our society has changed, so has the language. In other ways, language changes reflect political movements of their times. You may also remember in 2003 during the Iraq War (aka Operation Iraqi Freedom), when U.S. representative Bob Ney introduced the euphemism “Freedom fries” to replace “French fries” as a way of boycotting France for not supporting the war.

I acknowledge that language can have a political charge. Attempts to control language will always be a power struggle between sides of the political spectrum and sometimes it can vaguely resemble the Orwellian concept of “doublespeak” where propaganda and biases are perceived as truths. What are the implications of the control of language and other terminology in your lives? Does it shape your perspective and way of thinking?

Personally, I am against regulating Library of Congress subject headings for political justifications. I believe that the Library of Congress should be able to classify and categorize information and resources without intervention with laws from Congress. But what are your thoughts? Should the heading “Illegal aliens” be changed or not?

This blog post was inspired by the New York Times editorial A Fight Over 'Aliens'.

- Kevin Cretsos, Catalog Management Assistant

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