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New Times, New Terms

By Grace Huffman and Jill Crane

Last summer, a team of library faculty and staff members completed a project to overhaul the language used to describe Indigenous peoples. At the beginning of Native American Heritage Month, we wanted to share how we can be better stewards of materials relating to the history of Indigenous people and to centralize their voice in how those materials are described. 

One of the ways libraries assist patrons in accessing and using the materials that they have is to assign subject headings. To ensure reliable organization, most academic libraries in the United States look to the Library of Congress, which has developed its own controlled vocabulary. This is a list — a very big list — of preferred terms with specific meanings attached in order to create conformity in library description and improve findability. Due to the size of this list of preferred terms and the administrative process involved in updating subject terms that reflect current use, the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are often outdated and reflect racial and cultural biases of those who created and maintain the system, many of whom were/are white and Christian. Many librarians and libraries recognize these terms can inhibit accessibility and representation, as well as perpetuate trauma to groups outside of that dominant perspective. 

For example, the current approved terms for Indigenous communities around the world is the culturally insensitive term “Indians.” Several libraries and archives have audited the terms used for Indigenous groups and have developed additional controlled vocabulary terms that reflect inclusive language. In Canada, in response to historic abuse in residential schools coming to light and a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, libraries and archives have worked with tribes to improve Indigenous peoples’ access to tribal knowledge and materials. The Association for Manitoba Archives (AMA) published its list of updated terms after consulting with members of local tribes along with Indigenous experts around the world. In the spring of 2022, Roesch Library searched for terms related to Indigenous groups in the Library catalog and decided to update these terms using the list created by AMA. 

As an example, the Library of Congress subject heading of “Indians of North America” was deleted, and the subject heading “Indigenous peoples – North America” replaced it. 

Through the first phase of this initiative, about 6,000 subject headings were updated with culturally appropriate subject headings and keywords relating to Indigenous peoples, allowing for better discovery and decreasing the likelihood of encounters with traumatic and culturally insensitive terms. 

The first phase only concerned headings of physical books owned by the Library; future phases will include a variety of materials including electronic books. Another future project will incorporate “red flags” for other sensitive subject terminology and allow for patron feedback. These are just some examples of how Roesch Library is looking at better ways to describe materials and improve accessibility for our students, faculty, staff and community. 

View the full list of changes that Roesch Library completed in an open-to-all Google Sheet, “Next Steps in Decolonizing the Catalog: Application of Indigenous Subject Headings at the University of Dayton” (document and data by Jill Crane and Grace Huffman, University of Dayton, 2022). 

Further Reading

— Grace Huffman is special collections cataloging and circulation assistant; Jill Crane is an associate professor and coordinator of cataloging and metadata.

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