On 22 March 2016, the Library of Congress announced [pdf] that the subject heading Illegal aliens will be cancelled and replaced with Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration. This decision came after a couple years of lobbying by folks from Dartmouth College (and others) and a resolution [pdf] passed by the American Library Association.
Among librarians, responses to this development seemed to range from “it’s about time” to “gee, I wish my library would pay for authority control” to the Annoyed Librarian’s “let’s see how many MORE clicks my dismissiveness can send Library Journal’s way!” to Alaskan librarians thinking “they got this change made in just two years!?! Getting Denali and Alaska Natives through took decades!”.
Business as usual, in other words. Librarians know the importance of names; that folks will care enough to advocate for changes to LCSH comes as no surprise.
The change also got some attention outside of libraryland: some approval by lefty activist bloggers, a few head-patting “look at what these cute librarians are up to” pieces in mainstream media, and some complaints about “political correctness” from the likes of Breitbart.
The Librarian of Congress shall retain the headings ‘‘Aliens’’ and ‘‘Illegal Aliens’’, as well as related headings, in the Library of Congress Subject Headings in the same manner as the headings were in effect during 2015.
There’s of course a really big substantive reason to oppose this move by Black: “illegal aliens” is in fact pejorative. To quote Elie Wiesel: “no human being is illegal.” Names matter; names have power: anybody intentionally choosing to refer to another person as illegal is on shaky ground indeed if they wish to not be thought racist.
There are also reasons to simply roll one’s eyes and move on: this bill stands little chance of passing Congress on its own, let alone being signed into law. As electoral catnip to Black’s voters and those of like-minded Republicans, it’s repugnant, but still just a drop in the ocean of topics for reactionary chain letters and radio shows.
Still, there is value in opposing hateful legislation, even if it has little chance of actually being enacted. There are of course plenty of process reasons to oppose the bill:
- There are just possibly a few matters that a member of the House Budget Committee could better spend her time on. For example, libraries in her district in Tennessee would benefit from increased IMLS support, to pick a example not-so-randomly.
- More broadly, Congress as a whole has much better things to do than to micro-manage the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress.
- If Congress wishes to change the names of things, there are over 31,000 post offices to work with. They might also consider changing the names of military bases named after generals who fought against the U.S.
- Professionals of any stripe in civil service are owed a degree of deference in their professional judgments by legislators. That includes librarians.
- Few, if any, members of Congress are trained librarians or ontologists or have any particular qualifications to design or maintain controlled vocabularies.
However, there is one objection that will not stand: “Congress has no business whatsoever advocating or demanding changes to LCSH.”
If cataloging is not neutral, if the act of choosing names has meaning… it has political meaning.
And if the names in LCSH are important enough for a member of Congress to draft a bill about — even if Black is just grandstanding — they are important enough to defend.
If cataloging is not neutral, then negative reactions must be expected — and responded to.
Updated 2016-04-14: Add link to H.R. 4926.