RDDS: Explore Our Work

Conscientious Cataloging at Penn Libraries

A team from Library Technology Services developed a new approach to implementing local alternative subject headings.

A card catalog with an open drawer of cards

While the Library of Congress (LC) classification system was developed to organize the books of the Library of Congress in the United States, this organization system has had a far-reaching impact, used by most research and academic libraries all over the country.  

A primary feature of the system is subject headings, terms that represent topics of research. Given that LC subject headings were first developed in the 19th century, some terms have changed as we have changed as a society. LC has incorporated changes to the system as ideas about race have changed, moving towards terms like African American and Asian America instead of previously used racially charged and outdated words. 

As immigration has become a divisive issue in our country, new attention has come to the subject heading "Illegal alien." In 2016, the Library of Congress responded to advocacy from multiple groups including Dartmouth students and the American Library Association to move away from the term, which is viewed as pejorative and dehumanizing.  

Whereas normally the Library of Congress updates without intervention from Congress, this issue caught the attention of legislators, prompting a 237–170 vote in the House of Representatives ordering the Library to continue to use the term "illegal alien." 

But what about all the libraries that use LC subject headings? 

At Penn Libraries, there was interest in adopting the term "undocumented immigrant," but there was no existing way to incorporate replacement subject headings. A team from Library Technology Services developed a new process to handle the change. 

Michael Gibney described the problem: "If it were a question of changing the label, we could have just done it, but the problem is in a library context, there's real value to conforming to the official ontology. Once you start forking ontologies, you lose the inherent value of the ontology." One of the benefits he described of participating in a cooperative cataloging program is the consistency and interoperability of searching records in the participating systems.  

A simple text replacement in the input record would have been the simplest approach, but insufficient for the challenge of indexing subject headings, which are hierarchical and can contain subdivisions that also need to be evaluated. It also would not represent both the original heading and the alternative. Instead, they adopted a recursive strategy that is capable of looking at multiple levels of headings. Another benefit of their new solution is that it will automatically apply to new acquisitions. Moreover, should LCSH itself be changed, librarians can simply update the records directly in Alma as they normally would, without needing to undo this solution. 

John Mark Ockerbloom was familiar with the intricacies of cross-collection subject searches from his work on the Online Books page, which points to resources in different libraries. "We were taking things we were already developing, and we found we could apply and extend them to this new purpose," he said. 

One of the benefits of the approach they developed is that it separates the limitations of the technical process from the moral and epistemological considerations of library science. "We want to empower librarians and enable them to make the changes that they want to make without ourselves as technicians controlling the process." 

Emily Morton-Owens, Acting Associate University Librarian for Library Technology Services, noted that the importance of this development is that future local changes to the catalog can be easily introduced. "The technology doesn't need to be a factor in deciding how we as librarians want to describe our collections." 

Now that the path is cleared for future changes, Library Technology Services is ready to handle whatever improvements policy groups recommend next.