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Critical Cataloging: Examining LCSH as Text

Critical Cataloging was presented at the 2017 HASTAC Conference, and was selected as one of the Top Three Digital Posters

There has been a significant body of research devoted to the structure and often problematic nature of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). LCSH is a controlled vocabulary used to organize materials about a specific subject under one heading in order to facilitate user searches, but many critics have highlighted the fact that LCSH subject headings are not neutral, and in fact often enforce “dominant ideas about bodies and identities”, in this case those of “white, propertied, Protestant men” (Adler, 2016, p. 632). Beginning in earnest in the 1970s, ‘critical catalogers’ like Sanford Berman and Hope Olson have advocated for the changing of racist, sexist, and homophobic subject headings, but critical theorists also worry that ‘fixing’ the subject headings obscures the ideologies that are the very foundations to LCSH (Adler, 2013, Knowledge Organization, 46; Drabinski, 2013, Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83). In addition, there is little focus on LCSH as text outside the field of knowledge organization (KO) and there is a lack of understanding of how subject headings are created and/or changed (Adler, 2013; Koford, 2017, Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, 1; & Drabinski, 2013). Drabinski (2013) proposed the application of Queer theory and pedagogy in order to disrupt the dominant ideologies and to use any incorrect subject headings as a learning opportunity to create a critical dialogue between public service librarians and library users. A mini-review of the literature reveals two major questions:

  • How can the function of LCSH as text be made apparent to stakeholders both inside and outside of the discipline?


  • How can Knowledge Organization (KO) professionals document changes and the push to update LCSH in a critical way that will allow for dialogue and instruction between professionals in the field (librarians) and library users?

In order to answer the above questions, the author created Critical Cataloging: Examining LCSH as Text, an interactive visualization that is focused on making two points more visible to those outside of the KO field: 1.) the history of critical cataloging activists like Sanford Berman, Hope Olson, Joan Marshall, and Ellen Greenblatt who have worked to correct problematic subject headings and advocate for a greater understanding of the ideologies that shape them; and 2.) specific historical changes to LCSH that concern marginalized subjects in order to promote the reading of these headings as a text that can be engaged with critically and help users “understand the bias of [LCSH] hegemonic schemes” (Drabinski, 2013, p. 107).

This digital poster details the background of LCSH changes, the creation of the narrative visualization, and pedagogical possibilities for using the visualization as a portion of a library instructional research session or digital humanities curriculum. In addition, the poster serves as a conversation starter and highlight the need for increased interdisciplinary conversations between KO professionals, marginalized communities, and humanities scholars in order to continue to update LCSH.