Given everything on the congressional agenda, lawmakers are not known for paying attention to library cataloging.
But last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a funding bill with an accompanying report that included language about exactly that. Specifically, it instructs the Library of Congress to retain the subject headings “aliens” and “illegal aliens.”
In March, two years after an organization at Dartmouth College first petitioned the Library of Congress for a change, the library issued an executive summary proposing that those headings be replaced with “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration.”
Subject headings are words used to locate books and other materials in a collection. The Library of Congress sets the standard for subject headings at most libraries throughout the nation, including the Boston Public Library.
“Illegal aliens” and “aliens” had become pejorative terms, the Library of Congress executive summary pointed out, as well as potentially confusing, since another dictionary definition of “aliens” refers to “beings from another planet.”
It’s not yet clear that the House committee mandate will go any further. It would have to pass the House and then, if the Senate passes its own committee’s version, which doesn’t include the language, would be subject to negotiation between the chambers, according to a blog post by Adam Eisgrau, managing director of the office of government relations at the American Library Association.
Still, it’s notable that this is the first time in history that Congress has introduced legislation regarding subject headings, according to Gayle Osterberg, director of communications for the Library of Congress. The national library has historically made a practice of updating terms to reflect popular usage; for example, “crippled” became “handicapped” became “people with disabilities.” At the national library, which contains around 162 million items, 5,000 new subject headings are added to a “Tentative List” of recommended changes and updates every year.
“Within library sciences, we’re definitely aware of the words chosen by the Library of Congress,” said Laura Saunders, an assistant professor of library and information sciences at Simmons College. “They become really enshrined. . . . Those words are very codified and become part of the controlled vocabulary we use when we’re cataloging materials.”
Saunders points out that the new headings are consistent with libraries’ long history of trying to support immigrants, through services such as English as a Second Language classes, conversation circles, and courses to prepare for the citizenship test.
“Everything we do is political, whether [or not] we think of it that way,” Saunders said. “That’s why we need to be really thoughtful about our language.”
Anticipating a large number of comments on the proposed change, the Library of Congress created an online survey to accept feedback from the library community and the general public through July 20, Osterberg said. So far, most of the criticism of the library’s proposal is coming from political groups, not from within library circles.
“Those who would like to replace the term ‘illegal alien’ with some euphemism are trying to mask the fact that a non-citizen has violated a federal law and is thus deportable,” wrote Dave Ray, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, in an e-mail. “Other terms candy-coat that fact and are thus inaccurate and misleading.”
But Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association, says the reason to adopt the new subject heading is not politics but the need to keep up with evolving usage.
“We want to make sure today’s and future researchers can easily discover the materials they need through terminology that would be commonly used,” Feldman said.