That was the topic discussed recently by OCLC Research Library Partners metadata managers, initiated by Stephen Hearn of the University of Minnesota, Sharon Farnel of the University of Alberta, and Erin Grant of the University of Washington. Since 2017, the recommendation from a Subject Analysis Committee working group to the Library of Congress to change LCSH “Aliens” to “Noncitizens” and “Illegal aliens” to “Undocumented immigrants” has yet to be implemented. LC’s initial solution to this issue was blocked by Congress. This impasse prompted one metadata manager to comment, “Being held hostage to a national system slow to change in the face of changing semantics is damaging to libraries, as generally we pride ourselves on being welcoming and inclusive.” End-users hold their libraries accountable for what appears in their catalogs. Although LCSH is the Library of Congress Subject Headings, it is used world-wide, sometimes losing its context.
Recently, some academic libraries (cf. Radical Cataloging: Using alternative subject headings locally to promote inclusiveness and diversity) have begun adding to or replacing the LCSH term in bibliographic records in their local systems. Despite the technological challenges in fulfilling these requests for local subject heading changes, such work has the potential to support Equity/Diversity/Inclusion (EDI) initiatives increasingly undertaken by educational institutions and libraries, as well as providing an opportunity for metadata departments to demonstrate impact in these areas.
Such targeted access point maintenance occurs in the context of access point maintenance generally. For example, the Library of Congress recently changed the heading “Mentally handicapped” to “People with mental disabilities.” Implementing such changes in the catalog can involve a mix of automated, vended, and manual remediation methods, as well as decisions about resource allocation.
Some driving factors for libraries to use alternate terminology in library catalogs include the need to:
- Provide greater detailed access than is currently offered by the national subject heading system. For example, LCSH has more granularity for Western European town/townships/places than for Southeast Asia and Africa.
- Offer more accurate and current terms
- Replace terms that reflect bias or are considered offensive with more neutral terms
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s clear directive to reconcile with indigenous peoples has prompted Canadian libraries both locally and as part of nation-wide initiatives to analyze LCSH terms pertaining to indigenous peoples. Changes are deemed warranted, both because of the cultural sensitivity to the word “Indian”, and also because it impedes access, as their users are not likely to use the word “Indian” when searching. Also, the name a particular group uses for themselves often differs from the LCSH term (e.g., “Dene” rather than “Athapascan”). Attempts such as the University of Manitoba Libraries’ creation of local authority records for indigenous people instead of “Indians of North America” are not shareable with other databases such as WorldCat.
WorldCat already includes different sources for subject headings, represented by a second indicator 7 in the 650 field with the source codes in $2 from the Subject Heading and Term Source Codes list maintained by the Library of Congress. Metadata managers pointed to several specialized thesauri they are currently using:
- The National Library of Australia started using Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Thesauri for materials related to Australia’s indigenous peoples in June 2019
- Māori Subject Headings thesaurus (Ngā Upoko Tukutuku) used in New Zealand
- International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology
- Mormon Thesaurus that was developed collaboratively between Brigham Young University, Utah State University, University of Utah, and catalogers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Although a thesaurus is usually developed by one specific community, its potential usage is global. For example, Mormons reside in many countries and are likely to take advantage of the granularity provided by a Mormon Thesaurus.
Adding alternate subject headings only locally has drawbacks.
- Individual institutions are reluctant to modify their descriptive practices in library catalogs for materials also held by other libraries as it hampers consortial re-use.
- Using other, less-offensive vocabularies can split collections, thus hampering discovery of all relevant materials.
- Local solutions could tend to decrease pressure on mainstream subject systems to adopt more appropriate terminology and will make it more difficult to take advantage of improvements in the mainstream systems.
Among the strategies for applying alternate subject headings cited by focus group members:
- Use linked data to deal with different labels from multiple thesauri that refer to the same entity. However, linked data can only deal with labels by decoupling the maintenance (via identifiers) from the label or display value. With ontologies and thesauri, the issue is not just about labels—hierarchies are involved.
- Enter the alternate terms with a 650 #7 $2 local
- Enter terms in a 69X local subject heading, but these are not included in the WorldCat master record.
Most metadata managers do not have the resources to allocate dedicated staff for subject heading maintenance, which would become even more complex if local subject headings also had to be maintained. Libraries are also constrained by their library systems, which may not permit adding local headings or prevent them from being over-written. Contracting with third parties to keep authority files current is common, but such contracts do not include local alternate subject headings.
Some see OCLC’s Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) as a means to engage the community to mitigate the issues that have driven attempts to develop alternate subject headings for LCSH. The recently launched FAST Policy and Outreach Committee represent FAST users to oversee community engagement, term contributions, and procedures and to recommend improvements. Its vision statement: “FAST will be a fully supported, widely adopted and community developed general subject vocabulary derived from LCSH with tools and services that serve the needs of diverse communities and contexts.”
Making separate thesauri available online with authorized MARC source codes would allow everyone to take advantage of them in their own MARC records and strengthen libraries’ commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Karen Smith-Yoshimura, senior program officer, topics related to creating and managing metadata with a focus on large research libraries and multilingual requirements. Karen retired from OCLC November 2020.