Changing the Subject at Wheaton

In 2014, Dartmouth College students Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares and Melissa Padilla, along with other members of the Coalition For Immigration Reform and Equality at Dartmouth, petitioned the Library of Congress to “drop the i-word” and replace the subject heading “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants.” Library of Congress Subject Headings are used across most academic and public libraries to create consistency by eliminating synonyms and variant spellings and allowing us to easily search that subject in libraries around the world.

The students’ proposed changes were rejected by the Library of Congress on technical grounds:

Illegal aliens is an inherently legal heading, and as such the preference is to use the legal terminology. … In some legal systems, a person may be an undocumented alien without being in a jurisdiction illegally. … Immigrants — the proposed broader term for the revised heading — is not an inherently legal heading. Mixing an inherently legal concept with one that is not inherently legal leads to problems with the structure and maintenance of LCSH, and makes assignment of headings difficult.

Essentially, the Library of Congress said that because the offensive term is also used in the law, it will not change until the law is changed.

This spurred librarians to action. In 2016, the American Library Association adopted a resolution urging the Library of Congress to change the subject heading, as continued use of the term does not conform to the profession’s core values and policies. This time, the Library of Congress agreed to remove the subject heading and introduce two new ones, “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration,” which could be used in conjunction to refer to the same concept. They began accepting public feedback on the issue but have made no further statements to date, and the offensive subject heading remains in our catalogs.

At the Wallace Library, we learned about this issue after reading the article “Conscientious Cataloging: Librarians work to advance equality in subject headings,” and we feel urgency to replace the subject heading on our own rather than wait for the Library of Congress to act. We are now using the new subject heading “undocumented immigrants,” inspired by the Dartmouth students who are the subject of a new documentary, Change the Subject. Watch the movie for free online, and meet Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares and filmmaker Sawyer Broadley at 4:00 PM on April 6 for a panel discussion with Kate Henke from the Wallace Library.

On further investigation of descriptive terms whose meaning has shifted and to progress Wheaton’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, we also added the subject heading “antiracism” to books on the Chicago Public Library’s antiracism reading list and purchased all titles on the list that we did not previously own from a local Black-owned bookstore.   Our next steps include review of subject headings considered offensive by Native Americans in collaboration with those groups. Additionally, we’d like to correct instances of women referred to by their husbands’ names, inappropriate language around mental illness and disabilities, and other racist terminology.

We are aware of many problematic structures in our classification system and have questions about the best way to approach subject headings that marginalize certain groups such as “women astronauts.” Do we add the subject heading “male astronauts?” Obviously, this is still othering. How do we address the many other considerations (Note: To access this resource, you’ll need to provide your Wheaton wID and password.) that fail to address intersectionality and identity authentically? This is a large project but an important one that we are committing to over the long term. We’re sure you’ve got questions as well, so the library is hosting a community conversation to incorporate your input on this topic at 4:00 PM on Thursday April 8. It’s important to us that the way we describe our materials is accurate for our community and representative of terminology as it evolves over time. We hope you will join us in this conversation.

~Kate Henke