Guest post by Scott Libson.
It’s May 2016. Donald Trump is turning his attention from the primaries to the general election. You won’t be surprised to hear Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) describe something as “Orwellian” and “misguided” or Representative Diane Black (R-TN) saying it’s “political correctness run amok.” You might be surprised at the target of this vitriol: a proposed change to a Library of Congress Subject Heading. Not your typical victim of partisan debate.
Subject headings are meant to lead library users to information on similar topics. They strive to be accurate and logical. By creating these headings, librarians can limit the terms used to describe something, which makes it easier to find information. If you want to call subject headings boring, I’ll forgive you (though I may send an army of librarians to change your mind). In any case, subject headings are hardly the stuff of Orwell’s Newspeak or something that might “run amok.”
And yet, we can all recognize the importance of classifying information and of the words we use to describe those categories. A catalog of news outlets that labeled the Washington Post and CNN as “fake news” and Breitbart as “mainstream media” might agitate you and make you question the usefulness of the catalog. The history of racism, eugenics, misogyny, genocide, etc. reminds us of the horrors that, at times, have followed the classifying of groups of people. The Library of Congress Subject Headings do not serve the interests of genocidal dictators, but they are particularly prone to problems of bias and outdated terminology. For much of its history, the catalogers overseeing the subject headings preferred terms that the “average” reader would look for. That perspective not only privileged readers perceived to be “average,” but also made the headings inherently slow to change, awaiting evolution within popular society.
This leads us to Change the Subject, a documentary about the subject heading that raised Ted Cruz’s hackles. The film’s thesis might be summarized succinctly: Words are worth fighting for. Early in the film, we learn about a conversation between Dartmouth College student Melissa Padilla and the school’s Librarian for Romance Languages and Latin American Studies Jill Baron. Padilla had gone to the library to get help for a research paper on immigration and Baron was showing her how to use the library’s catalog, specifically the subject terms. Baron sensed discomfort. What Padilla was actually feeling was “disgust” when she saw the term “Illegal aliens.” “Why are you using those words?” she asked Baron. “I thought this place would know better or do better.” That encounter began a process that led Dartmouth students to demand the subject heading be changed, a process that joined the students, many of them Dreamers, together with librarians from across the country to call for a more accurate and less offensive term to describe undocumented people.
Subject headings are added or changed all the time. There’s a well-established process for making those changes, and lists of approved and rejected changes are released each month. Most changes and additions are approved and attract little attention outside of libraries. The petitions require work, though, and the demands of the Dartmouth students impelled the librarians to submit the petition. They literally enlivened the need to change the subject.
In the case of the “Illegal aliens” petition, the body responsible for approving or rejected proposed changes initially rejected the change. They found that the proposed new term, “Undocumented immigrants,” did not cover all people who are in a country without official authorization. After the American Library Association Council adopted its own resolution supporting the change, though, the Library of Congress reconsidered its rejection and proposed the term “Noncitizen” to replace “Aliens” and “Unauthorized immigration” to replace “Illegal aliens.” It is at this point that some members of Congress seized on the change and ordered, for the very first time, the reinstatement of an old subject heading.
There are many reasons to continue to demand the subject be changed. It is a pejorative term that illogically and offensively describes individuals, rather than actions, as illegal. A person might have entered a country illegally or broken the law by overstaying a visa, but neither an immigrant nor an alien nor anyone else can be illegal.
The fraught history of the term “illegal aliens” also supports the need for a new subject heading. Given how divisive the immigration debate has been in recent years, you would be excused for thinking “illegal aliens” and the even worse obfuscation of the English language, “illegals,” have been part of political discourse for a long time and only recently became politically contentious. In fact, the terms came into prominence at the end of the 1960s (see Google NGram graph below, which also includes the term “illegal immigrants”). In Making Foreigners (2015), American legal historian Kunal Parker explains why. Until the 1960s, the law treated many classes of people (African Americans, Native peoples, and women, among others) as if they were aliens (i.e. made foreigners) with circumscribed rights. With the various rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, noncitizens became the new target for limiting rights. Congress has repeatedly debated the issue of unauthorized immigration between the 1970s and today and as that debate moved increasingly toward the center of the culture wars, the terms “illegal aliens,” “illegal immigrants,” and “illegals” have taken on vital importance within some circles of the anti-immigration movement.
Given the history above, it should come as no surprise that “Illegal aliens” is a relatively new addition to the subject headings. “Aliens, Illegal” was added in 1980 and it was changed to “Illegal aliens” in 1993. It could just as easily be changed again if Congress would let librarians do their job. A big part of that job is listening to students and, as Melissa Padilla said, “doing better.”
 Steven A. Knowlton, “Three Decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A Study of Changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 40(2) (2005): 124-25.
Join IU Cinema on November 17 for a virtual introduction and screening of Change the Subject, followed by an interactive Q&A with Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares, one of the film’s producers. This event is presented in partnership with IU Libraries Diversity Committee and is supported through IU Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Scott Libson is the Librarian for History, Jewish Studies, and Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He received his PhD in US history from Emory University in 2016 and has published numerous articles on the religious cultures of philanthropy in the early twentieth century.