The Library of Congress (LC) sparked debate recently when it announced that it would no longer use the term illegal aliens as a subject heading.
The library maintains that the phrase has become “pejorative,” a sentiment echoed by social justice projects such as Race Forward’s Drop the I-Word campaign. However, Republican lawmakers who introduced legislation to force the library to keep the term argue that the LC’s subject headings (LCSH) should be consistent with U.S. Code. Right now, two bills are pending: H.R. 4926 and a legislative branch appropriations bill. “Illegal immigration,” U.S. Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) states, “is just that—illegal.”
The library’s plan to “drop the i-word” has become the latest flash point in the nation’s battle over immigration. At the same time, because LCSH are an integral part of research databases, debate over its use also raises questions about technology and its possibilities.
Is technology part of the problem of racism in the United States or the solution?
Black Lives Matter, one of today’s most visible social justice movements, has used social media to challenge racism. Yet the social media companies vital to its success—Facebook and Twitter, among others—have been accused of using social justice causes as a branding opportunity. No doubt, technology shapes today’s social justice movements. But it’s people—not tech—who advance social justice.
The library plans to cancel illegal aliens and replace it with the headings noncitizens and unauthorized immigration, terms that describe an unlawful act rather than a person. Its headings, which are used to catalog books and other materials, derive from research trends. Historically, these headings have been revised if deemed to be obsolete or offensive. For example, the terms Negroes, Blacks, and Afro-Americans were used prior to the current heading African Americans.
The library’s announcement followed a grassroots campaign spearheaded by students at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, who argued that the illegal aliens heading is “dehumanizing.” Melissa Padilla, the student who initiated the campaign, stated, “A university should be free of the racist phrases I heard growing up.”
A history of heading activism
This isn’t the first time the Latino community has taken on the library’s subject headings. The Drop the I-Word Campaign echoes an earlier moment of digital activism with roots in the civil rights movement.
An earlier generation of students, scholars, and activist librarians at the University of California (UC) Berkeley challenged the library’s subject headings list. They claimed the headings were too general and ignored important aspects of Mexican American experience. Raymond Padilla, who studied library services on the Berkeley campus in 1973, noted that the headings “lumped all materials together” and didn’t “differentiate between Chicano literature and Chicano history.”
These blind spots were countered by Berkeley’s Chicano Studies Library, which developed an alternative cataloging system. With a wide-ranging set of headings—from AFDC (the federal assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to Zoot Suit Riots—this system improved research on issues facing Mexican Americans and set the stage for an innovative digital resource.
Headings from Berkeley’s system, along with others from UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, were used to index materials in the Chicano Database, a bibliographic resource focused on Mexican Americans and Latinos. Through these terms, the Chicano Database created a new language for data management. Today it is still debatable whether full-text searches outperform the precision of subject headings in the Chicano Database.
Other ethnic and racial groups have also pointed to the inadequacy and at times problematic nature of the LC cataloging system. For example, librarians of Asian American studies have modified LC headings and classification numbers such as “Yellow Peril” and D769.8.A6 (and “Enemy Aliens” for Japanese Americans in concentration camps).
At Berkeley, what began as a challenge to the relevance of LCSH became an opportunity to use technology to create a tangible, innovative tool for social change.
The Dartmouth students’ objection to the use of illegal aliens echoes the social justice aspirations of the generation 40 years ago. Both turned to technology as a site for social impact. The question today is whether or not LC will become an innovative digital resource.
Innovation isn’t just the latest gadget or concierge service. More important, it’s a tool for social justice.
The illegal aliens heading has been used by the library since 1980. It is true, as Republican lawmakers argue, that the term reflects current federal immigration law. But U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) has introduced a bill, the “Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression (CHANGE) Act,” to update this language. Gov. Jerry Brown has also signed a similar bill in California.
This is the first time Congress has stepped in to edit the library’s headings. The bills’ advocates argue this is necessary to prevent “censorship.” But this legislation is also an attempt to co-opt what counts as free speech and academic freedom. It is an attempt to micromanage digital resources across the nation.
As of now, lawmakers are moving forward with legislation that requires the library to keep the existing subject heading. The library’s decision to cancel the term has landed it in the middle of the nation’s immigration debate. But this is also a question of whether digital resources will be part of the problem of racism in the United States, or become part of the solution. Congress needs to step back and give LC an opportunity to become part of the solution.