June 18, 2018

Creating Change in the Cataloging Lab | Peer to Peer Review

To library staff, cataloging can seem to consist entirely of complex and impenetrable rules. Overworked catalogers, besieged by staff reductions and constantly changing standards and systems, can feel that other staff aren’t interested in what they do. But in my experience, other librarians are keen to learn more about what shapes the catalog records they use every day. I set out to bridge this knowledge gap with a website that would allow all library staff to more fully understand (and potentially make changes to) one of the most essential parts of a catalog record—subject headings.


Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are maintained by the Library of Congress (LC); proposals for new headings or changes to existing headings are reviewed and approved by LC’s Policy and Standards Division. Although LC maintains control over the vocabulary, since the 1980s there have been programs in place to foster development of LCSH via cooperative contributions from other institutions. The Subject Authority Cooperative (SACO) program is designed to allow librarians to propose new subject headings and revisions to existing subject headings. But many institutions don’t have the time or internal resources to participate in SACO; staff at public or school libraries are rarely involved in the program. Even when a library is a SACO member, typically only cataloging staff are involved in the work. Other library staff are left in the dark about how LCSH are created and how they can be changed.

In fact, although the rules around constructing subject headings can be complex, anyone can submit a proposal for a new or revised subject heading. But not many librarians know that!

After a few years of cataloging as a professional, I had heard many complaints about inadequate or inappropriate subject headings, but only a handful of people I knew had the institutional support necessary to dedicate time toward submitting proposals for improving LCSH. Public-facing library staff usually have the most awareness of how patrons are using library catalogs, including whether current subject headings are meeting user needs, but they’re far removed from the LCSH approval process.

After the fervent response to the years-long efforts to change the “Illegal aliens” LCSH (which has still not been changed!), it seemed clear to me that people were interested in understanding more about how LCSH are decided upon and how the vocabulary could more accurately reflect the words that users are searching for.


The idea for the Cataloging Lab was based on a workshop on “demystifying” the subject approval process that I copresented at the ACRL (Association of College & Research Libraries) 2017 conference with Catherine Oliver, metadata & cataloging librarian, Northern Michigan University; Jessica Schomberg, media cataloger/assessment coordinator, Minnesota State University Mankato; and Netanel Ganin, librarian/cataloger, Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Working with these dedicated librarians encouraged me to move the conversation beyond LCSH’s flaws to making positive changes.

In January I launched the Cataloging Lab, a wiki where people can collaborate to construct subject heading proposals. Those who are familiar with MARC and the research requirements for justifying new subject heading proposals can assist those who are knowledgeable about the subject matter being proposed, and vice versa.

Suggesting and editing headings proposals via an open, collaborative platform like the Cataloging Lab has a number of benefits. Because the proposals are open to the wider community, others can chime in on whether a particular preferred term is better established than another, or suggest related terms. Because more than one person is viewing the proposals, errors like typos or missed references can be spotted more easily, resulting in stronger proposals which save the time of those approving the headings at LC. In addition, making the process more transparent has the potential to produce library staff who are more invested in the LCSH vocabulary and feel empowered to suggest changes that might better serve their users.

The Cataloging Lab itself is built on a WordPress site with a knowledgebase wiki plugin, allowing users who have created accounts to add their own headings proposals and edit or make comments on others’ work. Once a proposal has been researched and properly formatted, it is tagged in the wiki as “proposed,” and the person who initially created the entry will email the completed proposal to LC, which will evaluate and either accept or reject the proposal, or ask for further information.

In response to the “Illegal aliens” LCSH controversy (specifically, the House of Representative’s May 2017 direction to LC “to make publicly available its process for changing or adding subject headings”) LC has published information on the Process for Adding and Revising Library of Congress Subject Headings on its website and has clarified the considerations used for evaluating subject proposals. These are excellent steps towards making LCSH more responsive. The Cataloging Lab is a tool that can help more librarians be a part of making improvements to the vocabulary that so many libraries use.


The positive feedback that I received from my proposal for a new heading for “Gender non-conforming people,” as well as the enthusiastic response when it was approved in December 2017, solidified my hope that crowdsourcing improvements to LCSH was a worthwhile project.

Inspired by the LCSH Suggestion Blog-a-Thon that New York City’s Radical Reference collective hosted in 2008, my colleague Ashley Lyons, staff assistant II at Durham County Library, NC, and I will be hosting an LCSH Suggest-a-Thon during the week of March 19–23. This will be a chance for people to identify headings that they believe should be added or edited to improve user access. Suggested headings will be added to the Cataloging Lab so interested parties can research them and make formal proposals.

Future plans for the Cataloging Lab include expanding beyond subject heading proposals so that the site can act as a collaborative space for compiling some of the tacit knowledge that catalogers acquire over their careers. Moving information from closed spaces like email listservs and social media groups to a shared platform will help early career and paraprofessional catalogers do their jobs more effectively. I’m looking forward to seeing how community needs can shape the Cataloging Lab to help those who are passionate about library metadata that responds to the needs of all our community members.

Violet Fox is a cataloging and metadata expert residing in central Minnesota. She completed her MLIS at the University of Washington iSchool in 2013 and currently serves as the News Editor for Cataloging and Classification Quarterly. Her research interests include the intricacies of zine cataloging and the ethical implications of classification.



  1. I applaud these efforts! Working together to not only effect change in general, but backing up to where people are empowered to conceptualize the possibility of change is so important.

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