In the summer and fall of 2020, a nationwide outpouring of grief and outrage over ongoing violence against Black men and women sparked readers’ interest in Black and Brown literary voices as well as books on antiracism, with libraries compiling various lists of recommended reading. That fall, Rudolph Clay, Head of Library Diversity Initiatives and Outreach and African & African-American Studies Librarian, sent me an article from a College & Research Libraries publication called “Antiracism in the Catalog: An Analysis of Records.” The author, academic librarian Elizabeth Hobart, examined catalog records for 21 popular, frequently recommended books on race and antiracism and found many of them woefully lacking in subject headings, keywords, and other descriptors needed for discoverability and cross-referencing. As a catalog librarian, I felt a pang and a building sense of excitement: twenty-one titles wasn’t that much. I could make a small difference, at least, by fixing up these records, almost all of which were owned by Washington University Libraries.
Twenty-one titles turned out to be a bigger challenge than it seemed at first glance. Each record had to be updated both in Sierra, our local ILS, and WorldCat, OCLC’s global cooperative catalog. Recent works, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist, were cataloged quite thoroughly soon after publication but lacked subject headings like “racial justice,” which was only approved for use by the Library of Congress in late July of 2020. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, included a subject heading for “Discrimination in criminal justice administration” but lacked “Racism in criminal justice administration,” a subject heading not approved until June 2020. The distinction was subtle, but both subjects were critical to conveying the book’s scope and providing a bridge to other works on the same themes.
Records for older works suffered from card-catalog-era constraints. In the days of typewriters and 3 x 5 index cards, bibliographic data was abbreviated by necessity. These metadata gaps then crossed over to the online catalog, which meant, for example, that users couldn’t find an individual essay in Audre Lorde’s collection, Sister Outsider, by title. Tables of contents provide essential information about a book in the author’s own words and are especially important for collections of works originally published in different places. I added tables of contents and summaries of the books drawn from publishers’ websites, jacket copy, Amazon, Goodreads, or sometimes in my own words.
I was repeatedly struck by the absence of the word “racism” from descriptions of books that directly and obviously addressed it. Was it squeamishness or indifference that caused some long-ago cataloger to leave this subject heading out of the record for The Autobiography of Malcolm X? (To be totally fair, “racism” did not become an official subject heading until 1986.) Subject access for works of fiction is often skimpy, but I cringed at the record for Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, which had three subject headings: “African-Americans,” “girls,” and “Ohio—fiction.” Augmenting these subjects with LCSH terms like “racism,” “conformity,” and “colorism” (introduced in 2014) was very satisfying.
It took about two months to gradually go through and update these 19 or so records (a couple of the books on Hobart’s list were children’s books that we do not own). I continue to check on new books dealing with race and racial justice as I can; fortunately, widely-held works published in the past year or so tend to have solid metadata. I’ve also started on a few follow-up projects. The first involves systematically examining records for works by authors of color and enhancing subject headings, tables of contents, and summaries; so far I’ve updated records for our holdings by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. The second involves the retrospective application of newer subject headings to older records. For example, the subject heading “voter suppression” was not approved until July 2020, yet it could be applied to countless works dating back to the Reconstruction era. Unfortunately, as one cataloger, I can’t devote anything like an adequate amount of time to these efforts. They are, of necessity, “catch-as-catch-can.” Other catalogers are doing similar things at other institutions, but the WorldCat records they improve do not automatically update in our local catalog.
Within the universe of information contained in catalog records worldwide, it’s hard to imagine a global fix for the problem of inadequate subject headings for works by and about historically marginalized people, since this typically requires judgment calls on a case-by-case basis. However, including tables of contents and summaries could be feasible with the widespread availability of digitized books and OCR technology. There are also libraries doing excellent work in mitigating the harm caused by outdated, imprecise, and offensive subject terms by modifying online catalog displays until these terms are replaced by the Library of Congress.
Although antiquated catalog records are hard to tackle en masse, we can begin by prioritizing access to works by and about people whose voices have been ignored and pushed to the sidelines of library collections for centuries: people of color, members of LGBTQIA communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, indigenous people. While advocating for changes to offensive subject headings at the national level through the Library of Congress, individual catalogers and cataloging units can consciously work to rectify historical injustices in access to diverse library materials by enhancing metadata—even if it’s one record at a time.