On Literary Warrant

Literary warrant.


Those two little words are incredibly powerful. They form the first principle underlying LCSH as given here in the Instructor’s Manual (session 2, slides 7-8), and as such need to be carefully examined and understood by every critical cataloger.

So what the heck does this principle mean? Well, from that manual —

Subject headings are created for use in cataloging and reflect the topics covered in a given collection

The terminology selected to formulate individual subject headings reflects the terminology used in current literature

Much smarter people than I have stated what this means.

The subject heading’s list was developed in especially close connection with the Library [of Congress]’s collection. It was not conceived at the outset as, nor has it ever been intended to be, a comprehensive system covering the universe of knowledge. (1)

When you find a gap in LCSH, as I did here:

The response (and I am not criticizing that response, it is absolutely true) is that terms are created as needed, in accordance with the LCSH principle of literary warrant.




What I want to shine some light onto is this: holding up literary warrant as a principle systematizes the biases inherent in our society as a whole. 

Here’s a little process

  1. The Library of Congress collects resources (a pervasive myth is that they hold every book ever published in the US, this is 100% not true)
  2. The catalogers catalog them
  3. According to LCSH principles, they create new headings as needed

But wait — what resources is the Library of Congress collecting? Well you can’t collect resources that aren’t there. As has been shown many times — publishing is overwhelmingly white, cis, and straight. The biases of publishing are codified into the resources they produce, which influences the collection development which affects what resources are being cataloged and in turn what terms can and will be created as new headings in LCSH.

This is not to point a finger at publishing of course — librarianship itself is a fairly exclusive club and catalogers are just as likely to be biased towards ourselves as anyone else despite our protestations of cataloging-neutrally.

Every step of “how a term gets made” is laden with the biases of the Publishing Industry, Librarianship, and Academia — I draw in academia especially because when LC tried to open the subject creation process with PCC membership and SACO funnels, the majority of those members are big-academic institutions, with all the diversity that entails.


So what am I suggesting? We systematically create every heading possible? I’m not sure that’s possible (certainly not with the time/budget currently apportioned to the PSD!). I’m just asking that we interrogate the idea that ‘literary warrant’ is a good method by which to actually create a subject heading vocabulary.

I want this to be part of the larger conversation of ‘cataloging is not a neutral act’. The resources available to libraries are not neutrally created and not neutrally promoted. Those a given library has are not neutrally chosen. The people who are doing the cataloging are themselves not neutral. The headings generated by ‘warrant of the resources in hand and the words that the resources use to describe the term’ are therefore also not neutral.





(1) Chan, L.M. 1986. Library of Congress Subject Headings: Principles and Application. Littleton, Co.: Libraries Unlimited.

3 thoughts on “On Literary Warrant

  1. This is a good point. It agrees with my vision that knowledge organization systems (including LCSH) should not be limited to a bureaucratical, passive reproduction of schemes existing in the academia, such as traditional hierarchies of disciplines, but should actively promote open, interdisciplinary links across existing documentation, media, and communities of users.

    The basis for this should be taking phenomena themselves, as opposed to literary warrant or academic consensus, as the basic reference for our KOSs: cfr. the entry Classification theory by Clare Beghtol in Encylopedia of LIS, 2010. Benefits of such a new approach are discussed in our recent book Interdisciplinary knowledge organization: http://www.springer.com/fr/book/9783319301471 and in my paper Classifying phenomena, part 1, to appear in a coming issue of the journal “Knowledge organization”.

    Patrick Lambe also encourages knowledge organizers to get a more active role in a great video lecture: https://vimeo.com/133312790


  2. The more I read, the better your material is. I’ve covered lots of the other resources, like this on https://authortjwest.org/nonetheless, only here, I’ve found valid information with such necessary facts to bear in mind.
    I suggest you will publish articles with various topics to upgrade our knowledge,
    mine in particular. The language is another thing-just brilliant!
    I believe I have already found my ideal source of the most up-to-date info, thanks to you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s