Suggestions for clarifying the LCSH approval process

This is a guest post by friend of the blog, Violet Fox. It does not necessarily represent the views of Netanel Ganin or any of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

My work with the Cataloging Lab has been designed with the goal to get more library workers invested in the subject vocabulary and classification in use at their libraries, and to feel empowered to make changes in headings that are ineffective, offensive, or missing from the world’s largest library vocabulary. With the understanding that LC has an enormous task in keeping LCSH up-to-date, and inadequate staffing levels to take on its de facto job as the national library, it seems only natural for other library workers to be a part of making sure our vocabulary is responsive to user needs. But at the moment, there are some significant frustrations for people who want to get involved in the proposal process.

The PCC (Program for Cooperative Cataloging) SACO (Subject Authority Cooperative) program was designed so that institutions outside of the Library of Congress could submit proposals for additions and revisions to LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) and LCC (Library of Congress Classification). There are significant barriers to be a part of the SACO program: your institution must be large enough to have adequate staff to participate, as well as having in-house expertise to train new employees. The SACO Funnel program picks up some of these gaps, where catalogers can form cooperative groups called funnels to participate in SACO proposals. Funnels are organized by either subject area or geographic location, but many libraries exist outside the areas covered by funnels.

Those who are a part of SACO can use a convenient web form found within Classification Web to propose changes and additions to LCSH and LCC. Those who are not a part of SACO are not able to use this web form, they are relegated to using a difficult-to-find pdf form.

The current place to find the non-SACO submission form is at, which has the title of “Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) Approved Lists” (certainly not an intuitive title to find the document to propose a heading).

Once you find that form, it has the instruction to email your proposal to policy [at]



But I recently found out that apparently that’s the wrong email address!

In November 2017 I submitted a proposal to policy [at], and it was reviewed and accepted. In early March 2018 I submitted proposals to the same email address, and never received a response. When I followed up on it in early May after not seeing it on the proposed headings lists, I was emailed by LC: “This second attempt at sending the subject proposal was correct in that you included the SACO email account.” (That is, saco [at] That confusion led to an additional two months of waiting on a proposal, in addition to the regular 6-8 week waiting period for a proposal to be evaluated.

There are a few other problems with the current form. It’s much more difficult to use than the Classification Web proposal form. There are no drop-down menus, so typos and misunderstandings are more likely. I have had to fill out a proposal on a blank Word document several times now because my proposal had more cross-references than the pdf form had available fields to put them in. That can’t be easy for LC staff to read; it’s an added burden to require them to cut and paste from my proposal.

Although the cataloging section of the LC website has fairly recently been updated, it can still be difficult to locate information within the PCC sections, either via browsing or searching. If you resort to a search outside of the site, a Google search for “LCSH proposal form” results in the first result being a link to an entirely different form. This form has broken images and an update date at the bottom that says 2011. Many of the links on that form are broken, which leads me to think it’s not a valid way to submit proposals. I stumbled upon a pdf that said that this form was to be deactivated in 2011, but it’s still online.

I have a few suggestions for LC:

  • Let non-SACO participants use the Classification Web proposal web form. (Classification Web is a subscription product, so that solution excludes those who do not subscribe, but at least more libraries would be able to use the error-reducing web form.)
  • Even better, create a web form that’s not hosted within Classification Web that everyone can use to submit proposals.
  • At the very least, update the pdf form that is available to clarify the submission process (in particular, ensuring the correct email address is on the form and changing references from “non-PCC institutions” to “non-SACO institutions”).
  • Add information to the “FAQ on SACO Subject Heading Proposals” about how non-SACO participants can submit proposals.
  • Ensure that old forms and outdated information on the LC site are taken down, or are redirected to up-to-date information.

I appreciate the work that LC puts into ensuring that LCSH and LCC remain useful and consistent. I especially appreciate the extra transparency that LC has put into the proposal process within the past year, including this very informative breakdown of the process as well as the new SHM instruction sheet H 204, which explains how proposals are evaluated. I hope my suggestions will be taken in the spirit they are given, in the spirit of trying to help LC make LCSH and LCC the best they can be!


Nakba, Palestine, 1948

Over the course of the war of Israel’s statehood — over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

Amongst Palestinians this loss of home and land is known as the Nakba [al-Nakbah, Arabic for catastrophe]

I was cataloging a resource, Palestinians in Syria: Nakba memories of shattered communities by Anaheed Al-Hardan and was trying to determine some good subject headings.

Reading the table of contents, the back of the book and the preface — it was clear that this was a resource partially about the shared memories/feelings/affect that the Nakba had on the Palestinian people.

A cursory search of LCSH revealed that there was no heading for this particular expulsion [which I could then propose a subdivision of — Influence under]

Thus I created a proposal for the term — this is that proposal:

010 $a sp2017000197

040 $a MWalB $b eng $c DLC

150 $a Nakba, Palestine, 1948

450 $a Catastrophe, Palestine, 1948

450 $a Nakbah, Palestine, 1948

550 $w g $a Israel­-Arab War, 1948-­1949

550 $w g $a Population transfers $x Palestinian Arabs

670 $a Work cat: 945105294: Palestinians in Syria: Nakba memories of shattered communities, 2016: $b Preface (…the Nakba, or catastrophe, that resulted from the establishment of the state of Israel on Palestine in May 1948. This catastrophe saw the dispossession of more than half of historic Palestine’s population, some 800,000 people.)

670 $a 854503654: Auron, Yair. ha­Shoʼah, ha­-teḳumah ṿeha-­Nakbah, 2013: $b (English title: The Holocaust, the rebirth and the Nakba)

670 $a 820884307: Masalha, Nur. The Palestine Nakba, 2012: $b Introduction (1948 was the year of the Palestine Nakba (Catastrophe), the uprooting of the Palestinians and the dismemberment and de-Arabisation of historic Palestine.)

As you can see, I added two additional sources demonstrating the preferred form of the name and to generate UF references.

Yesterday the PSD evaluated my proposal and rejected it for the following reason:

Nabka refers to the 1948 expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from British Mandate Palestine (today’s Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jordan). The existing heading Population transfers—Palestinian Arabs is synonymous, or nearly synonymous, in meaning to the heading being proposed; it should be assigned to the work being cataloged. The proposal was not approved.

While I’m unsure why the PSD defined the term for me, when I’d clearly understood it myself in the proposal, the second half is completely wrong.

I then sent Libby Dechman [the policy specialist responsible for the list] the following email [and a big thank-you to Anna-Sophia for reading it and providing me with feedback!]

Dear Libby,

Having seen the PSDs decision to not approve the above heading, I was hoping to have an opportunity to explain why I think it is a necessary heading.

In the explanation given you write:

“The existing heading Population transfers—Palestinian Arabs is synonymous, or nearly synonymous, in meaning to the heading being proposed”

The crux of my objection is that it is not at all synonymous with Population transfers–Palestinian Arabs, because it is only an instance of that. My proposal specifically included Population transfers–Palestinian Arabs as a BT term, because there are other instances where this happened.

1. From 1949-1956 thousands of Palestinians continued to be removed after the Nakba.

2. In 1967, 280,000 to 325,000 Palestinians were removed after the Six Day War.

3. In 1991 some 200,000 Palestinians were driven out of Kuwait aftter the Gulf war.

4. In 1999  roughly 1000 Palestinians were expelled from South Mt. Hebron


In the event that the problem lay in my construction of the proposal, a named event in accordance with H1592, I had considered two other constructions:

1. Palestinian Arabs–Palestine–History–Expulsion, 1948 (c.f. Acadians—Nova Scotia—History—Expulsion, 1755; Jews—England—History—Expulsion, 1290)

2. Palestinian Arabs–Relocation, 1948 (c.f. Japanese—Canada—Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945)

I had also considered the BT Forced migration–Palestine

My point is that this occurrence, the Nakba, is but one among many, an instance among the general–a perfect example of a BT/NT relationship. Some resources are written about the general and various forced movements of the Palestinians, and other resources are written about the specific instance of the Nakba.

I hope I’ve justified why I think this heading deserves a second look and why it is not synonymous with Population transfers–Palestinian Arabs.

I appreciate any guidance you can give me on a better or more fit construction if you deem that necessary.

Thank you so much for your time,


I’ll update this post when/if I hear back.

If you change one, you must change them all

*bolded terms refer to an authorized LCSH term*

If you read my last post about Transgenderism then you know that LCSH uses the term as an umbrella for a wide variety of gender non-conformant identities and behaviors. As I said last time, that term at one point was indeed used to indicate a broader set of identities and behaviors, but now is mostly used [by anti-trans activists] to refer specifically to people whose gender identity does not match that which they were assigned at birth — a much more narrow definition.


These conflations in LCSH however, have trickled down to another heading: Transgender people. The narrower terms assigned are:


Christian transgender people
Female impersonators
Jewish transgender people
Libraries and transgender people
Male impersonators
Social work with transgender people
Transgender children


[Emphasis mine] the highlighted terms above leap out to me as terribly incorrectly placed. [I’ll acknowledge here that the specific relationship between Transsexuals and Transgender people may be improperly constructed as well]


The ‘impersonator’ headings have variant terms of ‘Drag queens’ and ‘Drag kings’ respectively and have parallel scope notes of:

Here are entered works on men who impersonate women, generally for purposes of entertainment or comic effect. Works on women who impersonate men, generally for purposes of entertainment or comic effect, are entered under Male impersonators. Works on persons, especially males, who assume the dress and manner of the opposite sex for psychological gratification are entered under Transvestites.

[the sexes are swapped in the scope note for Male impersonators]

Here’s the problem:

Female/male impersonators cover a wide range of things from theatrical cross-sex performance to drag performers but neither type of performer is inherently a trans person. Certainly some trans people have performed drag professionally, but it is an emphatic error to place drag performers as NT under Transgender people.


Transvestites doesn’t belong here either. As the scope note indicates above, LCSH understands that it’s primarily a practice among straight men, for reasons other than entertainment or public performance. As with the impersonator headings, a variant term, ‘cross dressers’ is actually preferred by practitioners.


LCSH continuing to collapse varied forms of gender performance and expression under Transgender people does harm to trans people, especially trans women, and plays right into the hands of the politicians, their malicious laws, and anti-trans activists.


Recommendation:  Delete the BT connecting Male impersonators and Female impersonators to Transgender people. Delete the BT connecting Transvestites to Transgender people and change the preferred term to Cross dressers. Future consideration is to make separate headings for Drag kings/queens as NTs of Male/Female impersonators.


*bolded terms refer to an authorized LCSH term*

 It is no secret that LCSH is a mess when it comes to gender and sexuality. Today, I want to focus specifically on a single term in the hierarchies of trans identities. [With an eye towards continuing this look at other terms]
First: Transgenderism, whose scope note reads:
Here are entered works on the various manifestations of cross-gender orientation, such as transvestism, transsexualism, male or female impersonation, intersexuality, etc., treated collectively.
From this well springs forth a great deal of trouble, because what even is this term? A google search [March 18, 2017] reveals the following from page 1: [CN: ANTI-TRANS RHETORIC]
  • Wikipedia [Transgender]
  • Focus on the Family [Understanding “Transgenderism”]
  • Focus on the Family [Transgenderism – Our Position]
  • Oxford English Dictionary [transgenderism]
  • Federalist [Psychiatry Professor: ‘Transgenderism’ Is Mass Hysteria Similar To 1980s-Era Junk Science]
  • Daily Wire [Report: Transgenderism Not Supported By Science]
  • Daily Caller [Journal: Transgenderism ‘Not Supported By Scientific Evidence’]
  • Huffington Post portal [Three articles all affirming trans people’s humanity]
  • Pacific Standard [Five Studies: What You Need to Know About Transgenderism, According to the Research]
  • New Yorker [WHAT IS A WOMAN? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.]
  • Public Discourse [The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique]
  • National Review [Making Sense of Transgenderism]
So from my count that’s 8 anti-trans hits, 2 reference sources [one of which doesn’t even use the term in the header], 2 mostly positive hits
The term in LCSH’s use is meant to be a broad umbrella to cover the concept gender non-conformity. That is indeed a useful concept for which to have a term, albeit a broad one. Unfortunately the scope of the term in its modern usage [the heading was entered in 2007] has shifted to be much more narrow. All of the above sources are specifically referring to the concept that people’s gender identities don’t match their assignment at birth.
Let’s look at the heading’s usage in WorldCat [search of su:Transgenderism, limited to 2016, books, first 10 hits]

Of these 10 — only a single one [Transantiquity, 5] has been assigned Transgenderism to mean anything other than “the concept that some people’s gender identities don’t match their assignment at birth”. I contend that the vast majority of assignments will follow suit.

We need a term for that concept, and perhaps Transgenderism is that term, perhaps not [edit: see below, 2017-03-22]  But just as importantly we need a different term for the wider scope of “gender non-conformity”. If LCSH wants there to be an umbrella term which encompasses what the current scope note above [all the way at the top!] does, the concept that there are people who cross dress for sexual satisfaction, perform drag, are transsexual, are transgender, are intersex — it cannot be Transgenderism because that is simply not how the term is being used, neither in resources, nor in cataloger application.

Recommendation: Add new term to LCSH for the broad concept of gender non-conformity. Limit the scope of Transgenderism [or replace the term for one which people actually use] to the concept of being transgender specifically.

Edit: 2017-03-22

After consideration, and checking sources — I’ve come to the understanding that Transgenderism must be removed from LCSH, contrary to the above recommendation. From the sources:

“This is not a term commonly used by transgender people. This is a term used by anti-transgender activists to dehumanize transgender people and reduce who they are to “a condition.” — GLAAD

Much like those who still refer to gay people exclusively as “homosexuals,” the majority of the people who use the word “transgenderism” are either biased against the community, such as the discredited anti-trans “expert”Dr. Paul McHugh, or harbor hatred toward the trans community, like the right-wing organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Family Research Council. — Advocate

So one thing I want to ask: why do we need this term? That is, are there resources about “the concept that some people’s gender identities don’t match their assignment at birth” that would not be better met with the term Transgender people?  I’m not convinced. On the other hand there are many dual terms for “Concept” and then “concept as manifested in people”. Ex. PovertyPoorBisexualityBisexualsDisabilitiesPeople with disabilities. I bring this up because I don’t think that the PSD would be so amenable to removing the noun-concept word entirely.

Edited Recommendation: Add new term to LCSH for the broad concept of gender non-conformity [with the scope note of the current term Transgenderism.] Make the term Transgenderism a variant of Transgender people. [Or find a better term for the concept of trans-ness]

The Empiricist

I recently finished The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Brief summary follows if you haven’t read it [no spoilers]: In the world of elevator inspection there are two schools of thought: the well-established and long standing Empiricists, and the new and scary-to-the-mainsteam Intuitionists. The Empiricists are those which inspect elevators the traditional way (clunking around with tools and poking at the various boxes, gears, and what-not). The Intuitionists do just that — they intuit if an elevator is up to code (and if not, what’s wrong) just by standing in the elevator and riding it.

While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about our little sphere of cataloging…because I always am.

Cataloging isn’t neatly divided into two schools of thought. We don’t have a wealth of schools either — as far as I can tell, there’s only one. We are the Empiricists. While there is certainly wiggle room, required vs. optional, and areas of cataloger’s judgment (or cat judge as I affectionately call it), we are a people with an incredibly long and detailed set of rules. Just today while watching a NACO training webinar (conducted by the ever talented Paul Frank), I heard that we must consult the following when determining what to record in an authority record:

  • an RDA rule
  • the LC-PCC-PS(s) for that rule
  • LC supplement guidelines for the MARC field we plan to record in
  • the DCM Z1 for that MARC field
  • maybe even the PCC homepage for the latest updates as those other resources update on quarterly schedules

That’s a lot for recording a single element.

Now maybe you’re sitting out there and gonna tell me that that isn’t cataloging-qua-cataloging, that’s just United States cataloging, or even just PCC cataloging. Sure, maybe you’re right, you probably are.

But it’s the world I live in. Participating in the national conversations, on the big stages with the fancy names means joining this world.

So I get the Empiricists: this is how examine elevators, this is how we’ve always examined elevators, and this is how we always will examine elevators. Call the next step Bibframe or call it MARC22, we’re still trying to fulfill Cutter’s objectives of the catalog from 1876.

As a recent grad of library school, I’m most comfortable talking about the traditional forms and functions of cataloging, because that’s what I know. That’s what I’ve been taught and am continuing to learn about.

But on the other side of my education, which is mostly twitter people and their blogs, I hear different views and different ideas. Some of these are completely radical and fundamentally unrelated to the ones I’ve been accepting as natural and commonsense. This is invaluable to me and I think, to cataloging.

I think we desperately need Intuitionists. We need them to break apart and challenge our assumptions of what cataloging should be. To continue the metaphor from the book, these are the people who have been traditionally barred (structurally and informally) from entering the profession.

I’m a born and bred Empiricist, “learn the rules — then apply the rules” has been a very consistent line to follow in my white upper-middle class life. Look around the room at the cataloging-section of conferences, and you may see more of the same. How can we possible ever get at the heart of how best to catalog, or inspect elevators, if we’re all coming from the same place?

On pedantry and cataloging : a reflection / by Netanel Ganin

I didn’t like my response to this tweet the other day — it was sarcastic and defensive and lacking in respect for Erin, the other conversants, and the actual topic they were discussing.


I wanted to reflect on why I reacted that way, and what a more nuanced thought-out response would be.

I’ve been a cataloger (professionally) for about a year. Before that the only cataloging I did was in a classroom setting. I need to remember that I’m coming from a place of still being wet around the ears and rah-rah-rah excited (in a naive pollyannish way) about my profession, peers, and work. Others who have years of experience under their belts probably know a lot more about what ‘it’s like’ than I do.

Another thing I need to stay cognizant of is that I’ve missed a lot. Sure, library school’s cat ‘n’ class courses do a bit of the history of how and why we got to where are today, but there’s only so much time for that. We didn’t cover (and I’d argue can’t adequately explain) the sheer amount of print and digital ink spilled over the current rules. When I learned the MARC standard, there wasn’t a lot of room to mention the history of every field and subfield, discuss the changes, and why things were changed.


It’s something I get very aware of when I ask about a ‘wrong’ cataloging entry on twitter and someone responds that it was correct at a time. What may strike many as needless rules lawyering and arbitrary changes from AACR2 to RDA strikes me as the normal way of doing things because I only learned RDA. Again, this is not to cast aspersions on my lib-school. They did a great job trying to teach us the current cataloging standards and still impart the terminology and rules of yore so that we could be aware of them. I know about the rule of three, and various abbreviations used in AACR2 — but it’s always been in the context of ‘we don’t do it this way anymore’.

So really the two points I want to remind myself of are the same point. Listen to other catalogers when they talk about the work, because there is history and legacy that you don’t know about, and could value from knowing more about.


The second half, are catalogers pedantic? [for the record, Erin was not quoting her own writing, the quote was from somewhere else and she was responding to it in her writing so please don’t read this as a rebuke directed at her]

When I hear that, it sounds like a criticism — the implication being that catalogers are too focused on the rules qua rules and not enough on serving the users. That’s why it gets my hackles up — because I try to think a lot about the user.

  • “Might someone search under this portion of the title? Toss it in a 246 1 3”
  • “A patron may want a summary of this resource and its table of contents — go fetch those and add them (or type them in yourself)”
  • “People sometimes like to know where a movie was filmed, do the leg work to code a proper 033/518”

All that we do should be for the user — I can’t imagine a more terrifying twilight zone episode than a room full of catalogers discussing bibliographic description and subject analysis only for the camera to pull back and reveal that the world has ended and everyone’s dead.

Perhaps that is the image some have of us. And as I said above — I can’t truly understand the amount of frustration many have felt at cataloging debates and arguments that have gone round and round in the past (and probably continue in the present) but that isn’t what I aspire to, and it isn’t what our profession should aspire to.

I’m not trying to act wide-eyed innocent however, I ‘get’ it. We catalogers probably didn’t fall into this line of work because we aren’t persnickety, detail oriented, rules followers. I am no exception:

Yet it absolutely makes sense to use –Film adaptations under an author’s name for a DVD of their work, and I can easily imagine a user clicking “Grisham, John — Film adaptations” expecting to find all the DVDs in the library which are adaptations of his work, regardless of boxed-sets or singletons.

So then why argue against it Netanel? If you claim to serve the user, why is this your pet peeve? Because we’re not consistent. If some catalogers are using –Film adaptations that way (technically incorrectly) and others aren’t, then how are we helping our users find film adaptations if they can’t know to depend on that heading to point them in the right direction? Its absence may indicate to them the lack of film adaptations in the library’s catalog, even though the library may hold those adaptations.


I guess what I’m trying to say is, what may seem like pointless pedantry may still serve the user. I think consistency from catalog to catalog in both description and access is valuable for users. The only way (I can see) to achieve consistency is through the creation and following of rules.

But that also means revisiting those rules! We should never end up cutting off the sides of the roast just because Bubbe used to do it that way. We need to be always evaluating  (and re-evaluating) what purpose our rules have and keep the end point (helping the user meet their information needs) in mind.

The other piece I want to point out is data-conformity. Here I mean the machine part. Increasingly, the work catalogers do is processed and parsed by machines who are even more pedantic than catalogers can be. Misplace a semicolon and just see how your php does! (If this is an incorrect joke, please replace it in your mind with one that makes more sense). It may seem weird to structure a date range like this “[1951,1952]” but if the machine receiving the data is looking for dates in edtf it has to be that way.


Fellow cats, let’s talk about our rules, let’s talk about what they’re for, let’s talk about who they’re for, and let’s keep what’s good. Let go of the rest.


On Giants and Dwarfs

This world wasn’t really designed for the very short or the very tall. Countertops, seat-to-floor ratios, clothing, beds, and a slew of other everyday encounters can be radically challenging for outliers on the height spectrum. I can’t really do anything about that beyond raising awareness, not my area.

Sorry, Very Tall Man
Sorry, Very Tall Man

But librarianship is my area, so let’s talk some LCSH.

I want to draw your attention to two words which (thanks, English) can be used to mean “tall/short person” or “mythological/legendary character”


Giants and Dwarfs

Both (in people) are more than simply observing someone’s height and noting that it’s outside the mean. Rather, they refer to specific conditions which have accompanying traits that a person may want to be aware of in terms of their body’s functions.

Though the word ‘giant’ isn’t used in common language for people (I browsed a bunch of the Tall Clubs International, affiliated sites and none of them use the term ‘giant’), ‘dwarf’ is. (See Dwarf Athletic Association of America

or per Peter Dinklage

I loved The Lord of the Rings as books and movies but, like elves, dwarves are presented as another creature. They are not humans in those stories. We don’t have elves walking around, but we do have dwarves like myself. We are real.


Unfortunately LCSH does not make this distinction:

Dwarfs clearly refers to people as it’s an NT of Short people, but it’s classification links (from the 053 field) are

GN69.3.-5      Anthropology—Physical anthropology. Somatology—Human variation—Physical form and dimensions—Body dimensions and proportions—Special variations—Dwarfs. Midgets

GR555              Folklore—By subject—Dwarfs

The former refers to people (the fact that former headings are kept in the caption is something else entirely and one which LC seems unlikely to change).

The latter refers to magical fantasy creatures from Germanic mythology.


Giants is an NT of Abnormalities, Human (but not Tall people) but its NTs include Adamastor (Legendary character) and Laestrygonians (Greek mythology). Following the logical progression — the implication is either that Adamastor and the Laestrygonians are abnormal humans (they are not) or that LCSH is co-mingling the two usages of the term.

Further confusing the issue is that Amycus (Greek mythology) and Cyclopes (Greek mythology) are NTs of Giants–Mythology

Giants has a single classification link:

GN69         Anthropology—Physical anthropology. Somatology—Human variation—Physical form and                      dimensions—Body dimensions and proportions—Special variations—Giants

and thankfully not

GR560     Folklore—By subject—Ogres. Giants


So while Giants is less confused in LCSH than ‘Dwarfs’ is but both could benefit from being separated into two groups e.g.

Dwarfs (people) and Dwarfs (folklore)

Gigantism (condition) and Giants (folklore)


Now turning to live usage:


are all books about people which have the subject heading Giants

are all books about folkloric creatures which have the subject heading Giants

are all books about people which have the subject heading Dwarfs

are all books about folkloric creatures which have the subject heading Dwarfs


As the SHM Memo H 187 states: “Establish a subject heading for a topic that represents a discrete, identifiable concept”

They have failed in this regard and conflated personhood with folklore. Let’s rectify that.

Literary Warrant : first part of a joint critique in many parts

As mentioned in Netanel’s first post on the topic, literary warrant describes how the terminology used in subject headings is selected. Literary warrant is the justification behind the existence and phrasing of a subject heading or classification structure. Hulme described it as the principle by which one shows that “literature in book form has been shown to exist, and the test of the validity of a heading is the degree of accuracy with which it describes the area of subject matter.” (1911, p. 447)


In this series of blog posts, we will discuss the history, meaning, and limitations of literary warrant. We will also discuss alternative types of justification one could use to select certain terminology.


Below is a loose outline of what we plan to discuss. We are deliberately using the word discuss here, because the structure of these posts is intended to be presented as a discussion between us (Netanel and Jessica) as we work through these ideas. We hope that you will join us in this discussion, in the comments section or on twitter.


We hope to turn this series into a research article at the end of this project. We will not quote anyone participating via social media without asking permission first.



  1. Background about Literary warrant
    1. History
    2. Definitions
    3. began with TJs personal library and grew from there collecting the western canon so they were starting from a very western biased position
    4. Making choices / Things are not always clear. How do we decide if something is a war, a conflict, battle, or a massacre? How do we decide if something is a language or a dialect?
  2. Specific sources for citation
    1. Academic sources only
    2. Books only?
    3. What about community leaders/subject experts? Example: Ojibwa language based on Ethnologue rather than on the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary
  3. SACO
    1. Who gets to play?
    2. How does the process work?
  4. Impact of publishing and distribution decisions/Supply chains
    1. What gets published?
    2. What gets imported?
    3. Who gets hired to write, produce, and perform? (Ex: Hollywood white-washing)
  5. Cataloger bias
  6. Alternatives to literary warrant
    1. User warrant “justification for the representation of a concept in a [thesaurus] or for the selection of a preferred term because of frequent requests for information on the concept.” (NISO 1994)
    2. Cultural and epistemological warrant (Beghtol 1986)


What are we missing?


Works (to be) Cited

Beghtol, C. (1986). Semantic validity: Concepts of warrant in bibliographic classification systems. Library Resources & Technical Services, 30(2), 109-125.

Hulme, E. W. (1911). Principles of Book Classification. Library Association Record, 444-449, Dec. 1911.
NISO (1994). National Information Standards Organisation (1994). ANSI/NISO Z39.19-1993 Guidelines for the construction, format and management of monolingual thesauri. Bethesda, MD: NISO Press.

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.

Every Occurrence of N4 in the Library of Congress Classification Scheme

Amber Billey tweeted this yesterday, and she’s not wrong.

This classification number is given for:


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Brazil—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks

There are at least two things to talk about here:

  1. Elements in the population  (link to my post about the phrase), but the short of it is — it’s a ubiquitous term in LCC which is used to indicate which people are not considered part of the ‘usual’ population
  2. The term ‘Negroes’ itself — It needs to be changed, and it needs to be changed comprehensively.

Because this isn’t the only place it appears in LCC. Far. From. It.

Look, when we assign cutters, they don’t always correspond to an actual word, but hhere they do. Every single time, they do. At Emerson we had a very large collection of books about film. Sometimes when I’d direct patrons to find books on representation of African Americans and other Black people in cinema, I’d hope they wouldn’t notice the cutter. One time a patron asked me. It was uncomfortable for me, but you know what?

This isn’t about my discomfort — at all. My cringing as I told a patron that .N4 stood for ‘Negroes’ is nothing compared to the aggression, micro and macro that I put on that patron and that we put on our patrons every day, sending them to the stacks to browse there.

The fact of the matter is, that when providing a listing of ‘Elements in the population A-Z’ or ‘Special topics A-Z’, ‘Negro’ is used — a lot.

The following is every single occurrence:

(I’m only including when the term ‘Negro/es’ is in the actual caption, not counting back-end 453s — I’m also not including the hits for a specific group that still uses the term in their name, e.g. ‘United Negro College Fund’)


Psychology—Consciousness. Cognition—Intelligence. Mental ability. Intelligence testing. Ability testing—By specific group of people, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans


Christianity—History—By region or country—America—North America—United States—By race or ethnic group, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


Christian denominations—Catholic Church—History—By region or country—North America—United States—Special topics, A-Z, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


Christian denominations—Other Protestant denominations—Lutheran churches—History—By region or country—America. United States—United States—Individual branches, synods, etc., of Lutherans—Mergers. Federations—Synods on a linguistic basis other than German—Other national or racial groups, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans


History (General)—World War I (1914-1918)—Military operations—Western—English—Individual. By region or name, A-Z—Negroes


History (General)—World War I (1914-1918)—Special topics—Other special topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


History (General)—World War II (1939-1945)—Other special topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


History of Great Britain—England—History—General special—Ethnography—Elements in the population—By element, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


America—General—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


United States—The Revolution, 1775-1783—Participation by race, ethnic group, religious group, etc., A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


United States—The Civil War, 1861-1865—Armies. Troops—The Union Army—Participation by race, ethnic group, religious group, etc., A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


United States—Late nineteenth century, 1865-1900—McKinley’s first administration, 1897-1901—War of 1898 (Spanish-American War)—Armies. Troops—United States Army. Corps. Brigades—Participation by race, ethnic group, etc., A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


British America—Canada—Elements in the population—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—Latin America (General)—Elements in the population—Individual, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—West Indies—Greater Antilles—Cuba—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—West Indies—Greater Antilles—Jamaica—Elements in the population—Individual elements—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—West Indies—Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico. Boriquen—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Guiana—Guyana. British Guiana—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Guiana—Suriname. Netherlands or Dutch Guiana—Elements in the population—Individual elements—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Brazil—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Uruguay—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Visual arts—Special subjects of art—Other special subjects (alphabetically)—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


English philology and language—Linguistic geography. Dialects, etc.—English outside of the British Isles—United States (and America general)—Ethnic groups, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


English philology and language—Linguistic geography. Dialects, etc.—Slang. Argot. Vulgarisms—Special classes—Special groups of persons—Other, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


Drama—Motion pictures—Other special topics, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans


Oratory—Oratory. Elocution, etc.—Recitations (in English)—Special—Other special. By subject, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Collections of general literature—Drama—Special. By subject or form, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


Collections of general literature—Wit and humor—Collections on special topics, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks


American literature—History of American literature—Special classes of authors—Other classes of authors, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—History of American literature—Treatment of special classes, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—History of American literature—Special forms—Poetry—Special topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—History of American literature—Special forms—Drama—Special topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—History of American literature—Special forms—Prose—Prose fiction—Special forms and topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—Collections of American literature—Special classes of authors, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—Collections of American literature—Special topics (Prose and verse), A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—Collections of American literature—Poetry—Special—Special groups of authors, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—Collections of American literature—Poetry—Special—By subject, A-Z—Negro (African American, Black) rimes and songs


American literature—Collections of American literature—Drama—Special forms and topics, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans. Blacks


American literature—Collections of American literature—Drama—Special classes of authors, A-Z—Negro (African American, Black) authors


American literature—Collections of American literature—Oratory—Special, A-Z—Negro. African American. Black


Public aspects of medicine—Public health. Hygiene. Preventive medicine—By region or country—America—North America—United States—Ethnic groups, etc.—Individual, A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


Internal medicine—Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry—Psychiatry—By ethnic group, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans


National bibliography—America—United States—Special topics (not otherwise provided for), A-Z—Negroes. African Americans


National bibliography—America—United States—American literature—Special classes or groups of writers, A-Z—Negro. African American


Subject bibliography—Periodicals, newspapers, and other serials—Special topics, A-Z—Negro (African American, Black) newspapers


I want to point out that LCC has made the flip in some places. There are many places that have either changed the cuttered term and provided a redirect, or perhaps were never cuttered in the Ns to begin with and so are placed in the Bs or As — it’s just a matter of changing the rest.


Literature on music—Bibliography—By region or country, A-Z—Negro music, United States
see ML128.B45


American literature—History of American literature—Special forms—Prose—Special topics, A-Z—African Americans. Blacks
PS366.N42 Negroes see PS366.A35


Latin America. Spanish America—South America—Elements in the population—Individual elements, A-Z—Blacks
F2239.N32 Negroes see F2239.B55


Edit 2016-04-07

I updated the above two examples to show the that the SEE reference still exists in the catalog, and where it lives. While the cutter itself isn’t visible in ClassWeb’s normal view, it is viewable in the MARC record.



I do recommend that when creating new cutters for Blacks or African Americans, they should stop adding automatic references for the same topic where it would’ve appeared as an .N4 (or thereabouts) we shouldn’t be including pejoratives as UFs or see references.