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.