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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Monday May 20th 2024

Omissions and distortions abound in libraries, too

To the Editor:


Much recent reporting and editorializing has concerned the removal of racist public monuments, changing objectionable names (like Lake Calhoun and Lindbergh Terminal in the Twin Cities), and the enshrinement of colonialism in galleries and museums.  Never mentioned is the alarming and pervasive fact that libraries, too, often misrepresent, overlook, and even defame marginalized, exploited, indigenous, and ostracized communities.

Try searching almost any school, public, or academic library catalog under the subject ”Native American Holocaust” (or “Native American Genocide”).  You”'ll find nothing.  It will seem as if the library either owns nothing on that topic or that such an event or experience never happened.  Why?  Because nearly all libraries rely totally on the Library of Congress (LC) to create subject headings.  And LC has thus far failed to recognize the 1492-1900 Indian tragedy by establishing a heading to denote it.  If LC won”'t do it, neither will anyone else.  (The nearest LC comes to such a descriptor is “Indians, Treatment of.” This would be tantamount to cataloging materials on the Jewish Holocaust under “Jews, Treatment of”!)

Similarly, LC refuses to replace “Armenian Massacres” with “Armenian Genocide,” although scholars and historians overwhelmingly endorse such a change, which better reflects what some million and a half Armenians in Turkey underwent between 1915 and 1923.  Likewise, Indian nations were undeniably victims of “ethnic cleansing,” but that history is euphemistically masked, hidden, under subjects like “Choctaw Indians””Relocation” and “Cherokee Indians””Forced Removal.”Â  Also, resources on the World War II confinement of some 150,000 Japanese-Americans are listed in library catalogs under “Japanese-Americans””Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945,” grotesquely suggesting that what happened to them was essentially benign and charitable.  A better heading would be “Japanese-Americans””Mass internment, 1942-1945.”

Right now, despite the American Library Association having denounced the heading “Illegal aliens” as pejorative and inaccurate, that hurtful anachronistic and embarrassing rubric remains alive in library catalogs.  (ALA had suggested replacing it with “Undocumented immigrants.)  And both “Leprosy” and “Leprosy patients” continue as active headings, although affected persons and the U.S. Public Health Service prefer the non-stigmatizing “Hansen”'s disease” and “Hansen”'s disease patients.”

Finally, many bona fide themes and topics relating to disdained and oppressed peoples simply don”'t appear in catalogs, again because LC hasn”'t sanctified them.  “Native American Holocaust” is one example.  Here are more: “Mass incarceration,” “White privilege,” “Male privilege,” “Broken windows policing,” “Anti-Arabism,” “Historical trauma,” “Universal basic income,” “Affordable housing,” “Wage theft,” “Democratic socialism,” “Gender queers,” and “Drag queens.”Â  Also: “Middle passage Atlantic slave trade” and “Afro futurism.”Â  Plus: White Supremacy.”   Local librarians can correct these omissions and distortions, but lamentably won”'t do it unless users demand it.  It would also be helpful for people who value both libraries and justice to ask LC itself to do the Right Thing.  Their address: Policy and Standards Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540-4305

The presence of “Illegal aliens” in nearly all library catalogs, as well as the absence of a heading that represents over 500 years of Indian subjugation and near extinction, may not be as prominently obvious as public statues of Confederate generals, but they are no less reprehensible.  And Fixable.

Sanford Berman is an Honorary Member of the American Library Association (ALA); Head Cataloger of Hennepin County Library, 1973-1999; Founder, ALA Task Force on Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty; Co-Author, ALA Policy on Library Services to Poor People; Contributing Editor, of Unabashed Librarian;  Editorial Advisor for the Journal of Information Ethics; and his latest book is Not In My Library! (McFarland, 2013)

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