Session Description

On March 22, 2016, the Library of Congress’ Policy and Standards Division announced its plans to replace the subject heading “Aliens” with “Noncitizens” and “Illegal aliens” with two headings: “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.” In this presentation, we recount the two-year long advocacy efforts of Dartmouth students and librarians, and later librarians across the United States, to change these subject headings.


Nomenclature, subject headings, library of congress, students, activism, student activism, Dartmouth, collaboration, librarians


May 12th, 11:45 AM May 12th, 12:45 PM

Contested Subjects: Coalition-based Activism in the Library

Mildred Livak Room

Upholding values of diversity and inclusion in our libraries sometimes requires concrete measures that go beyond the delivery of information resources or services. One instance of this occurred at Dartmouth College in 2014, when a group of students discovered and subsequently protested the use of the phrase “illegal aliens” in the library catalog’s controlled vocabulary. Librarians at Dartmouth, awakened by the student protest, guided the students in submitting a petition to the Library of Congress to change the heading, which later inspired members of the American Library Association to lobby on their behalf. When the Library of Congress’ Policy and Standards Division announced on March 22, 2016 its plans to replace the subject heading “Aliens” with “Noncitizens” and “Illegal aliens” with two headings, “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration,” they acknowledged that the changes came as a result of “constituent requests.”

The subject heading change was reported on widely by the media, eliciting both strong support and vehement backlash nationwide. For the first time in history, members of the US House of Representatives sought to intervene in the Library of Congress’ editorial practices by legislating that the subject heading change be reversed. On a fundamental level, this story highlights the potential of librarianship to recognize and confront instances of bias in its institutional systems and structures, and to work with users to produce a more inclusive library. It also raises questions about the moral and ethical dimensions of the profession, when and how to engage in disruption, and the responsibility of librarians to protect users and fight for inclusivity and social justice. However, the range of reactions to the subject heading change indicates that this story has impact far beyond the library, representing the struggles and the provocations of the wider immigration debate in the United States.

Our presentation will cover the subject heading change from its origins in a one-on-one research consultation to its current status (as of November 2016, the Library of Congress still has not been enacted the change due to political pressures, but we may see some form of resolution by May 2017). We will discuss our experiences at Dartmouth and how the movement grew beyond Dartmouth's campus. Having developed out of a collective effort between undergraduate students, public services and cataloging librarians, faculty and administrators, we will also show a 7-minute video that features interviews with some of the actors in this movement in order to represent as many voices as possible.


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