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What’s in a subject heading?

The Thomas Jefferson Building, the oldest of the three Library of Congress buildings in Washington, DC.

It seemed like a straightforward announcement from a body that is rarely in the public eye. On March 22, 2016, the Policy and Standards Division (PSD) of the Library of Congress (LoC), the national library of the United States, issued a press release stating (boldface in the original):

In response to constituent requests, the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress, which maintains Library of Congress Subject Headings, has investigated the possibility of cancelling or revising the heading Illegal aliens. PSD also explored the possibility of revising the broader term Aliens. It concluded that the meaning of Aliens is often misunderstood and should be revised to Noncitizens, and that the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative. The heading Illegal aliens will therefore be cancelled and replaced by two headings, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration, which may be assigned together to describe resources about people who illegally reside in a country.

The change was driven, in part, by a two-year grassroots process that began when Melissa Padilla, a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, was writing a paper on “undocumented” students—that is, students who were in the United States without government authorization. She found that just about every article or book she consulted was categorized with the subject heading “Illegal aliens.” This, noted an article in Library Journal, “had particular resonance for Padilla, a Latin American studies and film major who had been undocumented herself until enrolling at Dartmouth.”

When Padilla approached Dartmouth librarians about changing the subject headings in the library, she learned that they were part of the LoC subject heading system and could only be changed by the national library. But she also learned that other subject headings had been changed over time. For example, “insane” became “mentally ill”; and “Negro” became “Blacks” in the 1970s, “Afro-Americans” in the 1990s, and then “African Americans,” the term used today.

With the help of the college librarians and fellow students, Padilla gathered evidence “to prove that ‘Illegal aliens’ is not a preferred term, and . . . that better terms—such as ‘Undocumented immigrant . . . —were in common use.” She found that news organizations, including Associated Press, USA Today, ABC, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times, had already decided not to use the term “Illegal” to describe individuals.

The PSD rejected the change at first. It held that “the phrase ‘Undocumented immigrant’ is not directly synonymous with ‘Illegal alien,’ and not all undocumented people are or intend to be immigrants”; and that “authoritative sources for legal terminology . . . use ‘Illegal aliens’ as their established term.”

But the American Library Association asked the PSD to reconsider. The result was the decision to replace “Illegal aliens” with “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.”

The main reading room of the Library of Congress, in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

In the United States, of course, immigration—especially unauthorized immigration—is a hot political topic, so the LoC announcement was met with criticism and accusations of “political correctness” from Republicans in Congress. On June 10, Congress voted 237 to 170 to order LoC to continue using the term “illegal alien” in order to duplicate the language of federal laws written by Congress. In the meantime, the LoC posted a survey where the public can share their views on the proposed changes until August 20. A final decision will be made later this year.

As Cerise Oberman, former dean of Library & Information Services at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, wrote, “Congressional intrusion into what has always been the purview of the Library of Congress makes this a cautionary tale about the growing politicization of language.”

The LoC survey on the proposed changes contains a fascinating explanation of why subject headings are used and how they are chosen, and the Library Journal article describes in detail the process that led to the proposed change. An introduction to the history and use of subject headings is available on the LoC website, along with additional information on subject headings.

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