This webinar was moderated by Davis Erin Anderson, Assistant Director for Programs and Partnerships at METRO Library Council. The panelists included Violet Fox, former editor of the Dewey Decimal Classification and Treshani Perera, Music and Fine Arts Cataloguing Librarian at the University of Kentucky. 

The terms critical cataloging, ethical cataloging, radical cataloging and conscious cataloging have been used interchangeably to describe the same idea. These terms fall under the same umbrella of critical librarianship, and they are inextricably linked.

Critical librarianship is the idea of bringing the discussion about critical perspectives on our practice in libraries and recognizing that we work under these regimes of white supremacy, capitalism and structural inequities. How can our work as librarians intervene in and disrupt those systems? – Violet Fox

Addressing the more problematic aspects of systems of classifications, Violet Fox began by stating how important it is to think about this work from an ethical standpoint. We must begin by accepting that there is a Western bias embedded in the Library of Congress subject headings and the Dewey Decimal classification system. These often include racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonist and patriarchal ways of being. 

Treshani Perera echoed this by reinforcing the subjective nature of cataloging. “Subjectivity is connected to the experiences and understanding of the world within those experiences. So if we’re talking about humans doing this work, and more specifically LIS workers doing this work of assigning subject headings or construction classification systems, it’s important to reflect on this process,” she said. Perera goes on to list a few crucial questions that library workers can ask themselves:

  • Who has been doing classification cataloging analysis work historically?
  • Who is continuing to do that work?
  • Where is that work being done?
  • Who has the resources to contribute?
  • Whose viewpoints are being continually perpetuated?
  • Whose expertise is being consulted?
  • Under whose leadership is this work being done?

“If subjectivity is inherent in the way humans do cataloging work, then the humans (more specifically LIS workers) performing this work need to be more representative of the greater society. It is the diverse viewpoints and experiences that need to be considered,” Perera said. In addition to this, she also mentions that there are specific restrictions in the actual cataloging systems and databases themselves.

We can’t make systemic change without collective responsibility. -Treshani Perera

Our cataloging systems have an inherent patriarchal bias. Perera gives the example of gendered headings associated with occupations. Where we have “Women Book Collectors” or “Women Bodybuilder.” We don’t have the same prefix for men for the same roles. In those cases, if they were describing men, then the heading would be solely “Book Collector” or “Bodybuilder.” Both Perera and Fox give other examples related to ethnicity and race and the categorization of fine arts and music. 

Librarianship is a predominantly white, and predominantly female profession. How do we bring community voices into this critical conversation? Perera recommends paying attention to what BIPOC archives and libraries are doing. And if you’re looking to undertake a specific reclassification project, it’s important to think about labor and agency. Especially if it involves emotional labor. Consider your policy and procedures around compensation and recognizing that labor. What kind of agency are you giving them?

“If you are in the LIS profession from a dominant culture in libraries and you are interested and eager to work with underrepresented communities, I would also strongly recommend that you approach the work with cultural humility. That is, to decenter your experience, your feelings, and your professional expertise. Approach this work as an opportunity to learn and do this work collaboratively. And let those who are underrepresented lead on how they want their experiences and narrative to be described and documented,” Perera said. “And be responsible for your own education. Take time to read and to ask the hard questions yourself. Develop a networking group for you to be able to ask those questions. Develop allyship and be willing to put yourself out there. Do not put the burden on people who are marginalized. Also acknowledge your privilege and have those conversations with people who can create the ripple effect of change.”

Fox pointed out that it’s okay to make mistakes along the way. “The great thing about cataloguing and metadata in theory is that It is an iterative process. We know that we’re not going to get it right the first time we describe something, even if we can decide what ‘right’ was. We have to embrace this iterative process both within ourselves and not to let mistakes, or the fear of making mistakes, stop us from learning and growing.”

Many thanks to our panelists for sharing their time and insights with us. Please join us at one of our future events; a full listing can be found at metro.org/events.

Resources and People Mentioned