I’m sitting in my office diving into Hope Olson’s “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs” and thinking about the power of naming.
Yesterday, I taught a pre-college library instruction course to a group of students entering their freshmen year in the fall. They’ve gotten a jump-start on their studies over the summer to help with the transition. All of these students in my class were students of color, and they are entering into an institution that is physically, mentally, value-ly, historically and systemically steeped in whiteness.
It’s no wonder then that one of my students, while running a database search for her summer essay topic on “concepts of beauty in the black community,” was aghast to come across the following suggested subject terms for her on search on “blacks” as a race:
I, then, as a librarian and as her instructor and as a fellow black woman in this very white institution, had to explain to her how our subject headings for academic libraries come from the Library of Congress and, sadly, the LoC continues to use the outdated term “negroes” as an official search and categorization term. I then had to tell her that if she wanted to get a full picture of the research available, alas, she was also going to have to consent to the use of that term in her search.
Having to explain these things to my student infuriated me. Not because she didn’t understand but because they existed for explanation in the first place.
It also made me think about all the to-do surrounding the proposed changes to the LoC subject heading “illegal alien.” Even the recommended changes—”noncitizen” and “unauthorized immigration”—are hugely problematic.
No one—and I mean no one—is a “noncitizen” unless you’re that Tom Hanks character in that goodness-gracious-awful movie Terminal. And even then…no.
As simple as it would seem to allow people to name themselves, the established order resists any and all attempts to reconstruct the way we name, organize, and identify ourselves. The power to name is indeed a power. It is a vastly effectual power that those with privilege are always hard-pressed to cede.
But those of us on the margins continue to fight and resist and rebel. We continue to insist on our own names. We continue to wrest that power away from those who would deny us.
What’s in a name? A lot, Romeo.
This is something that is both infuriating and highly misunderstood. The terms themselves are offensive and cause hurt and alienation in searchers… something a catalog search should not do. However, in this case, the term “negroes” is a reference, not an official subject heading. It is still there as a reference because at some point in the last 130 years or so is was a commonly-used term for people with dark skin, though it is obviously unacceptable now. So the question is: when is it time to get rid of offensive references? Changing the “official” heading isn’t enough. For example, there will still be references from “Illegal aliens” even after the official term is changed. How can we create continuity in our catalogs without perpetuating harm against our library users?