Correcting the record

January 10, 2022

Although the work of describing the details or data about items in a library collection — such as the publication date, subject heading, distributor, and other "metadata" — is often invisible, the information it produces is fundamental to how people discover and use library resources. Ensuring that such descriptions are accurate and as free from biased and harmful language as possible is essential, and also a great challenge, given that so much legacy library metadata was created by people with inherent and unacknowledged biases.

Now, the U-M Library, the William L. Clements Library, and the Bentley Historical Library are working to remediate the harmful language in the metadata in their shared catalog, and the collection guides, finding aids, and other resources maintained by the libraries that people use to discover and learn about the materials in their collections. Removing this harmful language is an effort to begin to redress the biases it creates and perpetuates.

Often-cited examples of harmful language are the dehumanizing terms "aliens" and “illegal aliens” to describe undocumented immigrants or noncitizens of a country. Until November 12, 2021, these were official Library of Congress subject headings. The replacement of these terms with "noncitizens" and "illegal immigration" was initially planned for 2016, but was blocked by Congress when it became controversial for some anti-immigration politicians. 

Delayed progress on the national front has further spurred a burgeoning movement among libraries to act locally. Libraries rely upon the subject headings created by the Library of Congress and can't independently replace or update them. But they can advocate for change at the national level, and work to mitigate and remediate harmful language in the metadata they create for their local and unique holdings — as the U-M Library has done by changing its subject heading "illegal aliens" to "undocumented immigrants."

Read more about the library’s policy on remediation of harmful language.

You can stream the documentary “Change the Subject,” which tells the story of a group of college students whose efforts to remediate harmful language in library catalogs became a flashpoint in the national immigration debate.

by Alan Piñon

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