Against the Queer Intervention: some thoughts on Drabinski and Berman

By alchomet

The problems with biases in Library of Congress subject headings have been examined for decades, and stir lively conversation whenever they come up. Emily Drabinski, in her essay “Queering the Catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction,” posits that many of these biases, as well as the hegemonic nature of the catalog itself could be “corrected” with what she calls “queer interventions” to the catalog. This would mean that a patron who discovers a problematic LOC subject heading (Drabinski uses the example of LGBTQ information being headed under “Deviant Sexualities”) would enter into a conversation with a librarian on staff, who would then explain to the patron the created nature of the catalog, while revealing that all knowledge organization systems are of course created by those with power.

Drabinski posits her queer intervention against the Library of Congress subject heading revisions and additions made popular by Sanford Berman. Berman, who began petitioning the LOC in the 1970s for additional and revised subject headings, is the most prominent figure in the “radical cataloging” movement. Drabinski argues that while such revisions are fine, they still work to maintain the hegemonic power structure of the catalog. The queer intervention, instead, would work to reveal and dismantle it. [1]

Several problems arise when we think of Drabinki’s queer intervention in practice. I want to point out two assumptions that I believe she operates under when she calls for librarians to perform queer interventions.  First have to assume that this library has a large enough staff to patron ratio to allow any given librarian to spend a large quantity of time in conversation with one patron, in order to explain the catalog’s history and problems. An over-stressed library staff may make both patrons and librarians uncomfortable broaching the subject of the catalog’s problems, as the queer intervention requires a long conversation, challenging historical assumptions of knowledge organization. It seems likely that at most public libraries, not enough resources and time are allocated to reference librarians so that just a few are expected to handle the needs of many patrons at a time. Both the librarian and patron in question would be unable to devote enough time to the conversation at hand. I think it’s also worth pointing out that public libraries, rather than private research or academic libraries, are the spaces where marginalized people are most likely to come into contact with the catalog; they’re also spaces where librarian resources are scarcest.

We should also ask ourselves about the identity and beliefs of the librarian in question performing the intervention. Of course, in order to perform a queer intervention on behalf of the catalog, the librarian that a marginalized youth approaches must believe in the necessity of the intervention itself–if he or she does indeed believe that LGBT topics should be cataloged under “Deviant Sexualities,” or information about Voodoo practices are rightfully found under the heading “Cults,” then obviously this person will not perform the intervention that Drabinski and other progressive librarians desire. The idea of an unchanged catalog maintained by librarians performing queer interventions requires all librarians in all areas of the country to be of one mind about progressive political issues; this seems wholly impossible to me.

Finally, we should examine the position of power that librarians themselves occupy within the queer intervention. While the catalog certainly represents codified power–and a faceless, non-human power at that, further mystifying it–librarianship, and the place behind the reference desk, is also a place of codified power. Librarians as a group are largely white, and the conventions of the profession necessitate that they at least present as middle-class, if not come from middle-class backgrounds in the first place. [2]

When performing the queer intervention, the librarian is already speaking across a gulf of power to a likely marginalized patron; in this relationship, a conversation about the catalog’s history and biases might ring at least slightly hallow, as the information is still largely one-sided and coming from a position of power. The act of the queer intervention also assumes that the patron has not contemplated the not-so-obscure idea that knowledge systems are in fact created by those with power; coming out of the mouth of a person with power, this is likely to sound condescending. [3]

I would like to posit that subject heading revisions made by Sanford Berman and others are a different type of queer intervention in a problematic catalog. While these revisions are perhaps not “queer” in the sense that they call into question or dismantle power structures, petitions to change LOC subject headings do indeed reveal the constructed nature of the catalog, especially if publicized. If it became clear to the public that subject headings exist, but are changeable by petition, then their “word-of-god” appearance would be reveled to be only human construction.  The library catalog exists to at least begin to help the patron in their research; I would like to think that interface with a progressive catalog during a powerful research process would be empowering to many.

Still, it takes a great deal of effort and time to change Library of Congress subject headings. As Berman himself pointed out, it wasn’t until 2006 that the heading “Vietnam Conflict” was changed to “Vietnam War;” he concluded that the change in such a useful heading lagging so far behind the reality of the war “should be a cause for embarrassment.” [4] The great deal of time that it takes to change these headings–sometimes decades–is likely to be extremely off-putting to a library patron who is used to public knowledge changing at the speed of Wikipedia.

Of course a conversation like the queer interventions that Drabinski advocates should always be welcome. I don’t feel comfortable advocating for them as the exclusive way to address a non-progressive catalog, as she does, however, as they rely on many factors outside of the progressive librarian’s control, and only enforce the power imbalance between patron and librarian. A catalog that is constantly under revision, in conjunction with open and honest dialogue with library patrons when possible, are the two complementary, rather than adversarial, ways of addressing the problem of bias in controlled vocabularies.


[1] Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction.” The Library Quarterly. Volume 83. Number 2 (April 2013): 94-111. Web Access.

[2] LIS 651-1 class discussion 9/17/15

[3] Galvan, Andrea. “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 6/3/2015. Accessed on the web 9/29/15 <http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/soliciting-performance-hiding-bias-whiteness-and-librarianship/>

[4] Berman, Sanford. “Introduction: Cataloging Reform, LC, and Me.” Radical Cataloging: Essays that the Front. Edited by K.R. Roberto. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2008. Accessed on the web 9/29/15 <https://books.google.com/books?id=xoX2BgAAQBAJ&pg=PA99&lpg=PA99&dq=queer+cataloging&source=bl&ots=36vb1XNFgs&sig=gzTBNkhGJ7UWAsN6w2heZPwa8aY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAmoVChMIkMy3ufOeyAIVCzo-Ch35FgaK#v=onepage&q=queer%20cataloging&f=false>

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