Confronting Bias and Antiquated Terms in the Catalog

By tim gann

Even in fields that are purported to be objective, an individual’s bias in always present. Knowledge organization structures are no different, constructed as they are by a select few people in power. It is no surprise, then, that the bias inherent cataloging terms have been the subject of debate over the past few decades. This debate is the focus of Emily Drabinski’s article “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” (2013), which points to the use of antiquated, often offensive language and subject headings within the dominant cataloging systems. Drabinski makes the point that cataloging systems tell a story about the information they represent, and have told a story informed from a white, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal perspective. Drabinski highlights a number of efforts over the years to petition groups to change problematic language and groupings, but believes that this approach falls short of its intended goal. Drabinski advocates instead for an approach rooted in queer theory, which rejects the idea of changing the catalog and rather wants to keep the problematic language in order to make the catalog’s bias obvious and apparent to researchers, allowing them to “very quickly understand that catalogs reflect a particular point of view rather than an objective truth.” While this understanding is important for users to have, Drabinski’s reservations are too extreme, and the education she proposes can be accomplished while still changing offensive terminology and subject headings.

The basic function of cataloging is to sort materials into groups in ways that make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for. As cultural perspective changes, it is important for the catalog to reflect those changes simply so materials remain discoverable. If a user wants to find materials on certain topics, they will not be able to find them as easily if they are found under archaic subject headings. A user today would not think to look at materials dealing with homosexuality under “sexual deviance,” nor would they want to. It is somewhat ironic that queer theory applied to cataloging both maintains that identity is fluid and subject to constant change, yet insists on fixing the catalog in its original state. Drabinski explains the dissatisfaction with changing classifications by asserting that “the political focus on correcting classification structure and subject language solidifies the idea that the classification structure is in fact objective and does in fact tell the truth, the core fictions—from a queer perspective—that allow the hegemony of a universalized classification structure to persist.” However, it really seems that the opposite is true. It could well be argued that changes made to the language used in the catalog are admissions of error in the past, and an attempt to make up for those errors. They demonstrate that the structure is subject to reconfiguration, and in some ways document the shifting perspectives over time.

At one point in the article, Drabinski cites an example from an essay written in 1972 by Joan Marshall protesting the use of the word “Mammies” as a subject heading, in which Marshall asks, “Could any of us, without mumbling embarrassed and probably useless apologies, even if we dared, tell a young, militant, Black woman who wanted material on this subject to look under mammies!” This is a valid question, to the point where it seems almost rhetorical. However, Drabinski dismisses that question and instead only comments that the suggested improvement, “Negro women,” would be seen as offensive today, seemingly suggesting that “Mammies” should have been kept as a subject heading. Drabinski appears to see this interaction as a potential opportunity for educating the user on the biases inherent in cataloging, but this presupposes that the user is not so offended that they leave the library and become discouraged with the entire system. What Drabinski sees as an access point could have the potential to damage a user’s experience with the library.

Drabinski puts forth that queer theory applied in this context “challenges the idea that classification and subject language can ever be corrected once and for all,” but it should not be suggested that this language, however many times it is corrected, will always remain correct. Changing terminology is and will always be an ongoing struggle because identities are fluid and shift constantly. That only means, then, that the catalog must constantly be reappraised and changed. This might be accomplished through the communication between librarian and user that Drabinski suggests will occur when people are confronted by terms that offend them – users can voice their complaints, and after discussing the history of the catalog, librarians can proceed to lobby to change the problematic language.

While changing subject headings is important, it must be said that it is in no way a bad idea to also educate users on the fallibility of the catalog. History must not be forgotten or revised, and the existence of these subject headings should certainly be noted and taught. It’s important not to forget that bias, racism, and bigotry informed a great deal of these subject headings, and it’s also important to teach that history to concerned individuals. But does that really mean that we should accept those subject headings and allow them to stay just for the benefit of a discussion which, depending on the user, might not even take place?

These two are not mutually exclusive by any means. Discussions about the catalog can still take place on a personal level and in educational settings so long as the librarian chooses to do so. At the same time, when terms are changed in the catalog, it may be wise to annotate them in some way. It may be possible to indicate the changes in the same space cross references occupy, perhaps similarly to the way a dictionary will provide archaic, out-of-use definitions for words after supplying the modern ones. Something like this may be quite difficult, but this way items can be found under socially acceptable subject headings while still acknowledging the insensitive language previously used. Users can find materials under the current socially acceptable, inoffensive terms and still learn the history of the catalog in context. This could even better accentuate the biases in the catalog, and and invite users to challenge the authority of the catalog and help reshape it.

The catalog is a representation of the library, and while these subject headings give insight into how catalogers viewed the world, they do not represent the current positions and viewpoints of catalogers and librarians today. The issue of language in subject headings is analogous to the same issue in regard to federal and state laws, some of which were modified earlier this year (Kelkar 2016). When New York in 2009 eliminated the term “Oriental” from government documents, then-Governor David Paterson said, “The words we use matter. We in government recognize that what we print in official documents or forms sets an example of what is acceptable” (Chan & Lee 2009). The same can be said for libraries: the words we use in the catalog also set examples of what is acceptable, and it is wrong to present offensive terms as appropriate descriptors.


Chan, S., & Lee, J. (2009). Law Bans Use of ‘Oriental’ in State Documents. Retrieved from

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83 (2), 94-111.

Kelkar, K. (2016, May 22). Obama signs bill eliminating ‘Negro,’ ‘Oriental’ from federal laws. Retrieved from


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