Inescapable Biases and the Construction of Catalog Realities

By belantara

Emily Drabinski’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” discusses an important issue library professionals must face.   All attempts to create some type of globally relevant system of classification and organization have problems embedded within them. How can a library catalog ever be expected to be finite and representative all the various mindsets and ways of knowing that exist in the world or even in one cosmopolitan city? Language constantly develops, new ideas emerge, societies change, borders are redefined, concepts evolve, and policies are renegotiated.  Humans create categories in order to impose some kind of structure on the world so as not to feel lost in complete chaos.  Such structures may be imperfect illusions, but it does not seem that we humans have yet fathomed a better solution to finding our way through the labyrinthian archive known as existence.  Until we do, library and information professionals must deal with an ever-growing mass of information.  They must also endeavor to ensure that ways of finding and sorting through it are relevant to as many different people as possible.

Drabinski references the history of radical librarianship and notes that the biased nature of cataloging has been a debated issue in LIS professions since the late 1960s.  While radical catalogers have made progress in making changes to biased subject headings and class marks, Drabinski thinks that making these changes is basically like treating a symptom of an illness without addressing its cause.  She feels that critical catalogers miss an important point in their work when making corrections to the Library of Congress’ classification system: the problematic nature of cataloging itself.  She writes, “such corrections are always contingent and never final, shifting in response to discursive and political and social change…[they] reiterate an approach to classification and cataloging that elides contingency as a factor in determining what classification and cataloging decisions are imagined to be correct in any given context.”

Drabinski’s call for LIS professionals to “theorize the trouble with classification and cataloging in library knowledge systems [as] the root” of the problem is similar to demands critical theory scholars have made on academics to acknowledge the impact that socio-historical constructions, power structures, economics and politics have on supposedly objective research.  In their article, “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research,” Kincheloe and McLaren discuss how practices in critical theory aim to make implicit inescapable biases more explicit in academic research.  By openly acknowledging and grappling with these biases as part of the research process, critical theorists aim to move towards a more balanced or democratic way of both conducting and representing research.  Both Drabinski’s and Kincheloe and McLaren’s articles draw attention to a tendency in society and in academia to cling to notions of objectivity or the so-called myth of neutrality even though one’s understanding and experience of the world is in constant flux and dependent on numerous changing factors.

So what can LIS professionals do to achieve their goal of making information accessible whilst understanding that the cataloging systems they must work with are irreparably flawed by their very nature?  Drabinski advocates what she considers to be a Queer intervention to this problem: leave contested headings or class marks in place to allow for critical public discussion and deconstruction of their meanings.   She believes that a rupture occurs when someone encounters an “obviously biased classification decision or subject heading” making it easy for library users to see the “constructed quality of library classification.”

While I can appreciate Drabinski’s desire to use biased cataloging practices as an impetus to spark discussions between library staff and critical patrons, I’m not convinced it will have the outcome she desires.  The rupture she speaks of is dependent upon a user already being of like mind about the “incorrectness” of the subject heading or class mark in question.  What may be an obvious bias to one user may be nothing remarkable to another.  Furthermore, it does not make sense to knowingly allow a biased structure to remain in place just to serve as a potential discussion point. People who are likely to experience such a rupture going through a library catalog already experience them everywhere in everyday life just trying to do ordinary things like finding a public restroom, buying “nude tone” bandages or make-up, finding a job, hailing a taxi, voting, getting married…and the list goes on.  They need not go to the library just to find one other reminder of how “the system” is up against them.  It seems to me that aiming to adopt progressive cataloging methods would have more of the desired impact. For example, radical cataloging practices could cause a rupture for those who would use subject headings like “sexual deviance” to organize books about homosexuality.  In my opinion, this is where the rupture Drabinski seeks ought to be taking place.

Towards the end of their article Kincheloe and McLaren introduce an ethnographic research method called “deconstructive ethnography.” Over the past few decades anthropologists have strived for reflexivity in their work, and deconstructive ethnography takes reflexivity even further. Kincheloe and McLaren write, “Whereas reflexive ethnography questions its own authority, deconstructive ethnography forfeits its authority.”  This approach is interesting to consider since many think the goal of research is to produce some kind of authoritative knowledge.

The concept of deconstructive ethnography is very interesting in the library context.  As Drabinski points out, library catalogs do provide an amazing potential to draw attention to the ways socio-political constructions create ideas of reality.  People seek things based off of what they think makes sense, using their own authoritative understanding of the world.  Librarians assign categories based on “authority records” and use “authority fields” to make catalog records.  Do these authorities recognize one another?  As libraries aim to provide equal access for all, it seems that they ought to adopt catalog and classifying practices that incorporate ways of describing and identifying that are in alignment with how those being classified define themselves. With new technology, there is no reason that catalogs could not be designed to provide a wide variety of access points in order to make items findable based on multiple perspectives of library users.  Would this be a sort of deconstructive cataloging?  Does there need to be an authoritative catalog?  While a permanent and universal system is an impossibility, a system that acknowledges its biases and accounts for the diversity of ways of knowing and accessing the world is not.

References:

  • Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.
  • Kincheloe, J. and McLaren, P. (2002), “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research” in Ethnography and Schools Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education (Immigration and the Transnational Experience Series) Eds. Zou, Y and Truebe, E.  pp. 87-130
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