Emory Libraries, Bias, and You

By: Kyle Tanaka, RESC Fellow, Woodruff Library

Imagine your kitchen for a moment. Somewhere, you’ve probably got a cupboard, a drawer, or a pantry filled with stuff. How did you decide what goes where? How did you decide what goes in this drawer vs. that cupboard? How did you decide how the drawer itself is organized?

Science library of Upper Lusatia in Görlitz, Germany.


Now, imagine that same task of organization blown up a thousandfold. The situation is probably daunting, but it’s what libraries work with. Rather than trying to figure out where your forks or chopsticks, cereal or noodles should go, in a library you’ve got to figure out where millions of materials should go. Not only that, you’ve got to figure out a way to organize it that makes sense to a lot of different people. Just as you might put your utensils in a different place than your family or roommates, so too library users might expect to find things in a variety of different places.

To manage all this, libraries use what is called metadata. Metadata is all the information that helps libraries organize their contents and helps you find what you’re looking for. Title, author, publisher, subject–this is all considered metadata.

However, since the 1960s and 70s, librarians have increasingly raised awareness that metadata is biased in problematic and harmful ways. Some of this shows up as harmful terms, including racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic language. Sanford Berman wrote a scathing critique of Library of Congress Subject Headings in his 1971 book Prejudices and Antipathies (click here to see this title in Emory’s catalog). Many of these terms have since been removed or updated, but not all, and Emory Libraries are working to address this language in our own catalog.

Problematic language isn’t the only way that bias affects the library catalog. Studies such as those of Clack (1973; 1995), Gerhard et al (1993), and Vega Garcia (2000) found that materials inBooks with call numbers on a library shelf historically-underrepresented areas (such as African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and LatinX Studies) have metadata that is often less robust. In these cases, metadata is either minimal or even missing from materials. Other authors note that materials that challenge norms often have misleading metadata. Adler (2017) presents Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (which you can view by clicking here) as an example. Sedgwick’s work is a key text of what we would now call Queer Theory, but you’ll notice that nothing in the record indicates this. In fact, if you went to go find the book on the shelf, you’d find it under PS374 .H63 S42 1990–in the range on U.S. literature. Nearby, you’d find books like The Heart Has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 or Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. You can probably see how these titles are related, i.e. they all emphasize representations of LGBTQ+ individuals in literature, but it’s a bit like putting your knives with your pans because they’re both metal, or your milk with your salt because they’re both white.

These issues (and others) affect what is called accessibility. In library-speak, accessibility refers to the ease with which you can find what you’re looking for in the library catalog. If the metadata works well, it helps a lot of people find a lot of relevant materials quickly. If it isn’t, finding relevant materials becomes harder or nearly impossible. The problem libraries are facing–here at Emory and globally–is that there is an accessibility disparity. It is simply more difficult and more time-consuming to find relevant materials if your work takes up non-traditional topics or methods.

Libraries across the world are working to address this. One such project is The Cataloging Lab, which allows catalogers (the folks who create metadata) to experiment with improving terms in the catalog. Other projects like Local Contexts have developed new kinds of metadata to assist with non-Western (especially indigenous) systems of knowledge. At Emory, Emory Libraries have released a statement on harmful language (click here to view the statement) and created a form for you to report any harmful or offensive language you find in the catalog (click here to view the form). Emory Libraries are also combatting embedded bias in other ways, such as identifying and editing harmful language in archival Finding Aids (click here to read more about work with Finding Aids) and removing outdated language related to Black and Asian individuals (click here to read more about these efforts at Pitts Library).


Want to learn more? Check out the list below for some recommended titles!


Recommended Reading:

Adler, Melissa. Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge. Fordham University Press, 2017.

  • Melissa Adler’s Cruising the Library examines the history of the classification of materials related to LGBTQ+ studies and sexuality. In so doing, Adler exposes the ways in which the library has “hidden” materials considered “perverse” (especially during the 1950s) through patterns of cataloging. Some of these patterns continue to exist, such as placing many works relevant to LGBTQ+ studies under the term “paraphilias” (would you think to search for that term? If not, this is part of how materials can be “hidden”).
  • Click here to view the item in Emory’s catalog.

Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Scarecrow Press, 1971.

  • Sanford (or Sandy) Berman was one of the first librarians to go through and analyze Library of Congress Subject Headings thoroughly to identify derogatory and problematic headings. He has advocated for decades for changes and updates (ruffling a few feathers along the way).
  • Click here to view the item in Emory’s catalog.

Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 83, no. 2, 2013, pp. 94–111. https://doi.org/10.1086/669547.

  • Emily Drabinski’s work invokes queer theory to challenge how we think about classification and what it means to “correct” terms that are offensive, problematic, etc. Taking a stance a bit different than many others in library studies (Berman, for example), Drabinski argues for “queering” cataloging by changing how both catalogers and library patrons think about classification and what it means.
  • Click here to read the article (login through Emory required).

Olson, Hope. The Power to NameLocating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Springer, 2002.

  • Hope Olson’s The Power to Name critically considers how cataloging affects what we find when we search for materials. Olson considers everything from the roots of cataloging with figures like Melvil Dewey and Charles Cutter to present-day practices of cataloging that can reinforce disciplinary and institutional biases.
  • Click here to view the item in Emory’s catalog.


About the author:

Kyle Tanaka is a philosophy PhD candidate and Research and Engagement and Scholarly Communications (RESC) Fellow at Emory’s Woodruff Library. His interests include philosophy of history, hermeneutics, epistemic norms, and the relationship between classifications and understanding (especially between philosophy and the library). He can be reached at kyle.takeshi.tanaka[at]emory[dot]edu.

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