Cataloging for change: An Emory intern’s story

Recently, I was employed as an intern at Emory and my project was to review a list of newly accepted subject headings proposed by the African American SACO Funnel. The African American SACO Funnel is an organization that focuses on creating or changing subject headings related to the African American experience. This is done to improve access and visibility of African American resources. After the review, I would then choose a handful of headings, find appropriate resources in Emory Libraries, compile them, and then go through and edit their records to include the new headings. The inclusion of these headings will not only make resources more accurate to current terminology but will make them easier to find as well.

What is a Subject Heading?

Subject headings are concise descriptions of a resource’s general contents. When adding something to the library’s databases, subject headings are chosen from a controlled list governed by the Library of Congress. This carefully curated list is a way to make sure that a resource is not only accurately described but also findable. The downside of this controlled list is that it’s incredibly slow to update and new editions are not fully reflected in existing databases. The newly accepted subject headings I chose to focus on were Environmental Racism, Colorism, Afrofuturism, and Juneteenth.

Some Definitions According to the Library of Congress

Environmental Racism – The practice of establishing polluting enterprises or hazardous waste sites in proximity to minority communities.

Colorism – Prejudice based on relative skin hue within a racial group.

Afrofuturism – A cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African American experience.

Juneteenth – A federal holiday to commemorate the belated announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

Why Change Subject Headings?

Because subject headings are part of a controlled list, changing any part of the list must follow procedures. An outdated term, like racially mixed person (updated to multiracial people), must have an accepted proposal for it to change as well as an agreed-upon alternative. This can cause significant debate. Even when the updated subject heading goes through, databases are often slow to replace the old term. Proposing new headings is a similarly lengthy process and proposers also face the additional challenge of justifying their addition.

Getting Started

To begin my project, I first had to find titles that reflected the newly accepted subject headings. This turned out to be easy. Simply looking up the new subject heading (like colorism) in a keyword search returned numerous relevant titles. From those titles, it was possible to pick out related subject headings. For example, a popular subject heading on books about colorism is “African Americans–color”. This heading is imperfect as it does not encompass the full spectrum of what it could be used for. However, it does provide a way to find a list of titles that can be updated with the new heading of colorism. Continuing with this example, skin bleaching/skin whitening is a common topic in resources. This keyword is also likely to contain titles focused outside of the US which can then be looked over for additional subject headings to search. However, this can be a challenge when considering some of these titles may be written in languages other than English.

Common Issues

That’s not to say that these strategies worked perfectly, as oftentimes they needed to be adjusted by subject heading. Some subject headings like Environmental Racism returned a huge amount of relevant, untagged titles; others like Afrofuturism required extensive review of other related headings. Still, others like Juneteenth returned an incredibly small number of relevant titles no matter how I searched.

The hardest part about searching for relevant resources is the fact that you are working backward. However objective cataloging tries to be, the fact is that the implementation of subject headings is a personal decision the cataloger makes based on the resource in front of them. This, therefore, can give rise to disagreements. There is also the issue of searches becoming too narrow or too wide.

Next Steps

The aim of this project was to make resources related to African Americans at Emory more accurate, more searchable, and more visible in the larger collection. Even though I have finished with my specific list of resources and subject headings, this project is still an ongoing process. My work will be used as a template to efficiently find resources for other newly accepted African American SACO Funnel subject headings and even to expand those that already exist. As part of Emory’s wider commitment to creating a fair, equitable, and representative library catalog, the end goal of this project is to make the African American collection respectful, relevant, and representative. Read more about our ongoing work with African American subject headings here.

You can help us with this task. If you see something in the catalog that seems offensive, harmful, or misrepresented, please let us know via this form:

Paxton Martin, Woodruff Library Resource Description Team intern

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