Implementing Homosaurus at Emory

Original art by the author, Tyler Tennant

This summer, following the submission of my dissertation, I had the opportunity to work as a graduate intern implementing Homosaurus, the LGBTQ+-focused controlled vocabulary, into Emory’s library collection. I was able to see firsthand how cataloging and curation can be useful in the fight against such political violence – and how cataloging can be an ethical and critical endeavor.

Homosaurus is designed to serve as a companion and supplement to broader subject term vocabularies and is robustly updated to reflect LGBTQ+-specific terminology that enhances the likelihood of finding certain materials while simultaneously critically and ethically cataloging resources. Homosaurus’s controlled vocabulary is frequently updated and modified, standardizing terms and concepts that come in and out of popular or common usage, especially within or across LGBTQ+ communities.

Homosaurus in context

LGBTQ+ people, especially trans communities, are under heightened surveillance campaigns and state-sponsored assaults across the United States. Whether it’s in proposed and passed legislation, campaign speeches, or unvetted and uncritical YouTube or TikTok vlogs, deepfakes, or disinformation videos, LGBTQ+ communities are being vastly misrepresented.

We currently live in a world where “drag queen story hour” is presented as one of the premier threats to children – indeed, more threatening than poverty, school shootings, or the ongoing catastrophes of gender-based and racial-based violence, climate change, and health care inaccess. Trans people in particular are used as scapegoats in false and dangerous right-wing talking points about “grooming” and are targeted by state surveillance and state-sanctioned violence and propaganda.

Groups like the LGB Alliance stand behind the idea that sexuality-based identities ought to be protected at the exclusion of trans and gender diverse people, despite the historical imbrication of LGBTQ+ communities, politics, and interests. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that at least 361 bills were introduced by state legislators between 2018 and 2022 alone, and that 2023 saw an exponential growth in legislation. The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of graphic designer Lorie Smith and 303 Creative sets the stage for future engendering of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and emboldens anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments. Presidential candidates are boasting about their anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-woke policies and stances.

In a moment of increasingly violent political targetings of LGBTQ+ people and communities, combatting mis-/disinformation and providing critical, truthful resources is crucial.

Researching categories

In my dissertation research, I looked at literary objects and digital forms to understand the online mediation of queerness as it becomes an umbrella concept which subsumes gender and sexual-based differences. I looked at how the trajectories of queer’s meaning online were ambivalent and uneven, and how queerness is constantly and unpredictably de- and re-contextualized.

I wanted to understand how a single word could mean vastly different things across communities. I argued that the internet provides all users an unregulated and uneven aesthetic education, revealing how much of our information and knowledge is mediated through a screen. So much of what we understand queerness and transness and sexual and gender based otherness to be is filtered through innumerable ideological membranes and online communities and memes and vlogs and tweets and so on.

Homosaurus 101

As gender and sexuality terms have evolved and proliferated over the last few decades, revealing historical shifts in terms, concepts, and language used, social nuances are not always reflected in library catalogs, and tags tend to lag behind cultural movements. Emory has thus implemented the use of Homosaurus to refresh and update our own catalog records to make sure that the resources users are looking for are accessible.

Homosaurus invites us to think more deeply about how and when we apply these terms. Homosaurus is an international controlled vocabulary dedicated to increasing the accessibility of LGBTQ+ materials and resources by determining and recommending appropriate tags for library collections.

Indeed, Homosaurus is a vital tool for researchers looking into LGBTQ+ subject areas as its more inclusive terminology enhances the discoverability of LGBTQ+-related materials. Homosaurus recommends tags that are likely more familiar to researchers as search terms than those used by the Library of Congress’s Subject Heading (LCSH), which are limited in scope, unexamined, and often outdated.

Homosaurus’s terms are hierarchical, with broad, related, and narrower terms linked together with accompanying scope notes describing when and where to apply the terms, and variant forms each term may take. Users are able to view the vocabulary in an alphabetically-arranged List View, and a hierarchical Tree View.

Limitations of Homosaurus

While Homosaurus and other controlled vocabularies are not perfect, they represent an important step towards greater inclusivity and accessibility in library catalogs. While Homosaurus has made significant strides in creating inclusive genre terms, there are still challenges and limitations to the system. For instance, LGBTQ+ topics in LCSH are limited and largely informed by Euro-American conceptions of gender and sexuality, and the vocabulary that these concepts have given us.

That Euro-American understanding is only one of many ways of understanding gender and sexuality and the human experience, and is inextricable from the historicity of colonialism, white supremacy, and other forms of violence. Cultures around the world have similar and different understandings of what constitutes gender, and who has access to femininity, masculinity, androgyny, etc.

Homosaurus at Emory

Emory’s library collection holds an incredible number of resources on LGBTQ+ identities, expressions, and communities, which can at times be difficult to find for many reasons. This may be due to misrepresentation in the catalog (ex. outdated, missing, or limited subject headings) resulting from human or automated error.

Part of the ongoing catalog work involves determining which Homosaurus terms to adopt and which ones to omit, as well as determining which LCSH terms can be updated or replaced with more inclusive and appropriate terminology. It is a process that requires attention to detail, cultural sensitivity, and a deep understanding of the complexities of LGBTQ+ identities and experiences.

Another part of the review process is determining which subject headings are arbitrarily assigned and which are closely aligned with the text. For instance, catalogers are looking at self-identification and historical context as a condition for tagging certain keywords. Furthermore, some historical terms are used for identities that were once used but have since fallen out of popular use, including slurs that have and have not been reclaimed. Catalogers ultimately make the call about whether a tag would be more helpful or harmful.

Ongoing projects and genre updates

This summer I was able to work on altering genre tags for films to increase their discoverability, and sending a number of films not in our catalog to acquisitions for potential acquisition. I have been compiling materials for an upcoming display based on the Lambda Literary Award winners and have been working on updating genre tags for other kinds of literary works.

I have also been writing policy language and developing tutorials based on the metadata best practice recommendations compiled by the Trans and Gender Diverse Collective. Emory is considering the use of Homosaurus in subject guides and other instructional materials to help users navigate the library’s resource, and I have begun the groundwork for the language in those research materials. By providing more inclusive terminology and search terms that are also carefully curated, we hope to make our collections more accessible to all members of the Emory community and beyond.

Part of the recent and ongoing updates to Emory’s catalog include re-tagging LGBTQ+ movies and videos – films featuring LGBTQ+ characters and plot-lines and cultural significance – under the broader genre tag of “LGBTQ+ films.” Narrower search terms will be attached as appropriate. For more information on how to navigate the catalog using Homosaurus, as well as which search terms are appropriate, please follow this link to Emory’s libguides.

Homosaurus’s future

As we continue to update and refine our cataloging practices, we remain committed to creating a more inclusive and representative library collection. Homosaurus and other controlled vocabularies are important tools in this effort, but they are only one part of a larger process that requires ongoing education, reflection, and engagement with our users and communities. You can also help us to make our catalog more inclusive. If you see something in the catalog that seems offensive, harmful, or misrepresented, please let us know via this form.

— by Tyler Tennant, visiting assistant professor, Emory Writing Program and Woodruff Library Resource Description Team intern

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