Accountable Cataloguing: VIRL staff replace subject headings to accurately represent everyday library users

April 20, 2021

For the past several years, staff at the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) have been meticulously removing colonial bias and stereotype subject headings from VIRL’s catalogue.

VIRL’s Support Services team began the work in 2017, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report. VIRL’s Indigenous Engagement and Services Committee soon joined in, following a powerful presentation on cataloguing and Indigenous works by the British Columbia Library Association (BCLA). Together, the team has replaced more than 1,000 antiquated and inappropriate subject headings with those which accurately represent and reflect the knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s a matter of properly serving our community,” says Emma Ritchie, Information Technician and VIRL Indigenous Engagement and Services Committee member. “And recognizing that there have been gaps in our service and trying to rectify that. It also recognizes that the more conventional ways of cataloguing might have previously alienated Indigenous groups.”

VIRL Cataloguers have been replacing such subject headings as ‘Indians of North America’ with the term ‘Indigenous Peoples.’

“Our catalogue is a digital representation of our collection. Subject terms should reflect people’s everyday language and the terms our customers use to search,” says Steinunn Benjaminsson, Customer Service Librarian.

Steinunn adds that having outdated and insensitive terminology in a library catalogue has a number of negative impacts. Along with egregiously misrepresenting communities, such terms create a barrier for those accessing Indigenous works and can be awkward for staff who are helping customers find materials.

“If a customer is looking for a particular title, our staff may then have to explain that they’ll have to search using an outdated term,” says Steinunn.

Replacing subject headings in the VIRL catalogue isn’t something that can be done overnight. North American libraries currently follow the cataloguing guidelines set out by the Library of Congress, which some have felt has stalled in taking the lead in updating subject headings. In response, some library systems like VIRL have persevered, collaborating with other systems and organizations to move forward with consistent changes across all catalogues.

“One of the main sources were using is from the Greater Victoria Public Library,” says Valerie Grace, Customer Services Librarian II. “We often go into their catalogue and see if they’re still using a specific heading.”

Valerie adds, after an alternate subject heading is found, staff are then able to proceed with a “batch change” in their system quite quickly.

“Then we have to go back and search for the subheadings that were attached to the subject heading. That takes a little more work because it’s sometimes hard to identify those [subheadings] and then we have to go back to our sources, the spreadsheets, and the organizations that have already identified what they wanted those subheads changed to.”

The long-term goal of removing all offensive and outdated terminology is a challenge because of the culturally evolving nature of language and terminology, but VIRL staff are working to stay current by connecting with the BCLA’s cataloguing groups, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Indigenous Matters Committee and other Canadian sources and local library systems.

“Work with our vendor continues as updated terms come in,” says Valerie. “We’re also beginning to identify groups and tribes from other countries like Mexico that need to be renamed, but we’re working through our own local terms first.”

VIRL staff say, at the end of the day, libraries are entrusted with public resources and represent the communities they serve. Subject headings in catalogues need to remain consistent from library to library and culturally reflect the people they serve.

“We have a responsibility to remove negative stereotypes from our catalogue and accurately represent the language of the everyday people who are using the library,” says Steinunn. “It’s not a special thing we are doing, it’s something that every library should be doing.”