Mind the Metadata

Posted September 14, 2016
By Toni Samek

Library and information workers use their education and experience to support intellectual freedom and address social concerns, such as by lobbying for copyright reform for peoples with print disabilities, exposing how commercial Internet filters are biased against sexual and gender minorities, collaborating with social workers on library services for homeless people, and fighting to safeguard cultural heritage in the context of war, conflict, and genocide. Sometimes their work comes down to a single word. Whether you are using Library of Congress Classification, Dewey Decimal Classification, Universal Decimal Classification, Brian Deer Classification (e.g., at the University of British Columbia), or something else, ask yourself: where do subject headings come from? Who are the people behind the systems that determine these controlled vocabularies? How much precision do they take? How would you go about choosing between such terms as “massacre” and genocide” in naming intellectual content?

While metadata librarians can be found working on the front lines of ethics and knowledge activism, we do not see much attention given to them outside of their own professional circles, especially in the face of tragic to comic narratives about how Google has replaced the librarian in society. These persistent narratives have been intermixed with urgent calls to save our government, school and public libraries, as well as troubling news of contested book titles going missing from eReaders overnight, big data analytics in service of consumerism, access to government information (e.g., census data), muzzling of scientists, whistleblowing, the need for copyright legislation reform, and trigger warnings in higher education in Canada and elsewhere. I thought it might be compelling to contextualize this matrix with a glimpse inside library culture, particularly opening a window on cataloguing, a process of naming and framing that can aid or impede fair judgments in subject access.

Several generations of librarians, including: Sanford Berman; Frank Exner, Little Bear; Hope Olson; and, K.R. Roberto, have raised awareness about the power of naming, descriptive vs. prejudicial labelling, and calls for cataloguing reform. For example, on May 19, 2015 American library activist Sanford Berman, who coined the phrase “critical cataloging”, sent a powerful letter [shared with me] under the banner “Comment Enabled” to the American Libraries magazine, which is published by the American Library Association, the world’s oldest and largest library association. He wrote:

           Dear Colleagues:

Mass incarceration. Stop-and-frisk. “Broken windows” policing. War profiteering. Science denialism. AIDS denialism. Climate change denialism. Anti-vaccine movement. Micro aggression. Stereotype threat. Native American Holocaust. Armenian Genocide denialism. Wage theft.

These topics appear frequently in the media. And libraries have materials on them. But they cannot be found by subject-searching catalogs because the Library of Congress [LC] has failed to create and assign appropriate subject headings, even though they’ve been formally recommended. If you agree that such rubrics would contribute to public debate and policy-making, please contact LC’s Cataloging Policy & Support Office (Washington, DC 20540-4305).[i]

In the Journal of Information Ethics’ Fall 2015 column on the politics of trigger warnings, University of Toronto professor Juris Divelko praised Berman’s legacy, which includes advocacy on bibliographic fairness, comprehensibility, maximum access, and user-responsiveness. Divelko referenced Berman’s painstaking knowledge organization practices to build an argument in favour of trigger warnings. For example, Divelko asserted trigger warnings can be “conceptualized as the addition of another layer of information to already existing layers, a valid Sanford Berman-like flourish whose central goal is providing maximum transparency about the contents of books.”[ii] Berman rebuked this argument in a letter published in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of Information Ethics. Here Berman affirms his bibliographic practices, while clearly stating he has:

pointedly NOT advocated these measures as means to “warn” or “protect” library users. And so I’m frankly uncomfortable with being invoked as a precedent for “trigger warnings”. If, for example, RAPE-FICTION is assigned to a given novel, it’s because the book deals substantially with that topic, not because someone might be disquieted or unhinged by encountering it and this should be forewarned. True the descriptor could inadvertently function as a warning, but that should never be the motive for assigning it. The very notion of “nanny cataloguing” is at once patronizing, arrogant and censorious.[iii]

Who might imagine librarians as information nannies or knowledge minders? How much does the Canadian community know about the contemporary nature of their work, education and contributions to intercultural information ethics and global information justice? Readers may recall recent tumultuous times at Library and Archives (LAC) Canada in Ottawa, when alongside critiques of mass digitization initiatives and staff cutbacks, The National Post included a 2013 story by Margaret Munro in which she reported

Federal librarians fear being ‘muzzled’ under new code of conduct that stresses‘duty of loyalty’ to the government” … Federal librarians and archivists who set foot in classrooms, attend conferences or speak up at public meetings on their own time are engaging in ‘high risk’ activities, according to the new code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada. [Note: this clause was amended in 2014.]

The Montreal Gazette published a 2014 interview with Guy Berthiaume - then chairman and director of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and incoming LAC head. In answer to the question ”What are the greatest challenges facing you at LAC, and how do you plan to deal with them?” Berthiaume responded his first priority was “to work with the employees to restore pride and a sense of belonging to the institution.” He elaborated, “It’s not a spectacular job, it’s not a flashy job, but it is fundamental. It’s essential that people believe in what they are doing, that they are encouraged to do it, that they know they are making a contribution and that their work is respected. That is very important.” This is a valuable approach, given library and information workers at LAC and elsewhere, may function in what Samuel Gerald Collins terms in his 2008 monograph, Library of Walls: The Library of Congress and the Contradictions of Information Society, “a social and cultural understanding of work, freedom, debate, and knowledge”.[iv] These words come up underneath the following 2014 call for papers.

Guest editors, Cheryl Metoyer and Ann Doyle, invite contributions to an Indigenous Special Issue of Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. This special issue aims to engage an international and interdisciplinary dialogue about Indigenous approaches to cataloguing and classification. It includes theoretical and applied research that examines processes of representing and organizing documents or their resultant products in Indigenous contexts. It values practitioners’ perspectives and projects that envision new directions or inspire innovation drawing upon Indigenous methodologies and epistemologies. … Contributions are welcomed on a range of topics. …

  • Indigenous theoretical, conceptual and methodological approaches to representing, ordering, and accessing information; 
  • Indigenous and tribal libraries’ cataloguing and classification;
  • Structural bases for organizing information in Indigenous contexts;
  • Indigenous names, naming and authority control;
  • Collaboration and partnerships (community/academy; tribal and non-tribal institutions);
  • Indigenous information ethics/ ethics of Indigenous information;
  • Cataloguing and classification for reconciliation;
  • The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN 2007) and bibliographic control;
  • Development of iSchool education and curriculum for Indigenous cataloguing, classification, and knowledge organization;
  • Indigenous research agendas in cataloging and classification[.]

There have been recent proposals for new Library of Congress Subject Headings for TRIGGER WARNINGS and HISTORICAL TRAUMA, on top of older ones for GRAPHIC HISTORIES, COLLEGE DISORIENTATION GUIDES, READICIDE, and CRITICAL CATALOGING. In the words of Collins, metadata can provide an “alternative discourse”.[v] Arguably, it warrants mention in the mix of opinion about freedom of expression today.

Readers interested in learning more about metadata and librarianship may enjoy the books listed below.

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

Hope Olson. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 2002.

K.R. Roberto (Editor). Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 2008.


[i] Letter on the subject “Comment Enabled” sent from Sanford Berman (4400 Morningside Road, Edina, Minnesota 55416) to American Libraries (50. E Huron Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611). Dated. May 19, 2015.

[ii] Juris Divelko. “The Politics of Trigger Warnings.” Journal of Information Ethics, Volume 24, Number 2, (Fall 2015): page 11.

[iii] Sanford Berman. Journal of Information Ethics, Volume 25, Number 1, (Spring 2016): page 5.

[iv] Samuel Gerald Collins. Library of Walls: The Library of Congress and the Contradictions of Information Society. Duluth, MN: Litwin Book, LLC. 2008. Page18.

[v] Samuel Gerald Collins. Library of Walls: The Library of Congress and the Contradictions of Information Society. Duluth, MN: Litwin Book, LLC. 2008. Page 75.