Monday, 21 May 2012

Un-American activities : or, politics and the Library of Congress

Every now and then, the cultural biases inherent in LCSH (Library of Congress subject headings) pull me up short when trying to assign headings. The radical cataloguer Sanford Berman (yes, a radical cataloguer!) has made this field his own (and has even had some influence in changing some of them). However, there are many infelicities still lurking among the headings waiting to trap the unwary. Cataloguers are supposed to catalogue, not to pass judgment, but sometimes it is difficult to use the terms supplied without being judgmental.

The term which gave me pause for thought recently was "left-wing extremists". Unless I have missed something (which is quite possible, as I stumble my way through the dual barriers of American English and lack of natural language) this is the only generic term for people of left-wing political beliefs. You can have socialists and communists, and you can have "Right and left (Political science)", but none of these seemed quite right for a book about the left in Welsh politics - specifically, how the Labour Party copes with or reacts to or is affected by the left-wing element in Plaid Cymru. These are mainstream political parties, most of whose members would not describe themselves as extremists.

I muddled through without using the heading, pausing only to wonder whether in the eyes of Congress and its Library any person of left-leaning tendencies is automatically an "extremist".


  1. Great post! I blog about subject headings, too, at knew that there were other catalogers out there blog about them as well! We really need a subject heading wiki instead of an authority file some people like us can better serve our users quickly. Maybe someday!

  2. Any system of categories is going to reflect the ways of thinking of the people who created it. It would be difficult to create something objective without it becoming chaotic. It would be good though to have a moderated system of categorisation, perhaps something like the development of international standards via ISO, or scientific conventions like the taxonomy of plants and animals.

    If there is a solution it would cause a huge amount of work and upheaval as libraries re-categorise their books to the new system

    1. Happily terms which are out of favour can be changed without too much distress (it means a lot of editing of the headings, but it does happen). There were some headings which you simply couldn't use these days (I believe "the Jewish question" was once an LC heading), and the most glaring examples have gone.
      I found something which goes rather the other way politically today - for "community charge" see "poll tax". A forgotten shibboleth of Mrs. Thatcher's days!