Systems of Organization

During the Fall 2020 Semester, I rarely visited the Gorgas Library on campus due to COVID-19. Whenever I did make the trip I made sure to do my research ahead of time. One such trip was to collect books for a research paper in my Latin American History class. The assignment was to find a few books about a related subject and to review them collectively. Using the library website, I found the books I wanted to use. When I arrived at the library, call numbers in hand, I was surprised to discover that these books were spread out across the library. Despite the fact that the books were all studies of the Colonial Andes using Angel Rama’s “lettered city” as a framework, the books were sorted under different Library of Congress classes. For example, one book was under Class F, which is for “Local History of the United States and British, Dutch, French, and Latin America” while another was under Class P, which is for “Language and Literature.” In other words, I had stumbled into an interdisciplinary writing project.

Had I not researched the books ahead of time, I would never have found both of those books through browsing—which I have often relied upon in the past. My anecdotal experience reinforces the claim made by librarians Sara Howard and Steven Knowlton that while browsing is a “valuable technique for finding materials one might have passed over in a catalogue search [it] is a less robust option for those conducting research in interdisciplinary fields.”1

Howard and Knowlton also add that if browsing for interdisciplinary fields is made too difficult, researchers may give up on using the library at all.2 Especially impacted are students, who may deal with “information anxiety” or “stress induced by students’ fears about accessing information.”3 Any research can cause this stress, but it disproportionately impacts students working in fields that are inherently interdisciplinary like African American studies, LGBTQIA studies, Latin American studies, and women’s studies.

Our readings this week addressed two main questions related to this issue: What is the source of these disparities in browse-ability? And what could be done to counter them? Firstly, both articles attribute the disparity in browse-ability to the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) and Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).

LCC and LCSH were created at the end of the nineteenth century. As librarian Crystal Vaughn states, “when classifications are created, they inherently reflect the predominant biases of society.”4 Thus, LCC and LCSH reflect the biases of the nineteenth century white men who created them and marginalizes the people they marginalized. In addition to these biases, LCC was organized around existing university departments, which further replicated the marginalization of certain people and fields.5 It does not help matters that LCC was developed primarily with librarians in mind rather than everyday users, because this makes it harder for modern scholars to work with (and around) the antiquated classifications.6

LCSH, on the other hand, do not directly impact how physical books are organized. They do, however, have a significant impact on which sources researchers will find. Subject headings are a controlled vocabulary used to describe sources in more detail.7 They are part of keyword search in collections, and increase discoverability. Thus, while biases and outdated language in LCSH do not impact browsing the physical shelves, they do impact keyword searches and general discoverability. Thus, LCC and LCSH cause many of the same problems.

Despite their issues, LCC and LCSH are used around the world and standardization does offer benefits.8 If LCC and LCSH are unlikely to be replaced in the near future, then how can libraries counter their marginalizing and research-stunting effects? Howard and Knowlton focus on workarounds, while Vaughan argues for outright name changes.

Howard and Knowlton suggest creating LCC tables and indexes to help researchers in interdisciplinary fields. For example, in the field of African American studies, scholarship has been catalogued under various LCC numbers (LCCN) over the years, making it difficult for researchers to locate related works. To help with this problem Howard and Knowlton used keyword searches to compile a list of all LCCN related to African American studies.9 While lists such as these are not a perfect solution to the issues caused by LCC in interdisciplinary research, it still increases the accessibility of collections—a significant step in the right direction.

In contrast to Howard and Knowlton, Vaughan argues for changing LCC and LCSH that are “politically charged or controversial.”10 According to Vaughan, to decolonize cataloguing and subject headings, they must be updated to reflect modern language. While Vaughn acknowledges that terminology that “is socially acceptable now may not be in the future,” she insists that by “reflect[ing] the current vernacular,” LCC and LCSH will not only be part of the ongoing, ever-changing work of decolonization, but will also be more user-friendly.11 She also argues that, “[i]n order to decolonize marginalized peoples and cultures, these cultures must be invited to participate in naming themselves.”12

While updating LCSH is a reasonably manageable project, updating LCC is a much more significant task. It would require moving large quantities of books across libraries, updating catalogues, and creation of new labels. While LCC is most likely due for such an undertaking, it will require significant support and funding—both of which have been in short supply for the GLAM fields for decades. It is possible that tables and indexes like those created by Howard and Knowlton, may have to sustain us through this phase of advocacy and lobbying.


  1. Sara A. Howard and Steven A. Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias: The Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings for African American Studies and LGBTQIA Studies,” Library Trends 67, no. 1 (2018): 76. ↩︎
  2. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 76. ↩︎
  3. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 78. ↩︎
  4. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 74; Crystal Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing: Deconstructing and Decolonizing Systems of Organization in Libraries,” Dalhousie Journal of Interdisciplinary Management 14 (Spring 2018): 3. ↩︎
  5. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 74. ↩︎
  6. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 76. ↩︎
  7. Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing,” 2. ↩︎
  8. Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing,” 2. ↩︎
  9. Howard and Knowlton, “Browsing through Bias,” 79-81. ↩︎
  10. Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing,” 2. ↩︎
  11. Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing,” 7, 5. ↩︎
  12. Vaughan, “The Language of Cataloguing,” 8. ↩︎

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