MSU Libraries works to eliminate harmful language across local and national catalogs
EAST LANSING, Mich., Nov. 2023 – The work that MSU Libraries employees are doing to address harmful language within the public catalog and other resource descriptions on campus has been translated to a national level.
The Harmful Language Remediation Working Group (HLRWG) at MSU Libraries formed in fall 2022 with the goal of identifying, assessing and responding to harmful language issues in the MSU Libraries’ descriptive metadata. This metadata comes from national knowledge organization systems and shared description standards including the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system and Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). The LCC and the LCSH were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and remain two of the most widely used library classification systems and subject headings thesauruses, respectively; the Library of Congress reviews proposals for additions and changes to each regularly.
Special Materials Catalog Librarian and HLRWG Chair Nicole Smeltekop explained the necessity of addressing language utilized in these and other industry systems. “Language is constantly evolving, and the usage of certain terms can become outdated over time,” Smeltekop said. “This group was established in response to the request of the broader library community to modernize terminology in order to better align with current language usage. By doing so, we not only ensure that our collections accurately represent our patrons, but also make our resources easily discoverable by individuals using the language currently utilized within our culture.”
The primary role of the HLRWG is to facilitate and track harmful language remediation projects across the MSU Libraries. Work that HLRWG members have accomplished on an internal level includes replacing the problematic LCSH terms beginning with “Indians of . . .” (e.g., “Indians of North America”) with the local subject heading “Indigenous peoples of . . .” (e.g., “Indigenous peoples of North America”) for all physical books starting in April 2022. The HLRWG also receives support in this work from staff in the Cataloging and Metadata Services Unit, who are making concerted efforts to propose updates to these knowledge organization systems.
On the national level, the HLRWG has noted the successful efforts of MSU Libraries Cataloger Michael Erickson in adding a set of classification numbers for asexuality topics to the LCC. While “Asexuality” and “Asexual people” were already subject headings, the addition of specific classification numbers means that materials on asexuality topics can be classed and shelved together rather than within more general sexual behaviors and attitudes classification numbers.
MSU Libraries Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Organizational Development Alexandra Rivera, who serves as an advisor to the Harmful Language Remediation Working Group, said the accomplishment of these initiatives is significant to the group’s overall mission.“The national library metadata and cataloging community is a collaborative one that seeks to improve its practice through engagement with individual libraries,” Rivera said. “This work is important to ensure our users see themselves respectfully represented within our resources and to make them more easily accessible. I am excited for the impact my MSU colleagues are making through their remediation efforts and national engagement. This initiative is directly in alignment with the Libraries’ core values of inclusivity, user engagement, staff empowerment, partnership and expertise.”
Current projects that the working group is facilitating include a pilot using the Homosaurus, an international linked data vocabulary of LGBTQ+ terms, to better understand how to apply more modern alternative vocabularies to older catalog records. The pilot will focus on changing the outdated descriptive terms related to transgender people within the Libraries’ Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections materials. The HLRWG is also working to address the need for subject heading terms related to the Armenian genocide denial in our library catalog. In addition to specific projects, the working group provides training opportunities for MSU Libraries staff on inclusive description. The group is also committed to staying current on trends within the larger library field and considering meaningful ways the MSU Libraries can continue participating in the larger professional conversation.
MSU Libraries Dean Neil Romanosky shared enthusiasm about the HLRWG’s efforts to address harmful language both locally and nationally. “I am very thankful for the important work that this group has already accomplished in addressing problematic language utilized in our national and international standards,” Romanosky said. “I am looking forward to seeing their work continue to effect change both within the MSU Libraries’ catalog and within larger information classification systems.”
The Harmful Language Remediation Working Group has also developed a publicly available form that can be used to report instances of potentially harmful language in the MSU Libraries catalog. This form is available at https://bit.ly/HLRWG.
The MSU Libraries are at the center of academic life at Michigan State University, providing expertise, collections and infrastructure for discovery and creation. The Libraries facilitate connections that support research, teaching and learning in our local and global communities.The Libraries also promote equal access to information and spaces for all and lead meaningful initiatives in accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion.