Lessening the use of outdated subject headings in the library catalogue

For this month’s GLAM Blog Club theme of “Lessen”, I thought I’d write about a small project I started recently. The aim of the project is to remove outdated subject headings from the catalogue. Our collection has a focus on material which deals with hearing loss and vision impairment; it also includes resources relating to other disabilities and disability studies in general. Some of the items date back to the early 20th century, and the language they use to describe people with disabilities is certainly not acceptable today. Unfortunately some of the subject headings that have been assigned to these works reflect that outdated, and often offensive, language. Inspired by other projects that replaced or updated problematic subject headings relating to transgender people and citizenship status, I decided to do the same for the disability-related headings which were applied to items in our collection.

I’m lucky that I work with a relatively small collection, and that my library is not part of a consortium or cooperative cataloguing program. Our catalogue is shared with a university library which my institution has an affiliation with, but I’m able to do all the catalogue record maintenance for my library’s collection. I also had the support of management and my colleagues (who are academics in the fields of hearing and vision loss). The project also aligned with two of my organisation’s values — respect and empowerment. It was about respecting the people that we serve by using appropriate language, and empowering staff to make changes.

There wasn’t anything too sophisticated about the method that I used to identify the catalogue records which contained the problematic headings — I simply searched the “Subjects” field in our library management system for terms e.g. handicapped, retarded. This gave me about 400 records which needed to be updated. From there, it was a matter of finding the current heading in the Library of Congress Subject Headings list that I would replace the outdated one with. For most terms this was a straightforward process e.g. “Visually handicapped” was replaced with “People with visual disabilities”, however others were less so. For example, books about people who have an intellectual disability use the problematic heading “Mentally handicapped”; this maps to the current heading “People with mental disabilities”. I thought that there was potential for this term being confused for people with a mental illness, so I decided to use a local heading of “People with intellectual disabilities” instead.

This wasn’t a large project that involved thousands of records, but I’d like to think that’s it’s small step in creating a library collection that is more inclusive. We can’t go back and lessen the use of outdated or offensive language in the works themselves, but by not replicating it in our catalogue records we can lessen the harm or damage that it causes.