Thanks to the joint efforts of a student group and university librarians at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, with a push from the American Library Association (ALA), the Library of Congress (LC) announced on March 22 that it would remove the term “Illegal alien” from the LC Subject Heading (LCSH) system, replacing it with “Noncitizen” and, to describe the act of residing without authorization, “Unauthorized immigration.” Per LC’s executive summary, the proposed change will be posted on a “Tentative List” for comments “not earlier than May, 2016.” Ultimately the heading “Illegal aliens” will become a “former heading” reference, cross-referenced with the new terminology; other headings that include the phrase will also be revised or canceled. This decision currently stands despite recent backlash: members of the U.S. House of Representatives have voted to attach language to a funding bill which would require LC to switch back to the original term, but the bill is not yet law.
The replacement of the subject heading was the culmination of a two-year grassroots process that began when Melissa Padilla, class of 2016, first noticed what she felt were inappropriate search terms while researching a paper on undocumented students at Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library in 2013. While working with research and instruction services librarian Jill Baron, Padilla told LJ, she realized that nearly every article or book she looked at was categorized with the subject heading “Illegal aliens.”
This had particular resonance for Padilla, a Latin American studies and film major who had been undocumented herself until enrolling at Dartmouth. “It was very bizarre to see these incorrect words being used to refer to people in my community,” she told LJ.
According to the Executive Summary of the statement LC would submit as part of its eventual announcement, “Aliens” is one of the oldest of its subject headings, having appeared in the first edition of Subject Headings Used in the Dictionary Catalogues of the Library of Congress, published in sections between 1910 and 1914. In the current LCSH system the term is defined as “persons who are not citizens of the country in which they reside.” The summary also noted that “The heading has been somewhat problematic over time because the word aliens has several dictionary definitions, one of which corresponds to the LCSH scope note and another that means beings from another planet.” To clarify this, the heading “Aliens, illegal” was established in 1980, and revised to “Illegal aliens” in 1993. (The heading “Extraterrestrial beings” was added to LCSH in 2007 to more effectively cover the second definition.)
ALL COFIRED UP
Padilla brought up the issue at a meeting of the Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and DREAMers (CoFIRED), a nonpartisan student organization dedicated to advancing the rights of undocumented students at Dartmouth, which had just been created that month. “I brought it up with my friends, not really as a thing…to pursue but more of a rant,” Padilla said. “But after talking about it with the board members, it quickly became something that we rallied around, and we thought it would be a great project for CoFIRED to take on.”
The group approached several Dartmouth librarians, who agreed to meet with CoFIRED representatives to talk about the issue. Their answer, said Padilla, was daunting: the subject headings were part of the national Library of Congress cataloging system, and could not be changed within the Dartmouth library. Library staff did point out, however, that other LC subject headings had been changed over time—predominantly terms now perceived as racially insensitive, or the change from “Insane” to “Mentally ill”—and they offering to work with the student group to put together a proposal asking LC to change the offensive terms. “In other words,” explained cataloging and metadata services librarian John DeSantis, who was present at the meeting, “go right to the source.”
The librarians’ enthusiasm “initially shocked us,” Padilla recalled. “We were not expecting that alliance at all.” However, the Dartmouth librarians were well-positioned to help; the Baker-Berry Library is a member of LC’s Subject Authority Cooperative Program, which enables member institutions to submit subject heading and classification number proposals. Baron, DeSantis, and research and instruction services librarian Amy Witzel proposed that the students gather documentation to prove that “Illegal aliens” is not a preferred term, and to find evidence that better terms—such as “Undocumented immigrant,” which was their initial suggestion for a replacement—were in common use. At that point news organizations such as the Associated Press, USA Today, ABC, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times had already committed not to use the term “Illegal” to describe an individual.
The students “did a beautiful job of the documentation,” DeSantis told LJ, working throughout the rest of the school year to compile information from media sources, government websites, reference material, online sources, databases, and indexes—“from linguistics to sociology, ethnographic work, personal narratives, books, films, anything we could think of,” said Padilla. In summer 2014, DeSantis submitted a formal request to LC. The proposal pointed out, in part, that “Illegal alien” is a “dehumanizing, inaccurate, offensive, and inflammatory term,” and requested that LC replace “Illegal alien” with “Undocumented immigrant.”
In February 2015, after consulting with staff members including the Law (Cataloging) Section and the Law Library of Congress, LC responded to the proposal in a public memo stating that it would not change the wording because, it explained, the phrase “Undocumented immigrant” is not directly synonymous with “Illegal alien,” and not all undocumented people are or intend to be immigrants. In addition, the memo continued, authoritative sources for legal terminology—including Black’s Law Dictionary, the most widely used law dictionary in the United States—use “Illegal aliens” as their established term.
ALA COUNCIL STEPS IN
“I thought, ‘Oh no—well, that’s the end of it,’ ” said DeSantis. “But it turned out not to be the end of it, because of the initiative of one of my colleagues within ALA who took an interest in this topic and decided to work through the system to bring it back to the attention of the Library of Congress.” DeSantis’s colleague, Tina Gross, associate professor and catalog librarian at St. Cloud State University, MN, galvanized various divisions and affiliates of ALA, including the subject analysis committee, social responsibilities round table, and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking). Together, they formulated a resolution asking LC to reconsider the original request. At the same time, Twitter campaigns were launched using the hashtags #DropTheIWord (by the racial justice initiative Race Forward) and#NoHumanBeingIsIllegal.
In mid-January 2016, at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston, ALA Council passed the resolutioncalling on LC to change the subject heading to “Undocumented Immigrants.” LC still saw the substitution as problematic, but agreed to convene a formal stakeholder meeting to examine the problem.
Representatives from the Law (Cataloging) Section, the Law Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Cooperative and Instructional Programs Division, and the Policy and Standards Division met with Beacher Wiggins, LC’s director for acquisitions and bibliographic access, on February 19. Instead of “Undocumented immigrants,” the participants determined that the “Aliens” heading would be revised to “Noncitizens,” and for “Illegal aliens,” the heading used would be “Unauthorized immigration.”
“This was a huge surprise, and a delightful surprise,” said DeSantis. “The students were thrilled beyond belief that they had actually initiated something and saw it go all the way through to the Federal government.”
ROAD MAP, INTERRUPTED
According to LC director of communications Gayle Osterberg, revising and adjusting subject headings is an ongoing process, and LC catalogers add nearly 5,000 new subject headings to the LC reference base every year. “We’re constantly reviewing subject headings as language changes,” Osterberg explained “to make sure that we’re keeping current with the language that researchers are using.”
The process can take two to six months depending on the number of items that would need to be change, and the old headings are cross-referenced rather than deleted entirely. Therefore, noted Osterberg, “as unlikely as it may seem, someone could still search for ‘electronic calculating machines’ and be directed to the [current] heading ‘Computers.’” She added, “The point of this whole system is to help people find things. So you’re looking for language that is what the average researcher might think to search for, and then if the basic heading is different it would refer them to that. The point is to give them a road map to get to the materials that they need.”
However, not everyone wants that map to reach its destination. In April conservative Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee introduced a provision calling for the term’s reinstatement into thereport accompanying a bill for FY17 funding for legislative branch agencies such as LC.
HR 4926, also known as the Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act, directs the Library of Congress to retain the headings “Aliens” and “Illegal aliens,” as well as related headings. Its sponsor, Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), cited the subject heading revision as “needless policy change” that would ultimately cost taxpayers money in a statement on her website. “By trading common-sense language for sanitized political-speak,” Black wrote, “they are caving to the whims of left-wing special interests and attempting to mask the grave threat that illegal immigration poses to our economy, our national security, and our sovereignty.”
Black added, “Hopefully this bill will give Washington the push needed to stop thinking up the most politically correct ways to describe illegal immigration and start thinking about solutions to address it.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL23), the Ranking Member of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, countered that LC should be able to make taxonomic decisions outside of the political arena. Wasserman Schultz countered with an amendment to the report, requesting that the subject heading changes stand. This was supported by the full Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY17) and other members of the minority, as well as by a joint letter, entered into the record, by the chairs of the Hispanic, Black, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses of Congress. However, the amendment failed narrowly in a 24–25 House panel vote on May 17.
Although the Senate’s version is not expected to include similar language, and it remains unclear whether the appropriations bill will make its way through Congress before it adjourns at year’s end, the provision is still a matter of concern for many stakeholders. “It’s just mind-boggling that they would try to politicize this issue,” DeSantis told LJ. “I can only think that would not have happened if it were not an election year…. [O]f course, it’s not just about this heading.”
In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent a two-page letter on May 16 to acting Librarian of Congress David Mao criticizing LC’s “misguided decision” and urging it to revoke the changes.
GRASSROOTS CIVIC CHANGE
Regardless of the bill’s ultimate fate, the work accomplished by the Dartmouth students sets a powerful precedent for instituting civic change at a grassroots level. “It’s not unusual for people to submit changes to the LCSH,” noted DeSantis. “But usually it’s done at librarians’ initiative, that they’ve discovered that [a term is] problematic in some way for their cataloging process and they need it changed. The fact that this originated with a student group, and that they were able to make this connection with the library, and that we had the connection with the LC, that’s what’s really unusual about the whole thing, the way it originated.”
He added, “What’s really nice is that they were so engaged…. This is something they’re going to remember as they go forward in their lives and when they reflect back on their time here in university, this will be an important memory for them.”
Padilla agreed. “For me, the change had a lot of meaning for my time as a student and what it means for me to be seen as an equal and not be seen as an other, or as less than. I’ve gotten to see how changing the place I work impacts communities [elsewhere]…. A change in the Library of Congress [represents] a change within academia, but also translates into the real world.”
This article has been edited to reflect the fact that REFORMA is an affiliate of ALA, not a division.
About Lisa Peet
Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.