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Local Subject Headings

A guide that documents why and how one might add local subject headings to one's catalog, with specific attention to the needs of a consortium.

Recent History

Wherefore Local Subject Headings Now?

There has, historically, been a strong tradition of critiquing Library of Congress Subject Headings as representing, for better or worse, ontologies rooted in past prevailing social modes and mores. The primary mode of seeking changes to subjects which do not necessarily represent current literature usage and social progress has been through official mechanisms within the Library of Congress. The current interest by the library community in whether and how best to support and implement local subject headings alongside Library of Congress and other controlled vocabularies stems from the high-profile case of the term "Illegal Alien,"* the movement to replace this term as pursued through the regular channels, the eventual approval of changes by the Library of Congress, and the intervention by the United States Congress in the implementation of the approved change. In the wake of this the intervention, no change was been made by the LoC, and little visible effort has come from the LoC although, to my knowledge, there has been no reversal of the position by the SACO review committee of their initial decision. In this zone of ambiguity, some CAMMS SAC produced a document suggesting alternative terms that could be adopted outside of the LCSH. These efforts came to prominence again after a grass roots collaboration between Dartmouth students, faculty, and librarians led to Dartmouth applying these suggested terms. These efforts were documented in a filmed documentary, currently now streaming freely.

Notes: This introductory page has a couple links of primary interest or importance that should be prioritized in any reading. Please see further pages for these and additional resources.

* I have elected, as a matter of style and legibility, to place subject headings in quotes in any of my own prose. These quotation marks should not be taken as any reflection on the validity of the term therein.

Change the Subject

The film "Change the Subject," which documents the reasons and story behind the Dartmouth actions, is currently available to stream for free on Dartmouth's Institutional Repository. Available here: Change the Subject


  • Is This Just About "Illegal Aliens"?
    • Not necessarily. The question of "Illegal Aliens" is certainly a prime consideration. But this particular case provides an opportunity to think about a unified policy in the case of other terms, should they arise in the future. And the activity surrounding this one term should not distract from the work being done to create intellectually rich subject vocabularies and ontologies as alternatives to LCSH in areas where terms do not capture the complexities of meaning that described groups perceive.
  • Is this a socio-political issue?
    • Inasmuch as any issue has social and political ramifications, yes. In view of the fact that SCSU has Social Justice as a core value and ECSU as a supporter of DACA students, it is worth taking some moments to think about the ramifications that cleaving to "Illegal Aliens" will have on trust with our primary constituents.
  • Isn't this just a socio-political issue?
    • No. While this and, some might argue, has some connection to discussions in the political realm, in the case of "Illegal Aliens" there is compelling evidence of changes in use patterns in the literary record of these terms that indicate a wider and growing prevalence of other terminology over "Illegal Aliens." As information professionals, whose primary concern is granting the widest possible access to our students, faculty, and the citizens of Connecticut, ensuring that our indexing acknowledges important trends in changing usage on topics that are important to our constituents is an issue of professional importance.
  • Does this mean actively eliding established LCSH headings that we are not happy with?
    • No. Survey data show that libraries across the nation are adopting a variety of solutions that run the gamut. While some have decided to replace an LCSH term, many more have elected to leave LCSH terms in place, whether visible or suppressed, alongside a subject term.
  • Does this mean extra labor and workflow? How much?
    • Yes. But, in our efforts to make information as accessible as possible to our constituencies, it is through such labor that we prove our worth and value. How much will be determined by the approach we take, but a good portion of this work could be done through batch processes executed at reasonable intervals.