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Conscious and Critical: Refining Language in Library Catalogues

by Callum O'Connor on 2023-11-08T14:30:00-07:00 | 0 Comments

Francine May, Associate Dean, Collections and Research | Posted November 8, 2023

When we talk about embracing diversity and inclusion in our educational institutions the first thing that we may think of are topics such as inclusive curricula, employee training, or diversity of students and employees. However, in academic and research libraries discussions extend to areas that might not always be the first that come to mind - how we describe and organise Library resources.

If you have ever struggled over organising your books, articles or even your kitchen spice rack, then you may have experienced some of the challenges that Library cataloguers face every day. These experts methodically categorise materials to make your search easier. Part of that work means applying standardised terms or tags like "Education, Higher", that direct you to university-themed content, even if an author prefers "post-secondary." Libraries do not determine book content, but we do craft strategies to more seamlessly connect readers to the information they seek. The benefits of standardised terminology are undeniable, however it also means that changes to this terminology evolve slowly compared to fast-changing social norms*.

The Challenge of Cataloguing in a Changing World

Beyond slow moving changes to standardised terms, Libraries must also grapple with a catalogue of historical records that may use outdated or even problematic descriptive language - either due to the application of an outdated standardised term or other descriptive text. We recognise that such terminology can inadvertently perpetuate offensive or inaccurate ideas and creates an unwelcoming atmosphere. Reviewing and updating historical records and pushing for changes to standardised terminology is a daunting but important task. Cataloguing language should reflect current social values, aid users in their searches, and avoid perpetuating misconceptions.

A Commitment to Inclusive Cataloguing

This is the situation facing MRU Library and libraries around the world. Solutions are not simple or quick and are about more than just updating descriptive language in our book records or streamlining the search process. We use contemporary terminology and descriptors when updating or creating new records, we follow professional discussions about changes and updates to standardised terms and we are planning for further projects to tackle our historical records. Our efforts in these areas are guided by the following factors:

  • Addressing historical bias: Older records may contain language or perspectives now considered derogatory or discriminatory. Although these materials may still be relevant to our collection we acknowledge that our description of these items may present perspectives that are no longer acceptable.
  • Fostering inclusive learning and research environments: We have the goal of preserving materials that remain relevant and support university programs while also ensuring a respectful, inclusive space. Researchers are encouraged to engage with content, understand its historical context, and form their own opinions.
  • Highlighting educational opportunities: The evolution of social norms and language presents learning opportunities. Shining a light on these issues supports critical engagement with Library materials. We encourage students and researchers to engage deeply with information in its historical context considering how social norms, language and attitudes change and how language shapes perception and perspectives.

As we proceed with this work - a time consuming project where perfection can never be achieved - we have posted an acknowledgement of the harmful language that may exist in our catalogue. We invite feedback and continued dialogue on our cataloguing practices and encourage users to report harmful language in our records for review. Though library cataloguing may appear as a specialised concern, it reflects broader academic discussions about inclusion and representation. By examining and, if necessary, updating the way we classify and describe library resources, we are making a statement about what kind of academic community we want to be — one that is both inclusive and welcoming. These are not just talking points, but principles that guide us in creating educational environments that welcome everyone.

Note: The discussion in this article focuses on updating metadata and descriptions and shouldn’t be conflated with the question of the removal materials from the Library’s collection. Historical materials, even if they contain ideas that may be objectionable or wrong, may remain relevant to the education and or research objectives at MRU. The teaching of critical thinking and evaluation of information is at the heart of a university education. If you have a question about Library materials please see our statement for more information.


*For more on this topic see: Libraries in the U.S. and Canada are changing how they refer to Indigenous Peoples  (J. Bullard. Aug. 4, 2022); The bias hiding in your library (A. Ros, Mar. 20, 2019); and the documentary Change the Subject (2019)

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