On Critical Cataloging: Q&A with Treshani Perera | Equity

Treshani Perera, Music and Fine Arts Cataloging Librarian at the University of Kentucky, has written and spoken on critical cataloging—looking at knowledge organization though an equity lens, examining not only at how content is described, but why those systems exist and how they can be changed.

Working toward more equitable knowledge organization

Treshani Perera, Music and Fine Arts Cataloging Librarian at the University of Kentucky, has a background in arts-specific cataloging, including work with sound archives and technical services. She has written and spoken on critical cataloging—looking at knowledge organization though an equity lens, examining not only at how content is described, but why those systems exist and how they can be changed.

LJ: Can you explain some of what critical cataloging is about, and what your work has involved?

Treshani Perera: I think of critical cataloging as a practical application of critical librarianship. A lot of cataloging training, and the work itself, revolves around following rules and standards and established practices. Being able to ask questions around why we’re doing what we do—whether it’s standards, using controlled vocabularies like Library of Congress [LC] subject headings [LCSH] and classification like LC or Dewey Decimal—is what has shaped my work in critical cataloging.

I’ve always taken an interest in cataloging outside of controlled vocabularies, your standards- and rules-based systems, because my own cataloging and metadata background has existed outside of those controlled vocabulary spaces. Critical cataloging is something that I learned as I was doing the practice.

What kinds of barriers exist to changing cataloging practices?

By virtue of knowing how to use LCSH, there is an expectation that you also know how to work with that system, propose changes, and add new terms, which is not really part of cataloger training. But once you start getting into language issues in subject headings, you quickly realize that there is a whole other system around how to make changes to these subject terms.

All LCSH changes have to go through LC. You can work with specific subject funnels [loc.gov/aba/pcc/saco/funnels], but ultimately all changes must be submitted to LC. There’s very much a hierarchical process. That could be a barrier for people who don’t have access to those resources. I work in a large academic library, where I can make the case that my involvement with changes to cataloging practices supports the library’s mission. That privilege might not be available to somebody who’s working in a smaller library setting, a museum, or archive.

Ultimately, there are a lot of labor issues around these things. There’s a lot of free labor happening with any kind of changes. I don’t have a good solution as to decentralizing the process—standardization is part of the work we do in terms of providing access to materials.

We’ve heard about work being done around replacing the LCSH “illegal alien” with “noncitizen” or “illegal immigration.” What are some other problematic terms that people might not be aware of?

I recommend the Problem LCSH list at The Cataloging Lab, a platform created by Violet Fox. It’s a crowdsourced list of problematic terms that have been identified by those working with LCSH.

One specific term I’ve talked about is the LCSH “Oriental literature,” which is used for Asian literature. Oriental is a colonial term. It comes from this tradition of exoticism of people from non-Western cultures. In a colonial setting, it was used to describe Asian and Middle Eastern people and their cultures. We use the subject heading “Oriental Literature” for literature from the Asian continent, the Middle East, Turkey, and everything in between. I’ve been hearing a lot about decolonizing the catalog. You can’t really decolonize if you’re continuing to use colonial language in our standards and systems.

Heteronormative language is all over catalogs. Emily Drabinski has written a lot about language issues of classification and subject headings for LGBTQIA+ people.

I think it’s important to point out that problematic aspects for one group are different from problematic aspects for a different group.

How are critical cataloging issues and remediation practices changing?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by LC being motivated to make subject heading changes and getting community feedback. I’ve been involved with a couple of heading changes more recently. There is good reception from LC to do that work in partnership with the professional community, which is encouraging. A collaborative model for making changes is ideal, and a lot of positive changes are happening.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there have been others before our time who have been pushing for these changes—people like Frances Lydia Yocom, Dorothy B. Porter, Doris Hargrett Clack, Dorothy Ann Washington, and Sanford Berman. They have been pushing for subject heading and classification changes for years, and I think it has led to an innate interest in others to continue to push for change, to say that language issues need to be corrected, that we need to keep up with changes to language in the controlled vocabulary systems we use. There has been a lot more collective effort to move the needle.

How can people whose jobs involve cataloging at a local level effect change?

If you’re at a small public library or historical society, and you’re just one person doing everything, that question comes up—how can I [do this work] with the resources I have? I think there are always opportunities to think on a smaller scale—it often makes change imaginable, because then you can focus on what you can control in that environment.

The hashtag #critcat on Twitter is used by those interested in critical cataloging, so anybody who’s interested can find a like-minded community by using the hashtag. That would be a good place to start if you’re thinking, “What can I do? Where can I start?” The Cataloging Lab has brought a lot of critical catalogers and like-minded folks together. One of the positive changes that have come out of this virtual world of networking and conferencing is that we’re able to learn about who else is doing this work.

We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Somebody has already done the work that somebody else can run with, and there is an openness in the professional community to share the work. Chances are if you’ve thought about an issue, and if it’s already on somebody else’s radar, there’s probably a blog post on it, probably someone’s given a presentation on it. Yes, it does require you to have access to that information, but a lot of these issues are being discussed in similar spaces. In the past, LCSH were very much a focus among library catalogers, but more and more you hear archivists talking about problematic subject headings, you hear museum folks talking about language terms. It’s a good time to be involved with changes to cataloging practices and language in cataloging standards.

What might be some good changes to enact in cataloging instruction?

You can start at an institutional level, trying to bring more students into library and archive spaces, and getting them excited about dispelling the myths and the mystery behind description and cataloging. Thinking about my own experience getting into the profession, I think there’s still a lot of focus on how to do MARC—you need to know this, that, and the other standard. There may be less focus on description. I think a lot more people would get excited about coming into cataloging and metadata work when you frame it from that lens instead of the rules and the standards.

Educating and cultivating this next generation of catalogers can happen outside of library schools, too. We have to acknowledge that our profession needs to reflect greater society. If we’re talking about marginalized issues, how are our staffs, our boards, our volunteer bases, reflective of the greater society? Do people feel welcome to come into libraries, archives, museum spaces? All of this impacts cataloging, because it’s about the knowledge that we create. Broadly speaking, the more diverse the profession is, the better we’re able to change how we do reference, collections, and cataloging.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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