Knowledge Isn’t Neutral: On Radical Librarianship

by Jehan Roberson

That titular truism is one that led many of us to teach, to write, and to examine critically the power held by stewards of “things worth knowing.” At every turn we must question not only the why’s, but the how’s and the who’s. How was this information acquired, and by whom? How did you come to access it? Who gets to decide what you access, what you see and what you don’t? Whose work, whose body is on the line?

These and other questions led me to the source from which so much information flows—the library. I met with cataloguer Michelle Chan and metadata librarian Alexandra Provo, colleagues of mine at New York University, where I manage the Hemispheric Digital Video Library (HIDVL). Our discussion attempted to address the above questions and more, and how they inform the obsessively granular and massively important task of cataloguing and organizing library materials. An edited version of that conversation is below.

Jehan Roberson: Before I ask my first question, I want us to think about our audience. This is mostly an audience of educators—classroom teachers and teaching artists. People’s engagement with libraries and with metadata differs quite a bit. But I think it’s important to get people thinking about the source of things, and getting into those epistemological questions of how knowledge is even generated. To that end, what would you say are more conventional practices for cataloguing and how does radical cataloguing enter?

Michelle Chan: The work of cataloguing is very structured. It is about trying to create an order for this vast world of knowledge and, ultimately, to create access for people to information. When you have a structure to organize that information that is evolved and grown from many, many years, the challenge is keeping up with where culture changes and where certain things that have been thought of as the norm actually have an inherent bias. A lot of the critique of the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress [LOC] subject headings is that many of those biases are inherent to the way certain terms are phrased. For example, the discourse on transgender people—some of the terminology there is quite outdated and people are pushing to change that. So in terms of the challenges of cataloguing, as a person who is aware of inclusion and social justice, those are some obvious blind spots.

I looked and found there is no authorized heading for transgender women. The LOC says to use “male to female transsexuals” which we know is quite problematic. However, there is an LOC heading for transgender men. So there are some lags in where exactly terms are catching up. That’s a perpetual struggle, I think.

Alexandra Provo: These systems have evolved from the card catalog. So a lot of our conventions originally came from space saving. That’s something that isn’t always obvious to people, that a lot of the rules come from this analog era and then it’s a give and take to adapt. Along those lines, something I think about with the Library of Congress is that we use it for this really general purpose and apply it to all sorts of things. Yet, the origin of that vocabulary is very specific. It’s the Library of Congress. So sometimes Congress pushes back on certain terminology.

MC: For example, “illegal aliens” is one of those pushbacks.

AP: Exactly. Because this is the library that serves Congress. But we use it in all these other contexts which, I think, can create some sticky situations.

JR: Is there a distinction for either of you between radical cataloguing, as in the act of cataloguing and creating or shifting the guidelines, versus the act of cataloguing radical work?

MC: There’s a spectrum of approaching cataloguing from a more inclusive perspective, which is definitely part of this work. I think there’s also a more radical side that wants to use those rules to really subvert and change things.

AP: Definitely. I think more broadly in librarianship there is a subset very interested in being more critical. There’s a great Twitter chat called Crit Lib and they hold conferences and are very awesome people who are very engaged with issues of inclusion and representation.

Also, in library school we read this book, Questioning Library Neutrality, and that’s a big issue. A lot of our systems are set up in our tradition, which is to disappear. Cataloguers don’t sign their records, for example. A record is presented as a neutral thing that came from the ether. But actually, people made it. And people made the rules. It’s a series of choices.

But, your question about radical materials versus a radical approach is an interesting one I hadn’t really thought about. I will say there is a great article by Emily Drabinski called “Queering the Catalog.” Her take is very interesting because she comes from reference and instruction. So there are those who are engaged in changing the actual headings, but I think Drabinski’s argument is more for transparency and maybe even for leaving some of that outdated language in, but using the reference encounter as a moment to explore the biases and nature of description and knowledge creation.

JR: That makes sense, so as not to erase the history of the problematic racist, gendered, initial iteration of a term, but as a way to mark the changes over time.

To your point, Michelle, about materials shifting, “queer” used to be pejorative and has since been reclaimed in LGBTQ circles. So, how to mark that? From an outside perspective, part of what the cataloguing process seems to be is creating a body of metadata that is relatively fixed, without frequently revisiting individual records.

AP: Part of the challenge is resources for updating, just on a practical level. And yet, at the same time, we do overlay our records with new [or data that provides information about other data] from WorldCat. So it is fixed, but there are these mechanisms for updating which can be good.

JR: Michelle, you said there are multiple moments of radicality that show up along the spectrum of librarianship. What are some examples?

MC: For example, there is a really great collection of Riot Grrrl zines at Fales. The collection is really interesting and it provides some permanency for those very ephemeral types of materials. And then there are the day-to-day choices of what sort of naming authorities to use. Within the functioning of a library, there are so many layers to navigate through, so you have to pick your battles.

JR: It’s interesting what you say about the number of decisions to be made. I’m thinking of a conversation I had about the intellectual descriptions HIDVL [Hemisphere Institute Digital Video Library] generates, which primarily come from me. Someone was asking who writes the descriptions, and I said “I do.” And they asked, “That’s it?” And the answer is yes. I write the descriptions of the performance, choose LOC subject headings…

AP: That’s cataloguing! To me, HIDVL is in itself is a little bit radical. In terms of our process, more and more we are getting the expert- or author-generated metadata, and then having a professional cataloguer like Michelle do her work. This idea of involving the creator is something that’s very cool about this project.

JR: But it’s much more labor-intensive, right? I think for practical reasons, such as resources, there wasn’t as much consultation with artists in the past, whereas now I’m able to talk with people about what I’ve written and get their input. It’s great, but definitely takes more time and can be challenging.

AP: This is coming up in another project about Indigenous films from the National Museum of the American Indian. That’s a collection where we’re wanting to be very mindful of the descriptions we’re making and to make sure the people who made the films or who are in them have the opportunity to represent themselves. It’s a cool project with a platform specifically for Indigenous materials called Mukurtu. It’s a platform for digital photos, videos, and files and has pretty granular access controls so different communities can say, “This material can only be viewed with women, or men, or members of our tribe… .” It gives people access to materials in a culturally sensitive way. The idea that people can curate their own metadata and even control who gets access to what could be very sacred information is really promising.

JR: That speaks to a point about access and whether access is always the best or only goal. In the article you sent about cataloguing zines, certain authors mentioned they intentionally choose to be anonymous, only to  have their full names published, when they aren’t yet open about their sexuality with their families or jobs, for example. There’s a level of concern for safety.

MC: That’s a real concern about outing people through name authorities. Traditionally, the goal has been to provide all of the various names that a person has gone by. And then recently, with RDA [Resource Description and Access], they’ve been trying to create more biographical information including gender, or things that might not be as straightforward as people assume.

AP: That’s an issue in the Wiki community as well. You’re right. Access isn’t always good. And that’s a topic in the library community, where some people’s default is, “Open access!” And yes, for the most part, we do want to open things up and give people access to knowledge. There’s a great article by Mukurtu developer Kim Christen, where she says it’s about open access as a paradigm coming from the early days of the Internet. There’s a quote that gets tossed around a lot: “Information wants to be free.” But, not always.

JR: So much of this work seems to be so privileged within or affiliated with educational or library institutions. Outside of those circles, is this a conversation?

AP: It is a situation where most people are not trained, and then you have to go through these channels. One corrective example is  the Cataloguing Lab. It’s a way for other people to start proposals for new headings or changes. Then they work together, and someone who has the ability to suggest changes does so on behalf of the group. The person who leads this is a moderator of Crit Lib.

MC: I think Drabinski mentioned some possible ways to reform. She suggested local classifications, things like tagging, where anyone can get involved in coming up with more inclusive terms and making that a more common practice. Another thing would be to improve technology so we can use free tag searches [where “tags” or “categories” are unattached to a specific record] as opposed to relying on very controlled vocabulary.

AP: That’s a thing. Right now, when we’re controlling the names, we want them to be spelled exactly the same and to look the same everywhere so all of the related resources are findable. But we’re moving into a linked data world where, instead of a string or a bunch of letters, you use a web address called a URI [Uniform Resource Identifier]. And then, Michelle alluded to this, you have your URI, and you can attach a bunch of alternate names to it so that any version of the name you search, you should get all of the other versions because they’re linked to this unique identifier. But it doesn’t solve this problem of outing someone’s identity. That could be harmful. Or we use an outdated racist term. Do we want to show people that? It’s fuzzy where concepts begin and end, and it’s going to create some new problems.

JR: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague about subject headings, and whether or not to use Black or African American. I used Black and he used African American, which wasn’t bad, but it is complicated. From an in-group perspective, that’s a difficult conversation because people have lots of feelings and different investments in those terms. I didn’t know how to answer. I know how I identify—as a Black woman—but I can’t tell you what someone else might say.

AP: The same terminology came up with a previous project. We took back-of-book indexes and extracted all the terms, and made a big database. And I had to question what I merge and what I separate. Do I merge Black and African American? They’re talked about so differently and these terms mean different things in the different books I worked on.

MC: I think there will always be a tension between wanting to state things in a very easily classifiable way and the fact that humans are very complicated. Things change. It’ll be a perpetual process.

AP: I’m going to mention my favorite blog post ever called “Against Cleaning,” written by some digital humanists. They talk about this very issue of merging or choosing when to represent a concept and how you lose a bunch of nuance when you do that. It’s a really tense issue. They cite non-scalability theory and the idea that, as you cluster things together and create groups, you’re scaling up, but you’re losing the context and losing nuance. So that is a trade-off and there are things that cannot or should not be scaled. Yet the work of cataloguing is to scale to a collection level, where you can create meaningful groupings of items.

JR: Who do you find, outside of librarians, is engaging with metadata?

AP: Wikidata is a structured database that’s a sister project to Wikipedia. Every Wikipedia article has an item in Wikidata, but it’s also its own thing that anyone can add to. Wikidata is metadata about things and concepts. So that’s metadata, but it’s open to the entire world and there are lots of people who aren’t librarians who are involved. But that’s very specific; the wiki world is a very niche community. There’s cool stuff there, including some interesting alternatives to our usual ways of working. And we can reference those entities instead of, or in addition to, authority files.

JR: This is a larger thought about inclusion in the field. I’m wondering who the cataloguers are, exactly. Is it like many fields, where the majority are cis, white, straight, males?

AP: Librarianship is very female. I don’t have a hard statistic to give you, but there are men in leadership positions and then the bulk of who works in libraries are women. A lot of white women.

JR: I’m asking because I’m thinking about subject expertise and cataloguing something like a book. Do you have to read the entire book?

MC: I will look through it to make sure the subject analysis is correct. A lot of the information comes from the title page. I do find that I like to dive in and really analyze something if I feel it needs that additional step. Sometimes it just comes with one subject heading that doesn’t seem to capture the essence of it. But again, that takes extra work.

To your previous question, I’ve noticed there is more of a radical presence in the archives side of things as opposed to cataloguing. I guess people who are interested are more at the reference desk and in the archive.

AP: There’s a really awesome zine that’s about radical empathy in archives. That was really cool. There’s a lot of good thinking coming out of archives. Which kind of makes sense because archives are very contextual.

MC: And it’s about finding the more marginalized communities that haven’t really been a part of the institutions traditionally. I think there’s interest in getting oral histories and things like that.

AP: To answer your earlier question about who’s doing this kind of work, there is a group in New York called Radical Reference. It’s a bit dormant right now, but the group reinvigorated right after Trump’s election. It was founded in New York during the Bush era, when you didn’t have cell phones that were computers. So they would go to protests and have resources. They’d get on their phones and call the person who was at the library to do reference. It’s just another example of people who are in the profession who are doing that kind of activist work.

MC: Before I was a cataloguer, I volunteered with the New York Public Library Correctional Services program, which was a really interesting, hands-on way to see the social justice side of things.  I went to help set up a youth library on Rikers Island [New York City’s main jail complex]. Very interesting work and very needed.

JR: I’m reminded now that my organization has donated books to Rikers and most of our books get turned down.

MC: Yes, you’re essentially at the mercy of whoever is out there. And those rules change all the time.

AP: There’s a group called Books Through Bars NYC and they do similar work. They have a list of books they need or titles people have requested.

JR: What is the most radical instance of cataloguing you’ve encountered so far? Or, what is the most radical act you’ve undertaken in cataloguing or working in metadata?

MC: I’d definitely say the most concentrated has been the HIDVL project. As an artist, I understand that most artists have a relationship with rules where they want to break them or don’t want to conform to them, which naturally presents some challenges for cataloguing. But I understand that impulse and am also very interested in considering those things.

AP: I don’t catalog now and when I did catalog, I catalogued photos of Renaissance art. I might look up some examples from my last project, but there were quite a lot of interesting subjects or topics.

I do have one more thought that might be relevant to your audience. In the Drabinksi article, there’s an interesting thought about the role of the mediator, a reference person or educator exposing the bias or issues with description. So I’m curious about what this audience might do with this information, and how they might approach this work.

JR: Well, a recent experience I can cite is a resource guide I worked on for Teachers & Writers Magazine, where I initially built on a template started by someone else. The focus was supposed to be on Black literature. I was talking with the managing editor who said, unfortunately, this is the sort of thing teachers might only pull out in February. My thought was, how do we undo that? So we sought out categories and tags that went beyond Black History Month and identified the actual themes of the works.

AP: This reminds me of the art and feminism initiative. It’s a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. It’s a really great initiative aimed at Wikipedia articles, but also now Wikidata. It’s about getting more women and women-identified artists represented in Wikipedia, specifically artists. But there’s the issue of the categories on Wikipedia such as “American Writers” and “American Women Writers.” And maybe this person doesn’t want to be in that second category, they might just want to be in the “American Writers” category. So you make visible but then you also box somebody in, or you put them in a group where maybe they don’t have much to do with the person next to them. So some of the issues are visibility and search access.

MC: I’ve seen that in cataloguing, too. For example, I think someone with good intentions will tag certain authors as “Mexican-American author” when it should be what the book is about. But instead, they’ll try to describe who wrote the book. In terms of the rules, that doesn’t belong there, but then, do we want to provide that information? How can we include that in the catalog if we do? It’s another point that hasn’t really been resolved.

JR: This brings up a good point though. Because a person’s subjecthood is pretty central to the works we bring in, for example, so it feels relevant to include that.

MC: Well, people in HIDVL get to self-identify. But for a lot of the items we’re getting, we don’t know where they came from and who’s assigning those terms.

JR: So does nuance and the sort of contextualization you’re talking about feel in conflict with subject headings?

MC: I think naturally there will be a tension. But I think it’s about taking the time, if you can, to reach out to the person and/or to do some research. Sometimes you can make a decision you feel comfortable with, and sometimes the work just defies that.

AP: Michelle—I think you alluded to this before—hopefully we can design systems that are more sensitive to local contexts. Where maybe we can use a label that’s appropriate in the context of that cataloguer and that institution and try to meet somewhere in the middle so we can customize a little more. But technically we haven’t really been able to do that. It’s that non-scalability balance we’re trying to strike.

Additional Resources:

Radical Cataloguing: From Words to Action

Ethical Questions in Name Authority Control

Radical Cataloguing: Using Alternative Subject Headings Locally to Promote Inclusiveness and Diversity

About the Participants:

Michelle F. Chan is a cataloger at New York University and holds a master of library and information studies from The University of British Columbia. Her interest in radical cataloging is informed by her past volunteer work with underserved and underrepresented communities through such organizations as The New York Public Library Correctional Services Program, Democracy Now!, The Triangle Program in Toronto, and Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Currently, Michelle is enthused to be cataloging for the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, which provides digital access to performance art videos, interviews, and more from throughout the Americas.

Alexandra Provo is Metadata Librarian at NYU’s Division of Libraries and an MA candidate in NYU’s Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement program. She was the 2015–2016 Kress Fellow in Art Librarianship at Yale University and has been project manager for two linked open data projects: Drawings of the Florentine Painters and the Linked Jazz Project. She has an MSLIS from Pratt Institute and a BA in art history from Wesleyan University.

Jehan Roberson is a writer, educator, and artist using text as the basis for her interdisciplinary art practice. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, her work explores text as a site of liberation, place making, and historical intervention for Black peoples in the Americas. Her work has been published in ApogeeMadameNoireVICEPublic Booksemisférica, and Kalyani Magazine, among others. She is on the editorial board of Teachers & Writers Magazine and is a member of the editorial collective for Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, where she is 2019-2020 co-editor of Ampersand.



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