Article Summary for Lecture #8—Knowlton

In “Three Decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A Study of Changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings” Steven Knowlton examines changes among LC subject headings related to people through the lens of suggestions made by Sanford Berman in 1971. In his book, Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People, Berman argues that much of the terminology employed by the LC in its creation of subject headings is overtly biased, largely inaccurate, and often offensive. Berman cites specific examples of biased terms and, in many cases, proposes corrections.   Using Berman’s assertions as a model, Knowlton examines the current status of the LCSH, identifying revisions made to certain headings and pointing out remaining biases. (124-126)

Knowlton begins with a general discussion of LCSH and the problems associated with its biased terminology. He notes that, in spite of the criticism directed toward the LCSH, it has still managed to achieve widespread acceptance among library professionals. In addition to the scrutiny aimed at the LCSH’s structure and form, says Knowlton, critics beginning in the 1960s began to point to biased language within the subject headings. Subject terms favoring a specific group(s), Knowlton writes, “can make materials hard to find for other users, stigmatize certain groups of people with inaccurate or demeaning labels, and create the impression that certain points of view are normal and others unusual.” With its objectives including the accurate reflection of topical language, elimination of bias, and better guidance of users to material, Berman’s P & A is part of a surge of scholarship successfully advocating revisions of LC subject headings. (124-125)

Knowlton displays a series of tables containing a list of Berman’s proposed changes to the LCSH. The tables are organized in such a way as to distinguish between 1) headings changed in accordance with Berman’s suggestions, 2) headings partially changed (and that might entail new problems), 3) headings not changed and 4) headings from Berman’s DIY category. To do this, Knowlton compares current LC subject headings with the suggestions made by Berman. He supplements these findings with information found in the Cataloging Service Bulletin both to confirm the changes and to identify the dates associated with each. His conclusions are interesting. Between 1971 and 2003, according to Knowlton, the LC has followed through with 145 of 225 revisions proposed by Berman. 88 of these, Knowlton states, reflect exact changes recommended by Berman while 54 others show updates partially adhering to his suggestions. Objectionable headings that have not been revised express some form of “literary merit,” represent a “restructuring” of bias, or deal with differing opinions related to topical cross-referencing. (126-128)

Knowlton does well to highlight the many changes that have taken place within LCSH. Clearly, the efforts of Berman and others played no small role in facilitating these changes.   I find a very useful feature of Knowlton’s article to be the presence of tables that display his findings. Readers can scroll through the terms challenged by Berman, noting the actions taken by the LC concerning each. For example, readers will see that the term “mammies” has been deleted—replaced by “Child care workers, Wet-nurses, Nannies”—and all African American subdivisions of the term removed, and also that, despite objection, the heading “Slavery in the U.S.—Insurrections” remains. Any attempt to interpret changes such as these will involve a level of speculation. Nevertheless, LIS professionals—as well as users—need to be aware of changes to the LCSH and should make an effort to understand both the reasons behind the changes as well as their implications. (Appendix, Tables I, II)


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