Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Libraries and (Post)Modernity: A Review of Radical Cataloging

Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front,[1] (henceforth RC) edited by K.R. Roberto, a librarian at the University of Denver, is a collection of essays about the power of catalogs and classification, and how information professionals can use these tools to their advantage.  First I provide background on radical cataloging via the work of Sanford Berman, Head Cataloger of the Hennepin County (MN) Library system from 1973 to 1999.  Second, I discuss commonalities found throughout this edited volume, concentrating on catalogers’ attempts to make Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) more user-friendly and representative of reality.  Third, I evaluate how radical the agenda of this volume is, concluding that many of the policies and schemas proposed by RC authors, where applicable, are, in fact, incrementalist in nature.  Fourth, I summarize and recommend successful strategies one can use to catalog.  I conclude by offering resources to those readers interested in becoming radical catalogers.  The book itself is divided into three parts, the first of which loosely concerns Berman’s fight against LCSHs.  Many of the more radical chapters in RC, especially in the second section, lack solutions all together, seeking to illuminate and educate readers with regards to theoretical problems in cataloging, perhaps leading to resolutions at a later date.[2]  The third part deals with tools and policies the authors of RC use to catalog, analogous to the fourth section of this paper. 

The Roots of Radicalism: Sanford Berman
The radical cataloging project originates with the pioneering work of Sanford Berman.  In 1968, he took a job at the University of Zambia Library in Lusaka.  There he learned that “kafir,” a racial slur directed at black South Africans, was being used as a LCSH.[3]  Berman argued that LCSHs had a conservative bias towards the status quo; subject headings reflected societal power relations at the time.[4]  He sought to change and influence Library of Congress (LC) cataloging by creating additional subject headings for use by Hennepin County and urged the LC to add new headings, often imported from Hennepin’s catalog, making the LC catalog more user-friendly and diverse.  He recruited like-minded librarians to lobby the LC as well, known as “Sandynistas.”[5] Thanks to his work, the content of the LCSH “Electric lamps, incandescent” moved to the more intuitive “Light bulbs” (Berman 9).[6] 
The far majority of his work dealt with issues of social justice and inclusion.  What was once the LCSH for “God” became the disambiguated “God (Christianity),” a change implying that the Christian conception of God was only one point of view rather than the sum total of LC holdings.  He successfully petitioned the LC to add subject headings for topics like “Plutocracy” and “Culture Wars,” among others, but was unsuccessful in others, such as “Native American Holocaust.”  When his attempt to get the LC to add a subject heading for “National Health Insurance” failed, he lobbied late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) to pressure the LC.  “National Health Insurance” was added to the subject headings (Berman 8). 
In acting as a thorn in the side of the LC, Berman influenced a younger generation of catalogers and librarians, many of whom are represented in RC.  By focusing on headings written in plain English and standing with interests often lacking power or representation, he has made it easier for patrons to find materials in catalogs and given voice to those without it. 

Radical Cataloging: Taking on the LC
Like many left-wing movements, the essays in RC are a group of divergent interests united under an umbrella of radicalism.  Roberto purposefully chooses to leave “radical cataloging” undefined, noting that the term originated in a listserv discussion that became political (Roberto 1), but Jennifer Young argues that “Radical cataloging is the notion that catalogers are users too” (Young 84).  Roberto’s goal is for this book to become a resource for catalogers and advocates (Roberto 3), one that is for the most part achieved thanks to the diversity of subjects throughout the text. 
Chapters focus on a variety of topics, from cataloging outsider art (Benedetti); to fanzines, also known as zines (Freedman); to organizing popular music by genre (Summers); to automating OCLC’s Connexxion client to perform low-level intellectual tasks (Preston).  Much of the collection expands on Berman’s critique of LCSHs, often by specialists concerned with LCSHs in their areas of expertise.  tatiana de la tierra (the lowercase name is her choosing) bemoans the lack of a subject heading for lesbian Latinas (de la tierra 100), while Tracey Nectoux’s chapter attacks the LCSHs for its use of “cult” because of the negative connotations surrounding that word (Nectoux 107).  Brian Hasenstab’s annotated bibliography of radical cataloging is a good place to start for readers interested in the history of activism and cataloging.  Although unconcerned with identity politics, Christopher Walker’s article criticizes LCSHs for inconsistencies with regards to species, hyphenation, and plurality (Walker 131-132).[7] 
Ultimately, however, the far majority of these authors recognize the usefulness of LCSHs.  They merely want to improve them and make them more inclusive, or, as Hasenstab notes, “helpful, equal access to all types of information for all patrons” is not radical (Hasenstab 76).  Walker in particular concedes this point, writing, “LCSH is more baby than bath water” (Walker 137).  Yet this begs the question, what is radical? 

This is Not a Radical Catalog
The first truly radical shots fired in RC come from Jeffrey Beall’s chapter on OCLC, a company that sells cataloging data and centralized interlibrary loan interfaces to libraries.  Beall’s critique of OCLC is set up as if libraries are developing countries while OCLC is a profit-hungry multi-national corporation.  This allows him to attack the organization, “malevolent… in the way that all large, rapacious, transnational conglomerates are” (Beall 85), under the guise of Gramscian critique.  Just as raw materials come from developing countries and are made into finished products elsewhere only be to sold back to those countries,[8] OCLC buys cataloging data from libraries and then sells them to other libraries at a substantial markup.  OCLC also discourages the sharing of MARC records between libraries, although how exactly this is done Beall does not say.  The author also accuses the company of being “an information sweatshop” whose “mission… is to separate libraries from their money” (Beall 87).  OCLC does this by employing temporary workers and computer scientists at the expense of librarians.  While I find this inflammatory rhetoric entertaining, the author proposes little in the way of substantive strategies of resistance. 
Tina Gross takes aim at the Calhoun Report,[9] arguing that its focus on speed and cooperation with the private sector constitutes a manufactured emergency, a false crisis in which the dissent of catalogers is marginalized in the name of modernization, efficiency, and cost savings.  Gross posits that the policy recommendations of the Report prevent libraries from being self-sufficient and stifle dissent.  Calhoun’s conclusions paint all who oppose it with the same brush, those who attempt to stem this tide are called “selfish” or “dinosaurs” regardless of motives (Gross 141).  The author does an admirable job separating the luddites from those who have legitimate concerns regarding the future of cataloging.  Thomas Mann’s chapter on the LC expands this critique, noting that many librarians would label the Calhoun Report as radical (Mann 170).
Elsewhere in RC less economic and more philosophical forms of radicalism abound.  Bradley Dilger and William Thompson think that cataloging should become more prevalent, more public, in library settings.  Using Derrida’s discussion of play as a point of departure, they argue
Cataloging assuages an absence, a desire for getting at the knowledge contained in a library’s collection and creating new knowledge from it. Catalogs still act as permeable boundaries between people and ‘real’ knowledge and ‘potential’ knowledge contained in the collection, mediating the indeterminacy between what is known (a work’s title, author, or subject) and the desire for the unknown (the work’s content, and more importantly, its potential use) (Dilger and Thompson 45).
While these authors use a (rare) uplifting strain of postmodernism to elevate the catalog to an object of protection, Emily Drabinski challenges the very concept of a catalog, contending, “Political efforts to change terminology or localize classification schemes are inevitably limited by the nature of classification itself” (Drabinski 198).  Although humans have been cataloging and classifying for thousands of years, she sees these tools as hegemonic; to overhaul this structure one must step outside of it.[10]  Her chapter is a powerful rejoinder to Berman and others because it implicates them as part of a system in which incremental changes to LCSHs are epiphenomenal, obscuring true power structures and those that might benefit from them. 
Drabinski also argues that classification and cataloging are “products of human labor that carry traces of all the intentional and unintentional racism, sexism, and classism of the workers who create them” (Drabinski 198).  While Berman and other authors in RC agree with this statement, her conclusions do not logically follow.  Drabinski’s solution is to borrow from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which a dialectic of education and liberation in information literacy can free one from hegemony.[11] I propose a more modest goal: historicize the catalog.  Instead of abandoning or overthrowing it, realize and then teach that catalogs and systems of classification are not only social constructs, created by humans, but also historical constructs, created at specific points in time.  Recast in historicist light, Berman’s work on LCSHs appears more radical as he and others worked to revise and dismantle subject headings that reflected a white male power structure while many did the same with regards to society at large.  In short, by asking the LC to add, amend, or eliminate some subject headings, Berman is historicizing the catalog.  I suggest that creations dates of LCSHs be added to LCSH authority records so patrons can see when headings were created.  Others, like dates of major reorganizations, should be entered as well.  Doing so will make it easier for users to view catalogs as products of their times. 

UnRadical Cataloging: What Works
The authors in the third part of RC shy away from the confrontational tactics of those in the first part,[12] and lack the philosophizing of those in the second.  As a result, many readers, especially information professionals, will find the focus on pragmatic strategies and solutions the most useful part of the volume.  Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the least radical section of the book.  Librarians would be wise to implement many of the suggestions in the third portion, regardless of their dubious connection to the first two. 
Jennifer Erica Sweda’s chapter proposes tagging as a way around inflexible LCSHs.  Tom Adamich adds metadata regarding the educational quality of items in the 505 and 586 fields of MARC records to show teachers searching for resources if an item has a certain theme, meets a state standard, or has won an award (Adamich 242, 244).  Dana M. Caudle and Cecilia M. Schmitz propose that catalogers spend time at the reference desk, while A. Arro Smith (yes, that’s his name) encourages catalogers to think and act like reference librarians.  Altering MARC records to aid patrons’ searches is the goal of his chapter.  He adds “Harry Potter” to the 240 field, making books about Harry Potter more visible for patrons, increasing their circulation (Smith 296). 
In sum, the authors in RC are united by little more than a desire to help patrons find what they are looking for, the goal of any catalog, and are bound by the beliefs that cataloging need not be boring and should be a force for good.  The collection of essays is disjointed and not always radical, but it is thought-provoking and offers up something interesting for catalogers of all persuasions and interests.  The work of Berman and others to update LCSHs is a noble and worthy cause; one all information professionals should pay attention to. Although RC lacks the theoretical and analytical rigor needed to properly historicize cataloging, it is a qualified success and an important first step towards that goal.  Finally, the recommendations of the third section will prove invaluable to many librarians. 

Appendix: So You Want to be a Radical Cataloger

If you are interested in current issues in radical cataloging, the following are good places to start. 

Read up on the history of radical cataloging.
  • Olson, Hope A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.
  • Roberto, Katia and Jessamyn West, eds. Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.
  • The Sanford Berman Website.
  • West, Celeste and Elizabeth Katz, et al., eds. Revolting Librarians. San Francisco, Booklegger Press, 1972.

Practice it!

from Roberto, K.R., ed. Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company, 2008.

Adamich, Tom. “CE-MARC: The Educator’s Library ‘Receipt.’” p.241-245.

Beall, Jeffrey. “OCLC: A Review.” p.85-93.

Benedetti, Joan M. “Folk Art Terminology Revisited: Why It (Still) Matters.” p.112-125.

Berman, Sanford. “Introduction: Cataloging Reform, LC, and Me.” p.5-11.

Caudle, Dana M. and Cecilia M. Schmitz. “Drawing Reference Librarians into the Fold.” p.251-254.

de la tierra, tatiana. “Latin Lesbian Subject Headings: The Power of Naming.” p.94-102.

Dilger, Bradley and William Thompson “Ubiquitous Cataloging.” p.40-52.

Drabinksi, Emily. “Teaching the Radical Catalog.” p.198-205.

Freedman, Jenna. “AACR 2 – Bendable but Not Flexible: Cataloging Zines at Barnard College.” p.231-240.

Gross, Tina. “Who Moved My Pinakes? Cataloging and Change.” p.140-147.

Hasenstab, Brian. “This Subfield Kills Fascists: A Highly Selective, Slightly Irreverent Trip Down Radical Cataloging Literature Lane.” p.75-82.

Mann, Thomas. “What is going on at the Library of Congress?” p.170-188.

Nectoux, Tracey. “Cults, New Religious Movements, and Bias in LC Subject Headings.” p.106-109.

Preston, Carrie. “High-Speed Cataloging Without Sacrificing Subject Access or Authority Control: A Case Study.” p.269-276.

Roberto, K.R. “Preface: What Does “Radical Cataloging” Mean, Anyway?” p.1-3.

Smith, A. Arro. “Cataloging Heresy.” p.291-299.

Summers, Michael. ‘The Genre Jungle: Organizing Pop Music Recordings.” p.53-68.

Sweda, Jennifer Erica. “Dr. Strangecataloger: Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tag.” p.246-251.

Walker, Christopher H. “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: A Drowning Cataloger’s Call to Stop Churning the Subject Headings.” p.126-140.

Young, Jennifer. “Ranganathan’s Forgotten Law: Save the Time of the Cataloger.” p.83-84.

[1] Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company, 2008.
[2] What constitutes “radical” for our purpose, as will become clear later, is a postmodern/poststructuralist or Gramscian worldview as applied to library and information science in general and cataloging in particular.  If these terms are meaningless to you, I suggest Palmer, Donald. Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997, as well as the Wikipedia pages for Antonio Gramsci <>, postmodernism <>, and poststructuralism <> as introductions to these contested terms.  
[3] Gilyard, Burl. “Sandy Berman’s Last Stand.” City Pages 20(971). July 14th 1999, p.3. <> Accessed April 11, 2009. 
[4] Briefly, this means that dominant groups within a society have the power to name and classify, often at the expense of those who do not.  Hope Olson agrees, arguing that first term subject headings “masquerade as neutral when they are, in fact, culturally informed and reflective of social power.” Quoted in Drabinski, 200. 
[5] Gilyard. 
[6] A LCSH for “Incandescent lamps” remains in use, albeit with much less content. 
Please note that all references from Radical Cataloging will be in text parenthetical, followed by a works cited section at the end of the paper.  Other references will be footnoted. 
[7] Walker also points out that in the 670 field of authority records you may come across a “Hennepin” note, a reminder of Berman’s influence.  See Walker 133.
[8] The world economy functions with more complexity than this.  What I describe above is more akin to 19th century imperialism than contemporary Gramscian neo-imperialism in which corporate and other non-state actors are sometimes able to dictate and control national economies. 
[9]Calhoun, Karen. “The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools.” Prepared for The Library of Congress. March 17, 2006. <> Accessed April 11, 2009.
[10] In Gramscian thought hegemony is an ideological superstructure that exerts influence unconsciously.  The fact that it goes unnoticed, assumed, and taken for granted by most is proof of its effectiveness.  The first step to challenging a hegemonic structure is realizing that it exists. 
[11] Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.  According to Drabinski, what Freire termed “banking education,” in which rote memorization is valued over critical thought, is too common in contemporary information literacy.  Freire’s solution is “problem-posing education,” in which students are each given complex problems.  These individuals in turn teach each other, as well as teaching the teacher, and the end result is that student and teacher alike are made aware of hegemonic forces that surround them.  How one could apply this to information literacy goes unmentioned in Drabinski’s chapter, and her use of “banking education” is a straw man argument, since rote memorization is by no means the dominant form of teaching information literacy.  In fact, she does not even summarize or describe current trends in information literacy and pedagogy.  See Drabinksi, 202-204. 
[12] A notable exception is Drabinski’s article, which appears in the third part because her focus on critical pedagogy is seen as a solution. 

No comments:

Post a Comment