The strange case of Congress and the confounding (re)classifications

You wouldn’t think that a decision by the Library of Congress about what subject headings libraries generally should use in, for example, an online catalog would create a political flap. Then again, in Washington – like the world on the other side of Alice’s looking glass – the usual rules of, well, almost anything tend not to apply. Here’s the strange tale . . .

Mad hatter's tea party

John Tenniel – Illustration from The Nursery Alice (1890)

In late March of this year, after an extensive process consistent with long-standing library principles and practice, the Library of Congress routinely proposed updating almost a hundred out-moded subject headings. Two announced changes would replace the subject heading classification “Aliens” with “Noncitizens,” and “Illegal aliens” with two headings: “Noncitizens” and/or “Unauthorized immigration.” Similar, but not identical, changes previously had been requested by Dartmouth College and also were endorsed by a formal ALA resolution adopted at the 2016 Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

In mid-April, however, third-term Tennessee Representative Diane Black (R-TN6) introduced a bill that would bar the Library from making those specific changes. No reason was given, but the bill’s title provides a clue. H.R. 4926, the “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act,” had 20 cosponsors on introduction and they now number 33. All are Members of the House majority. None sit on the Committee on House Administration, to which the bill was referred. The bill also has the backing of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (F.A.I.R.), which described the Library’s reclassification proposal as “blatant capitulation to political correctness” and “pandering to pro-amnesty groups.”

Four days after H.R. 4926’s introduction, the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee adopted language on April 17 that would, in effect, countermand the Library’s professional judgments and interdict the proposed reclassifications noted above. (The Report adopted by the Subcommittee states: “To the extent practicable, the Committee instructs the Library to maintain certain subject headings that reflect terminology used in title 8, United States Code.”) The full House Appropriations Committee will meet in mid-May and has the power to undo the Subcommittee’s action.

On April 28, the Presidents of ALA and ALCTS (ALA’s division of members expert in cataloging and classification) wrote to the Committee’s leaders and members asking that they do so. They emphasized that the Library’s reclassification proposals were solidly grounded in long-standing principles and practices of professional cataloging, recent history, and were manifestly non-political. Accordingly, the presidents called upon Committee members to remove the Subcommittee’s language above from any Legislative Branch appropriations bill that they consider when the House returns from recess next week. The Committee could meet as early as May 17 to consider the bill and this issue.

About Adam Eisgrau

Adam Eisgrau is a 30-year veteran of Washington legal practice, government service, public and private sector lobbying, and strategic communications and policy consulting. Having originally served as its first Legislative Counsel from 1995 to 1999 handling digital copyright matters, Adam rejoined ALA’s Washington Office in September 2014 as Managing Director of the Office of Government Relations. His issue portfolio currently includes Copyright, Privacy & Surveillance, Cybersecurity, Encryption and Data Security. Adam received a BA in American Studies from Dartmouth College and his JD from Harvard Law School.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for this. This is a batshit crazy thing for Black to be doing.

  2. Sevim McCutcheon

    While it’s a catchy title, this article is not about classification. It is about subject headings. So it is not about a reclassification proposal, but about changing the authorized terms used for a subject (btw, the previously used terms don’t go away – they are linked so that a library user will be guided from the old term to the new). While I’m very happy the author wrote this article, I hope he will consult one of his librarian/catalog librarian colleagues at ALA before posting the next one on library subjects.

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