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Michigan State University

Harmful Language in Library Resource Descriptions

History and context to accompany MSU Libraries' Statement of Harmful Language in the Catalog.


Cataloging Ethics - a set of principles and values that provide an intentional decision-making framework for those who work in cataloging or metadata positions.

Critical Cataloging – a focus on understanding and changing how knowledge organizations codify systems of oppression.

#critcat - short for critical cataloging, an effort focusing on discussing the ethical implications of library metadata, cataloging, and classification standards, practice, and infrastructure.

Getting Started

Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee website - A group of librarians from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom charged by ALA in 2016 to create a cataloging code of ethics

Critcatenate blog – a monthly roundup of articles, webinars, and news about critical cataloging. Began February 2021.

The Cataloging Lab – a site for suggesting additions and changes to the Library of Congress Subject Headings vocabulary. Also houses the Critcatenate blog and useful lists of resources.

Archival Description Resources

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group, “Archives for Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Resources” (September 2020)

  • “[M]etadata recommendations for archival professionals to address racist and anti-Black archival description.”

Burns, J., et. al., “Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources” (2022)

  • “[C]ollaboration by the Trans Metadata Collective (TMDC;, a group of dozens of cataloguers, librarians, archivists, scholars, and information professionals with a concerted interest in improving the description and classification of trans and gender diverse people in GLAMS (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Special Collections).”
  • DOI:

Descriptive Notes (blog)

  • [T]he blog of the Description Section of the Society of American Archivists. The Description Section provides a forum for the exchange of information and ideas about all aspects of archival description among those responsible for, involved in, or interested in description projects, standards, and systems.

Queer Metadata Collective

  • "The Collective’s primary goal is to develop a set of best practices for the description, cataloging, and classification of queer information resources in GLAMS [Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Special Collections]."

Tai, J. “Cultural Humility as a Framework for Anti-Oppressive Archival DescriptionRadical Empathy in Archival Practice3(2) (2021).

  • “This essay argues for the necessity for mainstream archival institutions to audit for oppressive, euphemistic or misrepresentative language within their archival description, and will advocate for the redescription of collections to be undertaken through a framework of cultural humility.”

Selected Books & Articles

Melissa Adler, Cruising the library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge (2017)

Geoffrey Bowker, Sorting things out Classification and its Consequences (1999)

E. Drabinksi, “Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correctionLibrary Quarterly 83(2) (2013):94-111. 

  • Uses queer theory to critique library classification systems and controlled vocabularies.

V. Fox & G. Neidhardt, Ethical Cataloging Workshop.

  • Presentation at the OLAC 2020 Virtual Conference.

Paula Jeannet, “The ethics of describing images: representing racial identities in photographic collections” Catalogue & Index 202 (March 2021):30-43

  • Part of an issue devoted to issues with controlled vocabularies. The article has a good bibliography.
  • Describes Duke University Library’s efforts to analyze and reshape its descriptive practices for photographic collections to address harmful past practices.

Jane Sandberg, editor, Ethical Questions in Name Authority Control (2018)

  • A collection of essays examining the issues surrounding the creation of names and identities in library catalogs.
  • MSUL Z693.3.A88 E86 2019
  • Online 

Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, editor, Topographies of whiteness: Mapping whiteness in library and information science (2017)

Illegal Aliens

In 2016, the Subject Analysis Committee of the American Library Association proposed a replacement for the Library of Congress subject heading "Illegal aliens." Much debate continued until November 2021 when the Library of Congress finally replaced that term. This example illustrates many of the issues involved in changing library descriptive practices.

Change the Subject documentary – The full documentary is freely available on YouTube.

Controversies in the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH): the Case of Illegal Aliens Librarianship Studies and Information Technology (April 13, 2020) – may be viewed as a YouTube presentation or read as text.

Report of the SAC Working Group on Alternatives to LCSH “Illegal aliens”  (June 2020)

Library of Congress Policy & Standards Division, Summary of Decisions from November 15, 2021 - "the subject heading Aliens was changed to Noncitizens, and the heading Illegal aliens was split into: Illegal immigration and Noncitizens."