A Fight Over ‘Aliens’

Posting to Autocat

On 6/21/2016 5:25 PM, Kuperman, Aaron wrote:

The change was initiated because people on both sides of the spectrum were confusing the term “aliens” (which is legalese for “noncitizens”) with “immigrants”. While in the United States the “hot topic” when discussing aliens is immigration (and to a lesser extent temporary foreign workers), the typical “illegal alien” is more likely to be tourist staying a few extra weeks or doing some incompatible with a tourist visa (working in some capacity). In many foreign countries, the typical illegal alien is a native born stateless person (since in many if not most countries, citizenship is primarily a function of ancestry rather than place of birth). In addition, the general (non-legalese speaking) public considers “alien” to be dehumanizing since in recent years the term is widely used to refer to “extraterrestrial beings.” The switch of “aliens” to “noncitizens”, and the introduction of “Unauthorized immigrations” (which is the hot topic) was done to eliminate confusion and substitute plain English for legalese. LC management made a mistake in claiming the change was because “illegal aliens” was pejorative, and in fact the proposal which came from the law catalogers was designed to head off the ALA proposal to switch the term to “Undocumented immigrants” which is objectionable for a law cataloging perspective since not only are most illegal aliens something other than immigrants (remember LCSH is used for global collections, so what the situation is elsewhere is important), and makes a political statement that the unauthorized immigrants have no real legal issues other than messed up paperwork. On should note that very few American books are actually on “Illegal aliens” as a group but are usually on a more specific topic (unauthorized immigrants), so under the principle of specificity “Illegal aliens” should rarely have been used as a subject heading.

I understand why. To me, all of that is irrelevant for this discussion. I am trying to cut out the political issues, the moral issues, the legal issues and even the historic issues. I added the beginning just to demonstrate that I do understand the issues involved.

Maybe you are right that “Illegal aliens” should have been rarely used, or not–I won’t dispute a legal cataloger–but there is sure plenty of “literary warrant” for it. See a post where I mentioned a Google n-gram and Google Trends search:
my post: http://blog.jweinheimer.net/2016/02/illegal-aliens-lcsh.html
the n-gram result: http://bit.ly/28KKRLQ
Google Trends: http://bit.ly/1OcECOJ

I concluded that based on all of this, if there is a change, it should be from “Illegal aliens” to “Illegal immigrants”. I realize this would not make any happier those who do not like “Illegal aliens” because they object to the word “Illegal”.

I didn’t discuss any of that so that I could concentrate on the real issue that I think should be the over-riding concern of catalogers and other librarians: does this help or hinder access? Changing a search for a single heading into a search for three headings turns it into something so complicated that nobody can deal with it and they will never do it. To argue against that would make no sense at all. That way leads to the public having even more problems with our catalogs and doubting even more the utility of what we are doing. That’s a bad road.

I understand the whys and wherefores of LC’s decision on “Illegal aliens” but, especially in this day and age, catalogers should be much more concerned that the catalog is as easy to use as possible.