A Fight Over ‘Aliens’

Posting to Autocat


There was a NY Times editorial about the proposed change by LC of the subject heading “Illegal aliens” to two headings: “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration”.

I was thinking about writing to the NY Times, but decided that it’s too technical so I’m sending it to Autocat.

There is a group of people in each country who live at risk of being arrested and deported. This is not to say that they are criminals in the sense that they mug people or rob businesses. Their problem is that they do not have the correct documents. Although this was not much of a problem before WWI when such documents were less important, with the rise of various types of 19th-century racism, nativism, and the scares of anarchism and Bolshevism, governments began to want to distinguish their own citizens from others who lived there, and the only way to do that was by providing special documents to the people within your borders.

Not having these documents puts people at great risk of being arrested and deported; after all, that is the very purpose of those documents. Consequently, people who lack them become vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds and they may be forced to work for very low wages, become prostitutes and endure other degradations because otherwise they will be arrested and deported.

There are branches of this group of people in every country of the world. I knew some of these people personally when I was in the US, and I have seen these people arrested on the streets of Rome, Italy.

These people are no different from anyone else. Some are women. They have children. Entire books are written about them. Everyone admits this group of people exists and, no matter which political stance one may take, it is indisputable that the discussion about this group of people is of great political importance today. Therefore, the public needs information about this group of people. That’s where libraries get involved.

The existence of the group is not a problem. The problem is what to name this group. This name has long been “Illegal aliens” but this term is now considered insulting by some groups so the Library of Congress has proposed changing this single heading into two headings “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration”. Changes in terms happen all the time, as the NY Times editorial mentions, when “Insane” was changed to “Mentally ill”. Yet, “Illegal aliens” is not entirely the same thing.

It is not taking one term and changing it to another term such as happened with the term “Insane” to “Mentally ill”. This means that whenever “Insane” occurs in a subject heading, it will be changed automatically to “Mentally ill”. Such changes take time but they are one-to-one changes and can be done mechanically, mostly by lower-level staff, part-time students, or even automatically by the computer.

The change from “Illegal aliens” to the two terms “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration” is a “split” however, and that makes it into an entirely different affair. Normally, a split happens when a subject heading includes multiple concepts. An example is “Labor and laboring classes” that had been used for decades and in 1989 was split into three headings: “Labor” “Labor movement” and “Working class”. At that point, the librarians must decide what to do with the materials cataloged earlier. Compared with “Insane/Mentally ill”, where every record changes in the same way, with a split, you do not know if a book that has the heading “Labor and laboring classes” was actually about “Labor” “Labor movement” or “Working class”–at least not without examining each item again.

Librarians need to devote their resources to new materials and do not have the leisure to recatalog old books. As a result, what normally happens with a split is that the earlier records are not changed, and if someone wants to do a complete search, they must search not only under the new terms, but the old one as well. You can see this in the LC catalog that still has thousands of items cataloged under “Labor and laboring classes” http://1.usa.gov/28KefSR, and most probably they will have that term until the end of time.

This means that if someone wants to do a thorough search of “Labor” “Labor movement” or “Working class,” they must also look under “Labor and laboring classes,” otherwise they are missing everything added to the collection before 1989. Or if they find something with the subject “Labor and laboring classes” they must also look under “Labor” “Labor movement” or “Working class,” otherwise they are missing everything added to the collection AFTER 1989.

How many people are going to know that?

Still, perhaps the change was worth it because “Labor and laboring classes” really did include different concepts.

What do these considerations mean for the split of “Illegal aliens” into “Noncitizens” and “Undocumented immigration”? In contrast to “Labor and laboring classes” it seems to me that “Illegal aliens” (aside from how we relate to the term itself) is not combining different concepts together. But if I am wrong and it does combine two different concepts, each resource that has been cataloged under this topic must be reconsidered individually, which as before, probably won’t happen and people will still wind up having to search “Illegal aliens” if they want to find materials added to the collection before 2016, just as people must today search “Labor and laboring classes” if they are not to miss the materials cataloged before 1989.

The other possibility is that each and every record with “Illegal aliens” will be changed into two terms “Noncitizens” and “Undocumented immigration” but this is not so simple either. For instance, “Illegal aliens–France” can be changed relatively automatically into the two headings “Noncitizens–France” and “Undocumented immigration–France”.

But consider a heading such as “Illegal aliens–Civil rights–France”. One part will change into “Noncitizens–Civil rights–France”, but “Undocumented immigration–Civil rights–France” makes no sense. It would need something like “Undocumented immigration–France” or “Undocumented immigration–Law and legislation–France”.

This is not a simple 1:1 change and requires judgement. Therefore, I suspect that librarians will opt not to change the materials cataloged earlier.

What will be the consequence? Everyone will still have to look for “Illegal aliens” for anything cataloged before 2016, just as they have to look today for “Labor and laboring classes” for anything cataloged before 1989. This is precisely what the “Illegal aliens” change is not supposed to do! Not only that, people will have to know that if they want modern materials (cataloged 2016-) they must search under both “Noncitizens” and “Undocumented immigration”. Finally, people who want to get information on “the group of people in a country without legal documents” which they can do today by searching the single term “Illegal aliens”, they will have to search under three terms: Noncitizens, Undocumented immigration, and Illegal aliens (for the older material).

From one term to three. That’s complicated–far too complicated for people I have worked with. The only outcome can be greatly inferior retrieval.

I hope another solution can be found.



One Comment

  1. […] In short, I said that changing headings happen all the time, but I claimed that the proposed change would actually make it much more difficult for people to find materials on that topic. For more information see the original post. […]

    July 11, 2016

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