Playing Politics with the Library of Congress

POST WRITTEN BY: Marie S. Newman (Director and Professor of Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University)

LOC2Although the Library of Congress is part of the legislative branch of the United States Government, we tend to think of it as being above politics.  No more.  The nation’s political battles over immigration are now engulfing our de facto national library in controversy.  The Library of Congress is much more than a great collection of books, manuscripts, and media of all types.  It also sets the standards for cataloging library materials, standards that are used not only in the United States, but also all around the world.  Librarians organize collections and make them accessible to the public through the Library of Congress Classification System (the call numbers on library books’ spines which libraries use to shelve books) and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (the subjects assigned to books in library catalogs).  Both are the product of the Library’s Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate, but it is the Subject Headings that are the subject of the controversy.

At issue is the Library’s decision, announced in March, to drop the subject headings “Aliens” and “Illegal aliens” and replace it with two new subject headings:  “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.”  It is common practice for the Library of Congress to modify, add, and drop subject headings in response to changing times.  This is not the only indexing system to tweak its headings over time; legal researchers know that the West Digest System, which was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, has had to modify its headings to accommodate such inventions as the automobile, the airplane, and birth control, and to respond to new areas of law, such as environmental law.  Normally, Congress does not involve itself with the minutiae of cataloging; however, this particular change has captured the attention of Congress.  A bill was introduced (a provision in the House appropriations bill for the legislative branch, including the Library of Congress) demanding that the Library of Congress retain the two old subject headings, and four Republicans wrote the Library urging it not to change them.  The Senate version of the appropriations bill does not include a provision dealing with the subject headings, which may set the stage for wrangling when the two chambers meet to reconcile the two versions of the bill.

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