OAH President Nancy Cott says the Library of Congress is being politicized

Historians in the News
tags: polarization



HNN Editor:  In February President Obama nominated Carla Hayden to become the next Librarian of Congress, succeeding James H. Billington, who held the job for 28 years. In July the Senate confirmed her appointment by a vote of  74 to 18.  But the tenor of the debate over her nomination disturbed many people, including Nancy Cott, the president of the Organization of American Historians, as she explains in the current edition of The American Historian, from which this excerpt is drawn. 

... Carla Hayden [follows] in a long though interrupted history of actual librarians serving successfully as Librarians of Congress. One wonders whether another striking feature of her career figures in the conservative opposition to her nomination. As president of the American Library Association from 2003 to 2004, she led librarians’ protest against and refusal to comply with the U.S. Patriot Act insofar as it required them to release patrons’ library records to the FBI. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allowed the FBI to override state privacy laws and order third parties (such as libraries) to produce records, documents, and the like for a qualified terrorism investigation. The FBI could find out what a suspect was checking out, in other words. The section is now even more infamous because it enabled collection of mass phone data, but in 2003, it was librarians who protested forcefully, recalling McCarthy-era probes and guilt by association. Carla Hayden then emphasized that libraries—”a cornerstone of democracy”—must protect everyone’s right “to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.” These remarks were quoted by Ms. magazine in the winter of 2003 in anointing Hayden a “Woman of the Year” for her brave leadership.

The Library of Congress’s creation of authoritative subject headings for library cataloguing also became politicized in the spring of 2016. Every library in the United States has to follow the naming of subjects by the Library of Congress. For example, if it uses the word “cookery” for items about cooking (as it did until 2010), your library too must use that antiquated term; you cannot substitute the word “cooking.” In January 2016 at its midwinter meeting the American Library Association passed a resolution calling on the Library of Congress to replace its subject heading “Illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants.”

The issue had percolated up to the ALA from the distress of a Dartmouth student, Melissa Padilla, discovering in 2014 that her college library used the heading ‘Illegal aliens.’ The noun “alien” these days brings to mind a creature from outer space, not simply a foreign national (the word’s meaning when it became standard in federal law); and Padilla, herself from a family that entered the U.S. without legal papers, regarded “illegal alien” as a racist term. She mobilized a college protest, which moved the Dartmouth librarians to take the issue to the ALA.

Officials at the Library of Congress responded favorably, announcing in late March that it would change the subject headings to “noncitizens” (instead of “aliens”) and “unauthorized immigration.” But certain Republicans in Congress were outraged. Representative Diane Black of Tennessee, with the support of twenty male colleagues, introduced a bill “to direct the Librarian of Congress to retain the headings ‘Aliens’ and “Illegal aliens” in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.” It was called the “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act.” In May, Senators Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions and two Texas Republican congressmen sent a letter accusing the library of bowing to political pressure. More important, the language of Black’s bill was inserted into the pending appropriations bill for the legislative branch (including the Library of Congress). The most outspoken opponent of Black’s bill’s intent has been Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas (sometimes mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running-mate for Hillary Clinton) who himself is trying to remove the word ‘alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ from federal code. He has pointed out that Congress has never before interfered with the library’s designations of subject headings. Though they may seem to move slowly, the subject headings are under assessment and revision all the time, and changes in them are not rare: Rep. Castro claimed that 4,934 changes were made in 2015, according to the Texas Tribune (June 9, 2016). For instance, Bombay (India) is now Mumbai (India).

Ms. Hayden’s appointment and the controversial subject headings are undecided as I write. If she is confirmed by the time you read this, the Library of Congress will enter a new era. Its politicization is likely to linger nonetheless.




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