Image from the Library of Congress Catalog homepage
Database subject headings are necessary for finding resources and focusing searches, but at the same time may be outdated and biased. As with most systems, classification is slow to change and is more complicated than it may appear. The most widely used classification system, Library of Congress, is used in the BU library catalog, Koha.
All major databases have subject headings that may be considered pejorative, misrepresentative or biased. This is particularly the case with subject headings that refer to race, gender, sexuality, and professional designations. In PubMed, for example, the primary U.S. biomedical database, alternative therapies were subsumed under the subject heading, Therapeutic Cults until 1993 when it was updated to Alternative Medicine. In 2002 it was changed to Complementary Therapies considered by many practitioners today to be an inaccurate descriptor of the medicine. You can read the scope note in its entirety here.
There is a movement in librarianship to try and push for change; it’s part of a larger movement called “Critical Librarianship” or “critlib”. Student activism to bring about changes is also alive and well. When an undergraduate doing research at Dartmouth College encountered the subject heading, Illegal Aliens, she and other student activists worked with librarians to petition the Library of Congress to change it to Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives overturned the change to keep the language consistent with federal laws.
Now that you’re aware of the issue, if you want to learn more, watch this free documentary, Change the Subject, (you don’t have to enter credentials) to see how the student activism at Dartmouth unfolded. If you have any questions or comments, please contact the library, firstname.lastname@example.org.