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Last Modified: May 28, 2022
Photo of the Indigenous book section at an Alberta public library
Decolonizing the Language of Library Cataloguing

By Jessie Bach

“I can’t emphasize enough how much work still needs to be done in this area—we are still only taking baby steps. The most important part by far is making sure it is the community who is choosing the language used, not library folks.” —Colette Poitras, Manager of Indigenous Public Library Outreach with the Public Library Service Branch 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their Report and Calls to Action in 2015, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations responded by forming a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to “promote initiatives in all types of libraries to advance reconciliation by supporting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and to promote collaboration in these issues across the Canadian library communities.” This Committee released a report and made ten recommendations, including: 

“Decolonize Access and Classification by addressing the structural biases in existing schemes of knowledge organization and information retrieval arising from colonialism by committing to integrating Indigenous epistemologies into cataloguing praxis and knowledge management;”

In other words, to decolonize the language of library cataloguing to ensure accurate and culturally appropriate description of Indigenous individuals, Peoples, and topics in the catalogue. This post will explore the status of this initiative at Alberta libraries and detail what more must still be done.

When a new book is added to the library collection, teams of cataloguers evaluate each item to record the author, title, and publication information, and to describe it with measurements, keywords, and subjects. The descriptions created by cataloguers are what enable library users to find materials and place their holds in the library catalogue. Below is an example of what you will see when you view a title in an online library catalogue. The information in each of the fields was recorded or chosen by a cataloguer.

Example of a book in the library catalogue: Ancestors : Indigenous peoples of Western Canada in historic photographs (The University of Alberta Library)

Assigning subject headings is an important step in the cataloguing process. They have a greater function than just a keyword or a tag; they provide important information about the subject of a work, and facilitate discovery by linking works that cover the same topic. In the example above, there are four subjects assigned. When a library patron clicks on any one of those subjects, they will be able to see all the books in the catalogue that share the same subject. Cataloguers at most types of libraries rely on a vast taxonomy created by the Library of Congress (LoC), located in Washington, DC. The LoC has actively maintained a database of thousands of subject headings since 1898 and it is considered the gold standard and ultimate authority for subject headings. This means though, that the standardized language used by libraries across the world is American-centric, frequently out of date, and really tough to change. 

On one hand, it is incredibly important to have a standardized vocabulary to describe library materials. On the other hand, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for many subject areas. One area where the LoC subject vocabulary falls woefully short is in the description of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Currently, the approved subject heading is still Indians of North America. Not only does this use an inappropriate and offensive term, but it also lumps hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct societies under one umbrella. 

While LoC Subject Headings are the standard used by most libraries, Canada does have its own collection of Canadian Subject Headings maintained by Library and Archives Canada (LAC). The Canadian Subject Headings database is intended for uniquely Canadian topics that are not covered by LoC recommended terms. Unfortunately, when it comes to Indigenous topics, Canadian subject headings are not much better. According to their website, LAC is aware that many of their recommended subjects need to be changed and “consultations with the Canadian community of Indigenous people and librarians are underway.” They recognize that “Canadian libraries are expecting leadership from LAC by changing [Canadian Subject Headings] and by changing how subject headings are applied.” For now, LAC is no longer recommending the use of the heading Indians of North America, and instead suggests First Nations people. Due to the plodding pace of change at LAC and the LoC, some libraries and regional workgroups are taking matters into their own hands and working to create homegrown solutions for their catalogues and communities. 

To learn more about what is being done by public libraries in Alberta to decolonize the language of library cataloguing, I spoke with Colette Poitras, Manager of Indigenous Public Library Outreach with the Public Library Service Branch (PLSB). Poitras is a member of a national committee affiliated with the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) that is working to decolonize the language of library cataloguing in Canada. This committee has created the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Indigenous Ontologies, which Poitras notes is really still in its infancy. Work is ongoing, but Poitras notes that it “is a bit slow going because of course, Indigenous communities must be consulted (which takes some time during a pandemic).” This ontology is meant to be a living document that will be continually expanded and improved, to provide a comprehensive list of Indigenous community names, as determined in consultation with Indigenous Peoples, for use by Canadian libraries. According to the project’s website, the draft ontology currently available is a soft launch and “a first step in a longer project and represents the equal and collaborative contributions of its members.”

Poitras states, “I can’t emphasize enough how much work still needs to be done in this area – we are still only taking baby steps. The most important part by far is making sure it is the community who is choosing the language used, not library folks.”

It may be some time before public libraries have access to a complete and comprehensive collection of culturally appropriate subject headings. Due to this, many libraries and organizations have gone ahead and made some changes to their catalogues independently and based on consultation work done by others. For example, most public library catalogues have followed the recommendation of LAC and removed instances of the Indians of North America subject heading. Most libraries have chosen to replace it with the heading Indigenous peoples (which is then followed by more information about a territory, language, or theme) rather than LAC’s recommended term of First Nations people. In my organizationthe Marigold Library Systemthis was chosen because Indigenous peoples is inclusive of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and subject heading structure allows for subdivisions that will further specify the topic of the work. Some Alberta libraries have also made their catalogues more inclusive by providing descriptions in Indigenous languages. In TRACpac (the online catalogue for Alberta libraries in the Marigold, Northern Lights, Peace, and Yellowhead library systems) you can find some Indigenous material catalogued simultaneously in English and the applicable Indigenous language. Books written in an Indigenous language, or in a dual language format with English, can be found by searching in either language.

The Book Publishers Association of Alberta has also done some work to decolonize the subject heading language for the Prairie Indigenous eBook Collection, based on consultation with an Indigenous cataloguer. This collection is available to all Albertans through their local libraries on the Cantook Station eBook platform, and the catalogue records with culturally appropriate headings are included in library catalogues. Going forward, the language in these records will be an excellent resource for libraries to use to continue to improve their records. 

Decolonizing the language of the library catalogue is urgent and important. For many people, their first encounter with the public library is by using the online catalogue. Indigenous people exploring the library’s materials online will come across inappropriate and offensive language in the descriptions of materials by and about their communities. The continued use of this language in the library catalogue is likely turning away Indigenous users before they even set foot in a library facility. 

While it is tempting, as librarians, to rush ahead and make the changes we think are needed, further changes to subject headings about Indigenous Peoples and topics must be based on language chosen by the Indigenous Peoples they will describe. In his book Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, Gregory Younging states that “finding your way through requires thought, care, attention, and dialogue. It requires working with people. It requires the engagement and inclusion needed for a new conversation between Indigenous Peoples and settler society.” The research and conversations that I have had while preparing this post left me feeling that individual libraries need to step up in their own communities to expedite the process of consultation. We know changes are needed; why wait?

Considering this, I asked Colette Poitras what else individual libraries can do while work continues on the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Indigenous Ontologies. She expressed support for the steps libraries have already taken, and also expressed support for libraries wishing to reach out to consult with local Indigenous Peoples to learn how they prefer to refer to themselves. This information can then be shared with other libraries, and with the working group creating the Ontology. By collaborating with our communities and with each other, I am optimistic that Alberta libraries can begin to make the changes needed to ensure our catalogues are inclusive, respectful, and accurate.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.