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Mary Church Terrell Main Library
148 W College St. Oberlin, OH 44074-1545


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Subject Term Flagging

What are subject headings?

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are standardized words or phrases that describe what an item is about. These are standardized terms that have been agreed upon over many years by the Library of Congress with input from other libraries.

From the Library of Congress’ own definition:

LCSH brings consistency to library collections by categorizing topics into logical arrangements, and by controlling synonyms, variant spellings, and homographs. For example, one author may use the phrase soda pop, another may say soft drink; yet another, soda; and a fourth, something else, but they all intend to refer to the same type of beverage. In LCSH, one of those words or phrases is used as the heading, and the others refer to it. By using only one word or phrase for each topic, librarians can make sure that all of the resources on a topic will be grouped together, thereby allowing users to find them easily.

What are problematic subject headings?

Subject terms might be viewed as problematic for a variety of reasons. They may be outdated, hurtful or offensive, inappropriate, incorrect, or unclear to the point of misunderstanding.

Why are there problematic subject headings in the library’s catalog?

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) have been actively maintained since 1898. As language and knowledge changes, these headings must change along with them, but as most academic libraries rely on these terms to ensure that similar items are described consistently, change must occur at the source rather than in individual libraries.

While there is an established process for adding and revising Library of Congress Subject Headings, it can take time for those changes to be implemented. Some headings may be hurtful, especially when they use outdated terms or offensive language reflective of a different time. Libraries across the country are working to identify these terms and change them.

The libraries of the Five Colleges of Ohio, including Oberlin College Libraries, acknowledge the painful impact that these terms can have on our everyday lives. Words matter, language influences ideas, and these ideas create the world around us. As such, we are committed to improving our systems, including those systems that support research.

How are subject headings changed?

The Library of Congress has an established process for considering additions and revisions to subject headings. This involves preparation and submission of a proposal, typically by members of the Subject Authority Cooperative (SACO) Program, though they do accept proposals from non-members, followed by a review and decision by the Library of Congress’ Policy, Training, and Cooperative Programs (PTCP) division. Note that Congress has the authority to reject Library of Congress decisions.

Why are some subjects being flagged?

Oberlin and the Five Colleges of Ohio Libraries acknowledge that there are terms in the library catalog that are potentially hurtful, offensive, or unclear. While we retain these terms to support search and discovery by those conducting searches using these terms, we also believe it is important to acknowledge these terms as problematic and advocate for changes. We see flags as an invitation to a dialog with our students, staff, faculty, and community members about identifying and changing problematic language in our profession.

How are terms selected to be flagged?

The source of the flagged terms in the catalog is the open, community-based project, the Cataloging Lab, which invites anyone to propose improvements or replacements for terms they consider problematic. The purpose of this community is to collaborate on the development of more compelling proposals for changes or additions to the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).

Where can I see an example of a flagged term?

Scroll down to the Subjects section of this record. You can select the flag to see additional contextual info.

Can I suggest an alternate term for a problematic subject heading?

Yes. If you’d like to suggest an alternative term to the Library Community, there are several ways to do so and we’re happy to help you with these as well. Oberlin and the Five Colleges of Ohio Libraries have developed an online form to collect suggestions. If you complete the form, your suggestion will be sent to the Ohio Five Libraries’ Collection Services Subcommittee and you will be contacted by a librarian from your college who will be happy to talk about submitting suggestions to the Cataloging Lab or the process of proposing changes to the Library of Congress. Please note the libraries cannot guarantee that a form submission will result in a flag.