Challenging structural racism in collections

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2020. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more! This week’s theme involves addressing systemic racism in Library collections. 

Words matter: Challenging bias & structural racism

Librarians, archivists, and cultural heritage professionals are uniquely poised to examine and change structural racism that exists in libraries, archives, library catalogs, and information systems. The Library of Congress (LOC) Subject classification system is a widely adopted classification schema but this system is fraught with bias, racist terminology, and outdated subject headings. During the reorganization of Scholarly Resources & Content Strategy (SRCS) in 2019, Carmelita Pickett, Associate University Librarian for SRCS, tasked the Digital Strategies Team with the investigation and implementation of a strategic framework that could address these current inequities.

Since this directive, the Subject Heading Initiative, led by Jennifer Roper, Jeremy Bartczak, and Whitney Buccicone, has evolved into a co- developed strategic collaboration between the Digital Strategies unit in SRCS and the technical services unit in Special Collections. This initiative was designed to develop a cohesive approach to improve subject access for people of color, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+, women, and traditionally marginalized communities. This initiative seeks to support the University and UVA Library’s antiracism, inclusion, and diversity efforts.

For many years LOC has collaborated with librarians and catalogers to update and improve subject authority records through the Subject Authority Cooperative Program. These efforts continue today but these modifications do not address the immediate and direct changes that libraries can implement to improve the humanization of marginalized communities. In 2014, a Dartmouth librarian and the Coalition for Immigration Reform and Equality at Dartmouth (CoFIRED) first petitioned the Library of Congress to eliminate ‘illegal alien’ in favor of ‘undocumented immigrant,’ but this two year petition was blocked by Congress. Although Congress opposed this effort some libraries have designed alternative ways to address this systemic issue.

This year the Library’s Subject Enhancement Initiative will focus on people, with a goal of returning humanity to individuals and communities for whom personhood has been stripped in current subject terminology (e.g., Slaves → Enslaved laborers, Illegal aliens → Undocumented immigrants). The terms used in Virgo, the Library catalog, may differ from other university catalogs; however, discoverability will not suffer as a result of this initiative. Project leads recently deployed a staff survey soliciting assistance about specific headings to target. As this effort evolves the Library is committed to working with interested researchers, scholars, and students to develop a reparative taxonomy that will address the inequities that persist in LOC subject headings.

Addressing systemic racism in collections

The Library’s ongoing effort to broaden the diversity of its collections intensified after the 2017 white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville. Staff joined with students and faculty to “hack the stacks,” using Virgo’s purchase recommendation feature as a means of expanding Library holdings on a variety of social justice topics. Now the Library has gone deeper, working to address biases in a collections-building process which reflects the systemic racism inherent throughout society.

In the summer and fall of 2019, the Library’s collections group focused on reviewing titles in African History. They found that faculty checkouts in this subject area have increased over the past decade, but also that some important titles that should have been purchased automatically, within the scope of collections desired by the UVA Library, had been left out of the collection. To meet the needs and interests of scholars and underrepresented communities, the Library now constantly adjusts these “approval plans,” leading to a more inclusive collection on Library shelves. The group also evaluated Library print and electronic collections, revealing gaps in areas the Library needs to strengthen, such as translations of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature, research in Afro-Latinx and Indigenous-Latinx studies, black queer feminism, mental illness, and works by authors from diverse backgrounds. An intensive review of reading lists, bibliographies, course content, and holdings of peer universities has led to an increase in titles by underrepresented authors, books published by independent presses, and films, music, databases, journals, and digitized primary sources related to marginalized groups.

Similarly, the collections group revised the Library’s e-books acquisition policy to highlight the commitment to providing e-books that meet the needs for research and instruction while also respecting authors, intellectual property rights, diversity, inclusion, and long term access. Central to this new policy is a renewed commitment to acquiring e-books that comply with accessibility guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A list of new content licensed during fiscal year 2020 includes:

  • Caribbean Newspapers, Series 1, 1718-1876: From the American Antiquarian Society
  • Archives of Sexuality & Gender: LGBT History and Culture Since 1940
  • Archive of Sexuality and Gender: Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century
  • LGBTQ+ Source
  • Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism
  • American Indian Newspapers
  • American Indian Histories and Cultures
  • Colored Conventions Project

See a full list of new Library resources. 

Man and woman in indigenous clothing. Woman holds a baby, all three look directly toward the camera.

“Kiowa Family,” from the Indigenous Peoples of North America resource (Annette Ross Hume Photograph Collection, Wichita State University Libraries)

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