Classification systems and critical cataloging

Shack, during the workshop, at the Senator John Heinz History Center


Classification systems and critical cataloging

Author: S.E. “Shack” Hackney, PhD student in the School of Computing and Information and Making Advances Workshop participant

This summer I had the privilege to view and conduct research with the collections of a handful of the excellent libraries and archives across Pittsburgh as a part of the Making Advances workshop. Day after day, we were presented with the highlights of each collection, curated especially for our interests by diligent librarians and archivists. As a student of Library and Information Science myself, I am always interested in how professionals in the field choose to present their work directly when given the choice, but also in the systems of knowledge that work to give the public access on a daily basis. My own research touches on the ways that knowledge organization systems affect the ways that marginalized communities are able to describe themselves, and I wanted to write a little bit about the issues at hand within the formal fields of Cataloging and Classification within LIS.

Classification systems are used by libraries and librarians as a way to sort books and other library holdings into related groups. This practice is fundamental to what makes a library different from a storeroom of books, and while there are many classification systems used worldwide, the two most prevalent ones are the Library of Congress Classification/Subject Headings (LCC/LCSH) and the Dewey Decimal System (Olson, 2001, p.641). These classification systems divide all potential areas of knowledge into sub-groupings, and then provide descriptions and related terms for each grouping. The practice of applying these grouping to items in a library’s collection is called cataloging, and translates the broadness of a classification system into the individual practice of a cataloger, and the item she is cataloging. However, any classification system is an imperfect representation of the knowledge system it adheres to, and choices must be made which necessarily reflect the priorities, worldviews and opinions of the people who make them. This often becomes transparent over time, as “acceptable” terminology shifts with social consciousness, but is also dependent on the interpretations of library users, as they seek materials within the collection.

Activist catalogers have continually raised issues with the ethics of flattening a complex and ever-changing world into a functional classification system. Sanford Berman in particular has called on the Library of Congress to erase or amend offensive subject headings, and the publication of his treatise Prejudices and Antipathies systematically outlines parts of the LCC that are outdated or offensive. He notes in the introduction to Prejudices that, “the LC list can only ‘satisfy’ parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle- and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally local to the Established Order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilizations” (Berman, 1971, p. 15). Berman’s work over the past forty plus years has resulted in changes to more than 140 of the headings that he suggested should be amended, and he continues to advocate for further additions and revisions (Knowlton, 2005, p.127-8).

Catalogers working today, such as Barnard Zine Librarian Jenna Freedman, also struggle to apply headings to works that do not fit the standardized ideal of materials collected by libraries. Freedman’s work with zines in particular, and her struggle to find appropriate headings, reflects the narrowness of scope that the authors of the LSCH had (and continue to have) in mind when creating subject headings. Freedman notes that “A typical LC excuse for its offensive headings is that their job is to serve members of Congress, so the headings they choose reflect Congressional language and culture,” however, she continues, “The works I'm cataloging, zines, are usually created by women, and young women at that. They are often created by queer women, and in smaller numbers they're by women of color, people outside the gender binary, and women with disabilities. The zines are typically informed by an anarchopunk political and social ethos that I would venture to say is not highly represented in the House of Representatives.” (Freedman, 2016).

Melissa Adler explores the difficulty of finding materials related to gender and sexuality, both in her own experience, and through the example of the work of queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, whose writings span literary criticism, poetry, and personal essay and whose subject headings fail to capture the nuance of her work (Adler, 2017). Adler raises questions of access, wondering “why wouldn’t this literary memoir [Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love] be placed in the section that seems to be trying to collocate her work under her name?” (Adler, 2017, p.95). But in addition to collocation and access, Adler explores the potential censoring effects of classifying works by queer authors with such headings as “Sexual Perversion” and “Deviance.” How then, Adler argues, can a classification system claim to be unbiased and neutral when homosexuality continues to be associated with criminality? In this case, the LSCH itself is taking a moral stance through its application, and that stance is one that asserts that non-heterosexuality is immoral.

Similar issues arise when discussing the experiences of people of color, whose language and self-descriptors are absent entirely from the vocabulary provided by the classification system, and are likely to be cataloged by librarians who likewise lack access to the appropriate vernacular (Olson, 2001).

While activists such as Berman and Freedman advocate for changes to the Library of Congress, other LIS scholars debate the ethics of erasing the controversy and complications within classification systems. Emily Drabinski considers cataloging and classification systems from the perspective of queer theory, which argues that categories are permeable and in continuous flux. Drabinski suggests, then, that no classification system will ever be perfect or unbiased, and that the work of librarians should be not to erase past offenses, but to highlight the gaps within the system, and to engage in “dialogue with patrons that will help them tell the troubles of those schemes. Users can be invited into the discursive work of both using and resisting standard schemes, developing a capacity for critical reflection about subject language and classification structure” (Drabinski, 2013, p. 107).

Cataloging is often considered some of the driest, most tedious work within the field of librarianship. It is also lonely, technical work, and it can be easy for the cataloger to feel separated from the world as she attempts to apply labels to its documents. However, the ethical issues related to the creation of classification systems and their application through cataloging are deeply pervasive, and affect not only the internal workings of a particular library, but also the lives and social understanding of each patron who seeks to find themself represented in the stacks. Librarians must be aware of how these technical decisions to play out, and whose voices are privileged at in the systems they apply, and likewise researchers in all fields need to be aware of the systems of power at play that influence which materials they are able to access, cite, and circulate.


Adler, Melissa. (2017). Cruising the library : perversities in the organization of knowledge. New York : Fordham University Press.

Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Jefferson, NC : McFarland & Company, Inc.

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.

Freedman, J. (2016, March 27). Can I quit you, LC? Lower East Side Librarian. Retrieved from

Knowlton, S.A. (2005). Three decades since Prejudices and Antipathies: A study of changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, Vol. 40(2), 123-145. DOI: 10.1300/J104v40n02_08

Learn more about the Making Advances Workshop here

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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