January 26, 2022

Report: “Harvard Library Ends Use of Subject Heading ‘Illegal Alien'”

From The Harvard Gazette:

Harvard Library, like all academic libraries in the U.S., typically takes its cataloging language cues from the Library of Congress. But it has now made one major exception — the phrase “illegal alien.”

That subject heading disappeared permanently from Harvard’s collection descriptions in January, thanks to work by Change the Subject Task Force, a group of staff from across multiple libraries and departments. Headed by Gutman Library Scholarly Communications Librarian Rebecca Martin and cataloger Te-Yi Lee, the group spent more than six months planning the logistics of the change, approved by library leadership.

Harvard Library isn’t the first to drop the phrase, but it does have the largest collection of affected items of any single library. More than 8,000 items previously tagged with “alien” or “illegal alien” now have a subject heading of “noncitizen” or “undocumented immigrant.”


Harvard’s Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources Elizabeth Kirk, who did similar work at Dartmouth College in 2016, clarified that the library isn’t altering content — users still might still see the phrase in the text or title of individual records — only the way of describing materials.

“The Library’s code of ethics says we try to represent opposing points of view, and it’s important for people to be able to see and access information that may be very hateful so they can understand historically why something happened,” Kirk said. “But there’s a difference between giving you that [hateful] information and making you participate in an ongoing system of oppression as you’re trying to access that information.”

Learn More, Read the Complete Article

See Also: Report: “Words Matter’: Why the UC Berkeley Library is Embracing Another Term for “Illegal Aliens” (November 20, 2020)

See Also: ‘Change the Subject’: A Hard-Fought Battle Over Words (via Dartmouth News, April 22, 2019)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.