Research Agenda — Discovery and Subject Access

Lisa Lindell, Catalog Librarian, South Dakota State University 

The organization of knowledge is necessary, but the results are never neutral. This recognition informs current scholarship in the area of discovery and subject access. Gender studies scholars are building on several decades of research as they explore the biases and inherent limitations of knowledge organization systems and the power and politics of naming. In grappling with these issues, they are examining classification systems, indexes, and search algorithms; they are advocating for education on the part of those who design and implement these tools and those who use them; and they are proposing alternative ways to categorize sex and gender.

Researchers analyzing the hierarchies and language of classification systems and subject description in relation to gender continue to find evidence of power imbalances, societal prejudices, and marginalization of populations. Specific systems they evaluate include Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), Library of Congress Classification (LCC), Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), and the Library of Congress Name Authority File (NAF). Among those scrutinizing LCSH are Wood (2010), Hogan (2010), Johnson (2010), Roberto (2011), Greenblatt (2011), Colbert (2017), and Bone and Longheed (2018). Authors analyzing LCC and DDC include Nowak and Mitchell (2016), Fox (2016), and Higgins (2016). In “Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge,” Adler (2017) takes on the Library of Congress and its cataloging practices. “The subject headings, classification marks, and symbols that are all created in this massive government library,” she writes, “act as components of an elaborate regulatory machine that renders bodies intelligible, normalized, and unified under academic disciplines, while those subjects that don’t obey a norm are rendered invisible or marginal.” Adler envisions the potential of the library as “an ideal space for unmaking and remaking meaning through the reorganization of knowledge.”

With the implementation of the cataloging standard, Resource Description and Access (RDA) in 2013, name authority records (NARs) and a new instruction to record gender are receiving concentrated attention. Pursuing this topic are Billey, Drabinski, and Roberto (2014) and Thompson (2016). The authors emphasize that gender identities are complex and contextual, and that privacy and preferences of individuals should be respected. The information becomes increasingly visible with the implementation of linked data and other semantic web technologies. In 2016, advocacy by catalogers resulted in modification of the RDA instructions: If gender is recorded, catalogers are to use an appropriate term preferred by the author. In addition, a Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC) Ad Hoc Task Group was formed to recommend best-practices for recording gender in name authority records. The Report for PCC Task Group on the Creation and Function of Name Authorities in a Non-MARC Environment endorses using terms with which the person self-identifies and discloses, using multiple terms as necessary, and taking into account rights to privacy and value of the information to library users. The binary choices of “males” and “females” have been expanded, with many gender inclusive terms added to the list of Library of Congress Demographic Group Terms (LCDGT).

The importance of educating users on the hierarchies of privilege in discovery and subject access forms a common theme in the scholarship. In “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” Drabinski (2013) concludes that even if attempts are made to update classification and subject language and organize materials with respect for those who lack social and political power, the results can never be complete or definitive. Drabinski instead encourages teaching users to critically engage the catalog as a complex and biased text.

As the reach of search and discovery tools and algorithms continuously expands, authors are increasingly engaged in raising awareness of the implications for the marginalized. Among those addressing gender are Sadler and Bourg (2015), Henry (2015), and Noble (2018). “Without an explicit feminist agenda,” Sadler and Bourg argue, “the same processes of exclusion and marginalization that have already influenced libraries – and therefore scholarship – will continue to play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.” No neutrality can exist, they contend, while search algorithms such as Google make the assumption that what is the most commonly stated must be the most true. Henry reaches similar conclusions on relevancy ranking algorithms, arguing that while neutrality is unattainable, the biases should be made known. Noble likewise warns of the deepening and disguising of social inequality through the biases embedded in search engine results and algorithms.

Scholarship that examines alternative ways to categorize sex and gender includes Fox (2011), Keilty (2012), Kortemeier (2017), Campbell et al. (2017), and Koford (2017).

Future research will continue to explore the structure of knowledge organization systems and search algorithms as technologies and understandings both evolve. How can the biases be better understood and critically approached? What are other alternatives to traditional, structural hierarchies of knowledge? What kind of impact will emerging technologies such as linked data have? Are there sustainable ways to advance inclusion and transparency and to reflect the fluidity and complexity of gender identity when creating search algorithms or organizing knowledge systems?

Full citations for all works cited in this essay can be located on the Bibliography of Scholarship on Women and Gender Studies Librarianship.