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Introduction to Critical Cataloging: Introduction

This Libguide offers a beginner's look into critical cataloging and why it matters in the professional field and at Beatley Library.

Welcome to the Critical Cataloging Libguide!

Photo of the main collection in Beatley Library

What is critical cataloging?

Critical cataloging falls under the umbrella of critical librarianship and specifically refers to the discussion and analysis of the "ethical implications of library metadata, cataloging, and classification standards, practice, and infrastructure." It seeks to be "transformative, empowering, and a direct challenge to power and privilege" within and outside the librarian institution. Critical cataloging supports activist efforts to encourage inclusivity and accessibility through searching.

Why does critical cataloging matter?

Critical Cataloging encourages and emphasizes the importance of accessibility and equality among the library catalog and its metadata. It's important to question these information models for biases from societal structures that influence how we organize and construct information. To quote Emily Drabinski in her piece "Teaching the Radical Catalog," "classification schemes are socially produced and embedded structures; they are products of human labor that carry traces of all the intentional and unintentional racism, sexism, and classism of the workers who create them."

In order to combat these issues, we must be aware and participate in practices that actively fight against these biases. Critical cataloging better supports our patrons and library users and is an important asset to the management and sustainability of metadata. It continues to be an essential tool against institutional biases that occur within the catalog. 

Introduction to Critical Cataloging

As critical librarianship has grown as a movement, so has its meaning. Critical librarianship refers to a set of principles that promotes transparency and accountability for libraries of all kinds. To put it shortly, critical librarianship involves the following (from the UW Libraries Blog):

  • Acknowledging that libraries and archives are not neutral
  • Surfacing and interrogating the ways power, privilege, and oppression impact all dimensions of our work
  • Understanding that no two librarians or library users have the same background or experience 
  • Acknowledging the historic biases in privileging certain research and scholarship styles and questions over others  
  • Believing that librarians and archivists have the power to effect social change

Critical cataloging and critical librarianship have been in the spotlight for decades. In 2007, Sanford Berman requested that the Library of Congress's Cataloging Policy & Support Office create a new subject heading for Critical Librarianship to be applied to Toni Samek's Librarianship and Human Rights: A twenty-first century guide. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it does demonstrate that these issues and terms have been in the consciousness of librarians in the United States for a long time. 

Since then, many institutions have taken it upon themselves to conduct critical cataloging and librarianship projects on their own. For example, the 2019 documentary Change the Subject presents the story of Dartmouth College and the college students/library workers that advocated for changing the LC subject heading 'illegal aliens' to 'undocumented immigrants' in order to circumvent anti-immigrant language. Likewise, the Chicago History Museum has promoted their work on local subject headings that support Indigenous endonyms and LGBTQIA+ inclusive language while also focusing on a diverse set of libguides to help educate patrons.

Dartmouth College and the Chicago History Museum are not alone in their attempts. Critical cataloging work continues to be done at a variety of locations and institutions. Critical librarianship and cataloging is greatly important to the existence of libraries and every success is celebrated within the community.