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ACRL 2019 President's Program

Discussion, information, and additional resources for the 2019 ACRL President's Program. Opinions expressed by blog authors are their own and do not express the views or opinions of their employers or of ACRL.

Metadata Justice: At the Intersection of Social Justice and Cataloging

by Hallie Clawson on 2019-03-25T07:00:00-05:00 in Advocacy | 0 Comments

This week's post comes from Sine Hwang Jensen, Asian American and Comparative Ethnic Studies Librarian; Melissa S. Stoner, Native American Studies Librarian; and Lillian Castillo-Speed, Chicano Studies Librarian; all from the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Learn more about our guest authors on our Featured Authors page. 

Since the #BlackLivesMatter movement erupted in 2013, bringing racialized police violence to the national spotlight, there has been renewed interest on the part of librarians and archivists to challenge neutrality (Pagowsky & Wallace, 2015) and understand the importance of social justice in their work (Drake, 2016). While this has gained momentum in the last few years, the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley has been working to incorporate racial justice into librarianship for almost fifty years, since its inception in 1969. In September of 2018, we led a round table discussion at the 3rd National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color in Albuquerque on the topic of “metadata justice.” The term emerged through discussions of our work at the library, as a way to characterize a broad set of initiatives to bring social justice to the world of metadata and cataloging.


As an umbrella term, metadata justice can mean many different things in many different contexts. Broadly, it entails incorporating social justice into metadata work and using terms and philosophies that acknowledge and center historically oppressed communities. While the term may be new, the concept is certainly not. Librarians such as, but not limited to, Sandy Berman (1971) and Hope Olson (2002) have written on the bias in Library of Congress Subject Headings in particular, and the whiteness of libraries (Schlesselman-Tarango, 2017) and archives (Brilmyer & Caswell, 2016) has been well documented.  In our roundtable, each Ethnic Studies Library librarian introduced a few ways that they have incorporated the idea of metadata justice into their work. This blog post will provide a summary of our remarks.


We start by looking back at the small libraries (the Asian American Studies Library, the Native American Studies Library, and the Chicano Studies Library) that were formed in the late 1960s and that merged in 1997 to become our Ethnic Studies Library. Why were they established?  Why were they needed?


The Chicano Studies Library helped create the Chicano Thesaurus, the first and only controlled vocabulary for the discipline of Chicano Studies.  It was a direct alternative to the Library of Congress (LC) Subject Heading list. The Chicano Studies Library’s classification system was a modified scheme that allowed it to use all the LC classes and not limit itself to E184 (United States — Elements in the Population).  The early staff of that library saw these as tools that they could use to challenge Eurocentric classification: to change perspectives, undo assumptions, defy stereotypes, challenge racism, and affirm Chicano culture.


We can imagine how powerful this was from their perspective. If you were a staff person in the Chicano Studies Library, would you choose the Library of Congress term “Illegal Aliens?” Or would you rather use “Undocumented Workers”? Would you be inclined to use the term “Chicanas” rather than “Mexican American Women”? Creating ethnic and culturally specific cataloging practices was important to the early staff, but fundamentally they saw the entire library (and probably all three libraries) as tools to organize for social justice. To think of a library as an organizing tool and not just a collection of materials puts the role of a library in a different light. The library itself was not as important as the goal of organizing for social justice; if it became ineffective, organizers would move on and look for a better tool. Creating and using relevant, specific and correct metadata should be the goal of all libraries and archives, however, in the case of the Chicano Studies Library staff, it was a path toward social justice. Today, the Chicano Thesaurus is still used as the controlled vocabulary of the Chicano Database, the bibliographic database which continues to be produced by the Ethnic Studies Library.


The 2018-2019 academic year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Third World Liberation Front student strike that resulted in the creation of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. Native American, Asian American, African American, and Chicanx students, staff, faculty, and community members demanded a Third World College that would foster an intellectual and organic community where the stories and worldviews of people of color would be centered. The knowledge generated by this college would benefit and bring justice to their home communities. These disciplines were founded in the understanding that Western knowledge had been developed in the context of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, and that people of color had their own worldviews, lexicons, and epistemologies. They challenged traditional fields like Anthropology and Area Studies with the phrase: “Nothing about us, without us.” They no longer wanted to be shown a mirror in which they were reflected as problematic, poverty-bound, culturally-deprived, criminal, or a burden to the dominant society. This student-led movement led to a revolution in higher education and new academic disciplines never before conceived. For fifty years, these disciplines have produced knowledge that challenges the dominant Eurocentric and white supremacist perspectives on communities of color and centers our own languages, perspectives, and worldviews. But despite their contributions, the knowledge produced from these fields often remains marginalized from other traditional disciplines.


As one of the attendees in our roundtable pointed out, we cannot forget that the Library of Congress is just that, the library of the Congress of the United States. As such, it has an obligation to follow the vocabularies and logics of the state. This may often put it in opposition to movements for social justice. Those looking to change the Library of Congress subject headings often face an uphill battle (Hawkins, 2017) — as the fight to replace the subject heading “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants” has shown (Aguilera, 2016). Adding local subject terms has been one way that the Ethnic Studies Library has been able to break out of the restrictions of the Library of Congress. But as language continues to evolve and shift, where can catalogers, librarians, and archivists go to learn about new vocabularies and lexicons?


In the last few years, there has been a growing number of what are called “keywords” texts. These texts invite scholars to contribute definitions to emerging vocabularies in particular disciplines and can be used somewhat like glossaries. New York University Press has published eight books in its Keywords Series in the last few years. Other independent and leftist presses such as AK Press have put out their own keywords texts (Fritsch, O'Connor, Clare, & Thompson, 2016). Keywords texts are particularly useful in critical fields such as Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, Disability Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies. These texts offer an introduction to the vocabularies generated or used in these fields and the meanings and debates behind them. We encourage catalogers, librarians, and archivists to explore these resources.


Another way that we engage with metadata justice is to develop collective practices for generating metadata. In 2017, the Ethnic Studies Library received a CLIR Recordings at Risk grant to digitize hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes from the H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archive. These recordings document the social protest activities in the Bay Area and on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley from the 1960s to the 1990s. As part of the grant, the library has also been improving the metadata for more than 100 recordings that were digitized and added to the Internet Archive. Rather than having a lone cataloger or librarian generate the metadata, we have chosen to hire several students with an interest in social protest who are listening to the recordings and providing detailed descriptions. We have trained them on Library of Congress subject headings and other metadata standards. The process has taught us much about the educational impact of working with non-librarians to develop metadata and we will continue to develop ways to include students and eventually, other community members, in helping to develop our metadata.


In turn, the metadata that the students are providing will also enhance our digital collections with local, controlled vocabularies such as place names, organizations, and names of individuals that are not in the Library of Congress Name Authority File but are important to the local area and its history. Through these efforts, we acknowledge the history and story behind each item and treat the item with as much care as the community would. This is another reason the Keywords Series is so important; it allows the reader to recognize terms that also have culturally significant meanings. The metadata provided by our students will promote the discoverability of collections that are meaningful to the communities we serve. However, with discoverability comes access. One of the goals of our digital collections is to promote respectful access while also promoting a fair representation of topics that are not usually requested in digital collections.


As we continue our work at the Ethnic Studies Library, we are mindful of those communities — especially students — who fought in the 1960s and who continue to fight today to change the status quo. Because of them, the Ethnic Studies Library and its collections exist and continue to grow. It is our responsibility to continue to push the margins, making the stories of communities of color known while respecting their self-determination. While these are just a few of the ways that we engage in metadata justice at the Ethnic Studies Library, we encourage each reader to think about what the concept of metadata justice could look like in their own work and to take action. It can be as simple as finding out who your cataloger is and introducing yourself or reading a few online articles. The goal is metadata justice.




Aguilera, J. (2016). “Another Word for ‘Illegal Alien’ at the Library of Congress: Contentious.” The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Berman, S. (1971). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Brilmyer, G. & Caswell, M. (2016). “Identifying & Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives” poster. UCLA. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Drake, J. M. (2016). “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories.” Medium: On Archivy. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Fritsch, K., O'Connor, Clare, & Thompson, A. K. (2016). Keywords for radicals : The contested vocabulary of late-capitalist struggle. Chico, CA: AK Press.

H. K. Yuen Collection, UC Berkeley. (n.d.). Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Hawkins, D. (2017). “The long struggle over what to call ‘undocumented immigrants’ or, as Trump said in his order, ‘illegal aliens’” The Washington Post. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from

Keywords Series: NYU Press. (n.d.).

Olson, H. (2002). The power to name : Locating the limits of subject representation in libraries. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, The Netherlands; Boston.

Pagowsky, N., & Wallace, N. (2015). “Black Lives Matter!: Shedding library neutrality rhetoric for social justice.” College & Research Libraries News.

Schlesselman-Tarango, G. (2017). Topographies of whiteness : Mapping whiteness in library and information science (Series on critical race studies and multiculturalism in LIS; no. 2). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

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