Along with Tina Gross and Amber Billey, I spoke today as part of a virtual PCC (Program for Cooperative Cataloging) meeting program titled “DEI and the PCC: a conversation,” discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion. The meeting was recorded and will be made available. Below is the text of the introductory remarks I made.
To tell you more about myself, in January I started a temporary, part-time position as the Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. In that role I’m editing and creating Wikidata items to highlight some of the digital resources in the UNLV Special Collections, as well as evaluating tools for bulk editing. Previously, I worked for OCLC as one of the two editors of the Dewey Decimal Classification, which involved in-depth research to create new class numbers. I was laid off from that role in October. I point this out because I’ve heard many calls to make our classification systems more equitable, and I was doing that work, and that work was apparently not valued enough to continue paying me.
Let me start my comments by telling you about a project of mine. The Cataloging Lab is a website I created, it’s a simple wiki where people can collaborate on proposing additions or revisions to LCSH. It’s a way to open up the LCSH submission process to people who aren’t part of a SACO library. People can see the kind of research that is required to submit a proposal. They can see a successful proposal, and they can see the process behind a proposal that has been submitted, rejected, and reworked, and resubmitted. At the same time, it’s a way for catalogers to get advice from the larger library community as well as people with subject matter expertise.
I have never been paid for this kind of work; my previous employers did not find value in this work; this is created on my own time. At this point I’ve done over a dozen presentations on how the LCSH proposal process works, explaining how vital it is for people to get involved, or at least to understand who makes these decisions and how decisions are made. Again, I’m usually paying my own way to conferences or taking personal time off from work to talk about this. Essentially, I think that I’ve been doing PCC’s work, only for a broader audience than just catalogers.
Why am I doing this work? Honestly, it originated with being frustrated, because I am an outsider. I have never been part of a SACO library, I have never had access to Minaret. From my perspective, and from the perspective of 99% of librarians, the work of PCC is a black box. When I copresented at ACRL 2017 with other catalogers, we titled our presentation “Behind the Curtain: Demystifying the Subject Approval Process” and made a lot of jokes about the Wizard of Oz, because that’s what this feels like to people who aren’t in a large academic library.
Sure we have the participants’ manual and FAQs online, but everything is geared towards catalogers who have been through training. Tina and I cowrote a chapter in the 2019 book Ethical Questions in Name Authority Control, and we asked PCC to create a landing page for the public which provides information about the goals of authority work and examples of how the information collected by librarians would be used in disambiguating identities. And I’m going to repeat that suggestion here, because that’s a solid idea that would not take that much work. If PCC doesn’t do this, I’m thinking of just doing it myself on my own website, but it would be so much more authoritative and discoverable on the PCC site.
We need to stop thinking it’s ok that no one knows what PCC is doing, or that we’re just catalogers, and that no one’s interested in what we’re doing. People are interested! People keep inviting me to talk about subject headings, even though I don’t know nearly as much as people in this audience. The only thing I’m doing differently is inviting everyone into the conversation.
And the reason I’m doing that is that we desperately need to broaden the group of people who give input into these systems. Fewer and fewer libraries have the staffing and administrative support to do this work, and the group of people doing this work become smaller, and less diverse, with every year that passes. We’re trying to equitably represent the diversity of human thought in LCSH, and we’re trying to responsibly represent people from diverse cultural backgrounds in authority records, and that’s a really hard ask to do that work justice, and we’re not doing ourselves any favors when it’s just the same 200 people who are having these conversations with ourselves.
I think some of the recent discussions around privacy in authority records have been an example of what’s gone wrong because PCC has a monoculture. In an October 2020 presentation Paul Frank talked about how catalogers “have gone off the rails” when it comes to adding personal, potentially privacy-invading information about individuals, using the RDA fields. But we should all know, as information professionals, that when you provide new tools, you need to be clear and upfront about the potential for misuse. Just as we need to do with any new software, we need to think through and communicate the potential dangers at the time those new fields are available.
In the zine librarian community, we are very aware of the potential harms involved in describing people, especially people of color, queer people, disabled people, and other vulnerable populations. In our 2015 Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, we clearly discuss the dangers involved with including information that’s found via detective work. We’ve been talking about this for a decade. I think that if there were more members of those underrepresented groups in PCC work, or if more folks were even marginally aware of the work done by PCC, privacy would’ve been a part of the conversation a decade ago, when these fields were introduced.
I look forward to your ideas about how we can make the work of PCC more transparent, and the rest of our conversation today.