I hadn’t been in graduate school more than a month when I noticed something alarming about the Library of Congress (LoC) classification system—the alphanumeric system we, in academic libraries, use to organize our collections. Materials about Indigenous folks in Canada were mostly confined to the E’s. For any readers not familiar with the LoC classification system, that is the ‘History of the Americas’ section. And I’m not *just* talking about history books. Books discussing contemporary Indigenous topics are also classified under History. The more I thought about it, the more I found wrong with it, and the more offensive it became.
Why History? Indigenous Peoples in Canada certainly have a long, rich history, but we are not history—not by a long shot. For anyone who doesn’t see the problem with Indigenous peoples being classified this way, may I present two examples. Seven children are killed in the City of Thunder Bay between 2001 and 2011. Should they be labelled as History? Please consider that miniscule, if any, police resources have been allocated to investigate these deaths. Not to mention that more children have gone missing since (Talaga, 2017). What about the thousands of missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirit people (Campbell, 2018)? This is a well-known and ongoing problem in Canada. Is History an appropriate label for these women?
The LoC classification system was developed beginning in 1901 by—you guessed it—two white men. One was a Swiss immigrant, and the other a Norwegian immigrant, so it isn’t completely shocking that the system has a strong Euro-centric bias. It was originally intended to organize the collection of books and documents of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. (Library of Congress, n.d.). Today, most research libraries use the LoC classification system to arrange their collections, likely due to its robust nature and ability to expand.
Without diving beyond the outline of the classification system, even a novice library user can already identify a possible bias. There is one letter dedicated to World History, but two dedicated to History of the Americas (see Figure 2). By following just one link, the bias becomes a lot more obvious. Which brings me to the dreaded E section: History of the Americas (see Figure 3), where “Indians of North America” are given E75 to E99—a span of 24 numbers, but United States history is given… everything else—a span of 900 numbers. A stark difference considering Indigenous peoples have called North America home for time immemorial.
The two librarians who developed the LoC classification system likely did not consciously design it to be exclusionary and biased, but the result is a form of structural racism, nonetheless. There has been an intentional erasure of Indigenous Peoples in North America for 500 years. To put things as simply as possible, Indigenous peoples who were not killed in cold blood, were killed in other creative ways, such as being gifted blankets known to be infected with smallpox (i.e. biological warfare), or forcibly removing children from their families and communities into church-controlled “schools”, which are more accurately described as concentration camps (i.e. cultural genocide). Solving the “Indian problem” has been a core objective of colonial governments from their inception. The majority of those who have survived the active, still ongoing, genocide, were forced to assimilate, yet still treated less than, and forced to operate within systems that weren’t designed for them. The LoC classification system is an example of this.
The good news is that some works by Indigenous creators are being classified correctly. Particularly those in language and literature. The bad news is that Indigenous peoples are still being forced to squeeze into a colonial system that exists within an institution that prides itself on the core value of social responsibility (American Library Association, 2019). That institution is of course, The Library. As a profession and as an institution—we can do better.
Interested in learning about efforts to change the system?
An overview of decolonizing efforts happening at my institution:
Vendeville, G. (2022). By improving catalogues and collections, U of T librarians aim to be respectful of Indigenous voices. U of T News. Retrieved from https://www.utoronto.ca/news/improving-catalogues-and-collections-u-t-librarians-aim-be-respectful-indigenous-voices
Efforts at other institutions:
Bone, C. & Lougheed, B. (2017). Library of Congress subject headings related to Indigenous peoples: A project changing LCSH for use in a Canadian archival context. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 56(1), 83-95. Retrieved from https://winnspace.uwinnipeg.ca/bitstream/handle/10680/1321/C%26CQmanuscript.ForInstitutionalRepositoriesCOMPLETE.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Bone, C. (2016). Modifications to the Library of Congress subject headings for use by Manitoba archives. Paper presented at: IFLA WLIC 2016 – Columbus, OH – Connections. Collaboration. Community in Session 151 – Classification and Indexing. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/id/eprint/1328/1/151-bone-en.pdf
Dankowski, T. (2016). Removing barriers to Indigenous knowledge: IFLA session suggests ways to improve access to materials. American Libraries Magazine. Retrieved from https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/removing-barriers-to-indigenous-knowledge/
Kam, D. V. (2007). Subject Headings for Aboriginals: The Power of Naming. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 26(2), 18–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27949465
Library of Congress. (2018). Prospecting the new class KIA-KIX for the American Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/KIA-intro-bib-DRAFT.pdf
Vaughan, C. (2018). The Language of Cataloguing: Deconstructing and Decolonizing Systems of Organization in Libraries. Dalhousie Journal of Interdisciplinary Management, 14. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Language-of-Cataloguing%3A-Deconstructing-and-of-Vaughan/1c83baffbe8d8f3e36a103005ecf0ec88a3aa8c3?p2df
Worth, S. (2019). This library takes an Indigenous approach to categorizing books. Yes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/03/22/decolonize-western-bias-indigenous-library-books
American Library Association. (2019). Core values of librarianship. Retrieved from https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues
Campbell, M. (2018). Keetsahnak: Our missing and murdered Indigenous sisters. University of Alberta Press: Edmonton, Alberta.
Library of Congress. (n.d.). History of the Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/about/history-of-the-library/
Talaga, T. (2017) Seven fallen feathers: Racism, death, and hard truths in a northern city. House of Anansi Press: Toronto, Ontario.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.