Harmful Language Statement Posted on March 10th, 2022 by

Language matters. Words matter. How people are described matters. Words or terms that were prevalent decades ago may have fallen out of favor. Some terms may have been applied by those in power to a marginalized group, without ever taking into account how the group described itself. Other terms – once deemed offensive – have been reclaimed. Language is always changing.

Libraries are not exempt from these conversations; in fact, language in library catalogs reflects many of these broader shifts. Like most libraries, we use the Library of Congress Subject Headings in our catalog. The subject headings reflect the context in which they were written, including biases and offensive terminology. For example, while it was common in the 1950s to refer to certain geographic areas of the world as “third world nations,” scholars now use terms like “developing world.” You’ll still find the term “third world” within the subject headings, however, especially for older materials.

Subject headings can be changed, although it isn’t an easy process or always a perfect one. But it’s often a process marked by grassroots organization and advocacy, of people coming together to demand change. (Read more about the movement to correct subject headings related to immigration or watch the documentary!)

Many libraries and archives have issued statements recently about harmful and outdated language found in catalogs and finding aids. The Gustavus Library is committed to fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment – both in person and online. We are proud to join other libraries and archives in announcing our own Harmful Language Statement and form.

You can help us correct injustices within the catalog. Whenever you see language that is out of date, offensive or harmful, fill out the form. We will make whatever changes we can on the local level. And for changes we can’t make – like to the subject headings – we will submit requests to the Library of Congress on an annual basis. Thank you for helping to make the library’s catalog more equitable and inclusive.



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