Can We Avoid Biases in Library Classification Systems?

The problem of bias in library classification structures and subject language are, from a queer perspective, problems endemic to the knowledge organization project itself. If social categories and names are understood as embedded in contingencies of space, time, and discourse, then bias is inextricable from the process of classification and cataloging. When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself. [1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.]

As human beings, we are bound to our subjectivity. The way we shape the world is due to our upbringing, experiences, community, culture, and other social influences. I believe that, because of this, it is near impossible for us to truly see objectively. Every thought and idea we have is influenced by something else. This notion trickles down even to library classification and subject language use. It would be lovely if we could all agree on a universal classification structure that everyone mutually agreed upon, and that did not offend anyone, but how could we achieve such a thing? Language itself is subjective and not only is it difficult to get the exact same meaning between two different languages, but even between two individuals speaking the same language you will find that their experiences and influences has shaped how they interpret their language and it doesn’t always have the same implications between the two. In Drabinksi’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” she points out these important statements, pointing out the subjective nature of classification and subject language.

Why does any of this matter? Something Drabinksi says in her article stood out to me, as it was the first time I’ve ever thought of it that way. “As users interact with these structures to browse and retrieve materials, they inevitably learn. . .”. [1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.] Her focus is on the learning of negative stereotypes about race, gender, class and other social identities, however I can see it also being general. As people interact with a library, not only will they learn from the materials they are using, but there can also be the side effect of learning from simply browsing for their material. Some of our major classification systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress were created through the white, Christian male perspective in the past. Because of this, classification systems pay heavy attention to the Christian religion but treats Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as minor religions. Someone who is browsing will either, knowingly or unknowingly, observe and learn from this. This is the same for the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality, while making heterosexuality the normative.


This brought back a memory I had when I was in undergrad, doing research for one of my psychology courses for the first time. This particular library used Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). I was looking in the 500s because that was the science section. To my surprise, psychology was not located there. So I thought, perhaps it would be under social science, the 300s? No. Instead, I found psychology under the 100s as a subgroup of philosophy. [1. OCLC. (n.d.). DDC 23 summaries. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from OCLC website:] I understood that psychology had ties with philosophy, since it happens to have sprung forth from that field, and it was widely thought of as pseudoscience early on in its beginnings, but I didn’t think to find it still classified this way. It’s also the same in Library of Congress Classification (LCC), where psychology is under B, still a subgroup of philosophy, along with religion. [3. Library of Congress. (n.d.). Library of congress classification outline. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from Library of Congress website:] What’s surprising is that although psychology has prospered into its own field of science, its still portrayed in the classifications as less.

Drabinski makes excellent points about the biases contained within the classification and subject heading structures, she believes that the way we should combat this is by “queer theory”, which basically is an approach where instead of directly combatting the structures, we empower the users of libraries by teaching them to think critically and use the system critically. Although, in my experience, users don’t give much thought to the classification structures, this would still be a powerful thing to implement nonetheless, for those who do happen to engage with it and have questions.


Approaching the problem of library classification and cataloging from a queer perspective demands that we leave intact the traces of historicity and ideology that mar the classification and cataloging project. Such traces can reveal the limit of the universal knowledge organization project. . . [1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.]


At first, I thought Drabinski was saying that we should do nothing about making a change to the classifications, but as I took all her words in I believe I see her point. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but I believe she is trying to give a different approach, rather than having the responsibility on just catalogers, it will shift over to the librarians who engage with users and expose them to understanding that will inevitably put an eventual strain on making the change.


As previously mentioned, however, biases will always exist. We cannot come to a complete “finish” with this process. The process will be forever ongoing, and this is due to the subjectivity of human perspective. We can only continue the process and it will continue to reflect the zeitgeist of the time, or perhaps the previous time since every few generations will come up with their own ideas that will challenge the previous’, as we are doing now. It is impossible for us to have full neutrality within the Library. As Jensen implies throughout his article, whatever stance is taken even if its supposedly neutral, it is still a stance and thus making it non-neutral. [1. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality, ed. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96.] Applying that to the field of Librarianship or a Cataloger, no matter what direction we take in changing classification and subject heading language, there will always be others who disagree and who will have their toes stepped on by the changes. This doesn’t mean that we should not engage and challenge our current positions, but instead we should attempt to find means of progression where we can continually move forward with the times, and with current understandings. Drabinksi’s method is a great one, and I would even add that we should find ways to actively engage library users with the classification systems, because for the most part they usually come in with an idea of what they want, and quickly get it and then leave. If we found a way to engage them into learning, it will spread understanding and more people will take notice to the system, its flaws and its strengths.

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