Saturday, November 10, 2007

American Indians and Bias in Cataloging (Shelving)

I've had a couple of questions lately, about shelving of books about American Indians. It led me to ask my colleagues in the American Indian Library Association about the sorts of things they learn in library school, about shelving these books.

I was referred to a bibliography about the topic. If you're interested in it, I encourage you to read Holly Tomren's paper, "Classification, Bias and American Indian Materials."

She reviews previous studies of cataloging of American Indian materials, noting that they are generally assigned to the 970 "General History of North America" section, even if they're not necessarily history. In that area, you'll find art and religion. Bias is unavoidable, but, she asks, how might a Native student feel when, in looking for info about his tribe, the librarian sends him to the history shelves? That student obviously knows his people are not extinct, but does his non-Native peer know that? Does finding the material in the history section affirm the idea that we've all vanished?

Tomren also discusses the Library of Congress subject headings and drawbacks in them, too, and she describes alternative systems developed by Native people in the US and Canada.

Her article is definitely worth reading. It's a little technical in parts, but overall, much can be learned about the ways that bias is present in shelving systems.


Tom said...

I haven't read the paper yet but I will say that if the issue is one of placing all Native American materials in 970 then I don't think Dewey actually does that. In my own (high school) library I have materials on Native Americans all over the place: religion in the 200s, folklore in 398, biographies in the 920s, culture in the 300s, civil rights in 323, art in the 700s, etc. I think you may be referring, not so much to where Dewey places Native American items but to where catalogers place such items, perhaps incorrectly or lazily. Those are really two different issues.

Kathleen Burns said...

Excellent post, Debbie! There's a strong and vibrant community of librarians and cataloging specialists who are writing about and trying to address the biases in classification and cataloging systems used in school, public, and academic libraries.

I would refer those who are interested in learning more about the issues to the American Indian Library Association's Subject Access and Classification website:

Holly's article addresses some of the core ways that classification systems dis-serve indigenous peoples. Thanks for bringing attention to her work, and for educating teachers and educators about these issues!