Knowlton, S.A. (2005). Three decades since prejudices and antipathies: A study of changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 40(2):123-45.
Steven A. Knowlton addresses in this study the much debated topic of subject headings in cataloging- specifically, in reference to critic Sanford Berman, whose work Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People (P&A) paved the way to make subject headings much less biased. Many in the cataloging world feel that the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) used language in subject headings that was biased towards the Western culture – in other words it, “shows a prejudice in favor of particular points of view, and against others” (Knowlton 2005). The LCSH basically assumed that the reader was a certain type of person, being white, male, and of the Western/Euro-American culture. With all of this criticism coming in at the LCSH, it still showed success as being the main reference for implementing subject headings until Berman’s monograph was published in 1971. Many strides have been taken to correct these biases, but critics still persist that many remain. Knowlton dives into this controversy and addresses the concern, beginning with Berman’s changes.
Berman’s P&A received mixed reviews, but is now seen as a pioneer in the standardization of subject headings. Before computers and more advanced technology seeped into the library world, the use of card catalogs was the standard. Therefore, it would be a very time-consuming project to go through the entirety of a card catalog and change every subject heading. This was a main point of contention for Berman’s proposed changes. Although his changes aren’t accepted everywhere, he definitely made significant strides towards correcting the Western bias.
Knowlton then proceeds to explain the changes implemented to the LCSH system by providing 4 tables: the first are changes based on Berman’s suggestions, the second contains changes to the system, but perhaps shades the biases in a different way (still makes problems), the third lists suggested changes by Berman that were not adapted at all by the LCSH, and the fourth contains the “Do-it-Yourself” chapter, where subject headings are provided, but have no concrete solutions.
This article is probably my favorite to read so far. Knowlton is concise and clear in his writing, and writes in a style that actually seems to be for someone wanting to learn about the controversy behind subject headings in the library and archival world. In other words, Knowlton made sure to write it in a way that does not alienate the non-academic reader. Also, having read the tables included in the article, I must say that I am surprised at how many subject headings were not changed after Berman’s suggestions. For example, “church history” is a very broad category, and gives the impression that the only church history accounted for is the Christian church. It would make sense to have Berman’s remedy of “Christianity-history” as the category. It shows that, as many strides as we’ve made, and as much as we’ve learned, there is always a way to make our systems better for future generations of learners.