By Chloe Misorski, Cataloging Librarian
Three years ago, the Ingalls Library staff collaboratively wrote a departmental DEI statement to signal our alignment with the museum’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In our original blog post, we highlighted some specific DEI-related initiatives and promised to remain transparent and report on our progress.
While the Ingalls Library is a specialized art research library, we also serve the museum’s mission statement: “for the benefit of all the people forever.” But to serve all the people, we need to make sure that all the people are represented in the library collection. To do this, our acquisitions department buys books on artists who are underrepresented in our collection as well as volumes that feature diverse communities. Two years ago, in collaboration with the museum’s curator of photography, our acquisitions department launched a charge to purchase books by Black photographers, both retrospectively and in perpetuity. To date, our Black photobooks project has added more than 100 books to our collection.
Adding these items to our library collection is only the first step. Library materials must be described with respectful and appropriate language in our catalog. Our goal is for people to be able to see themselves in the catalog and in our descriptions. It’s one thing to say that we are open to all people, and another to make the research process as accessible as possible. Research is a hard enough task without extra barriers. Respectful descriptions using appropriate language is the difference between a performative action and steps toward meaningful change.
The Ingalls Library follows international standards set by the Library of Congress, like the Library of Congress Subject Headings. These headings are a standardized and shared thesaurus used by libraries both in the United States and internationally. Through shared terminology, the organization of information is more effective. But terminology that appears in this thesaurus may be outdated or offensive.
For example, imagine a researcher looking up materials about an identity or a group to which they belong. The researcher begins in the library catalog and may see offensive or outdated terminology used to describe themself. They may feel disrespected or unsafe in the library and end their research. One example is a selection of Library of Congress Subject Headings that were used to describe Art after Stonewall: 1969–1989, a catalogue for an exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art (fig. 1).
Among the headings included here is “sexual minorities in art.” Sexual minorities is the subject heading that the Library of Congress has established to describe LGBTQ+ people. On one hand, having one term to search is very convenient. Researchers do not have to search a variety of terms and acronyms to find all material on this topic. However, the problem with this is that “sexual minorities” isn’t a term that most people use or a way that most LGBTQ+ people would refer to themselves. It can also be seen as pejorative or insulting. The major problem with using these standards is that language evolves over time, and while Library of Congress Subject Headings do change, it is a much slower.
The language that we use in the catalog reflects our values and beliefs in the same way as a gallery label. Instead of continuing to use outdated and offensive subject headings, we have chosen more appropriate and inclusive language for specific materials in the library collection. By using more appropriate terms, we increase both inclusivity and access to these materials. In making these choices, we consulted a variety of sources, such as the Indigenous Peoples Subject Headings Crosswalk from the Peabody Essex Museum and internal documentation from the CMA’s interpretation department.
To date, we’ve updated language regarding Asian, Indigenous, Latine, and undocumented immigrant people. One example that we changed is the subject heading “Indians of North America” to “Indigenous peoples of North America,” which is in line with the recommendations of terms to use in the CMA’s Indigenous Peoples and Land Acknowledgment (fig. 2).
In tandem with this, work is underway to update the language that we use in our Digital Collections. This repository holds photographs of gallery and exhibition views dating back to the early 1900s. While there are likely terms in exhibition titles that would not be used today, we don’t want to alter or conceal the historical record. An example of this is the 1933 exhibition Indian Tribal Arts (fig. 3). Originally, the only information accompanying these photographs was the title of the exhibition. We have updated the title of the photographs to “Installation view of exhibition titled ‘Indian Tribal Arts,’ December 7, 1932 — January 8, 1933.” This serves to clarify that this was the title of the exhibition and not language that we would choose to use today to describe art made by Indigenous North Americans.
Additional research revealed specific Indigenous artists represented in the exhibition. We identified works by Velino Herrera, Maria Antonia Peña, and Awa Tsireh. For individuals that we could not name, we included the tribe or culture that likely made the objects, such as the Diné or Navajo textiles hanging on the walls in the image above. By doing so, we have added context to the image and prevented the erasure of people involved in the artwork. There is still much to be done both retrospectively and over time as language evolves.
As we acknowledged in the library’s DEI statement, we won’t always make the right or best decision while undertaking this work, so we invite comments and suggestions from our community. We look forward to checking in again about our progress over the next three years.