Library of Congress to replace term ‘illegal aliens’

by Sonia Qin | 3/28/16 6:51pm

The Library of Congress will replace the term “illegal aliens” with “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigrants” in its subject headings, a decision that was announced on March 22. This change, which was initially proposed by Dartmouth’s Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers, will lead to a sweep of heading changes for all libraries in the United States and Canada that use records distributed by the Library of Congress. The changes will come into effect no earlier than May 2016.

CoFIRED began its grassroots petition for this change in winter 2014, putting forth a petition to the Library of Congress in the summer of 2014.

In February of 2015, the Library of Congress posted a public response to the petition on a memo that was made available to all librarians in the internal system, stating that the petition had not been approved, Cataloging and metadata services librarian at Baker-Berry John DeSantis said.

The Library of Congress did not approve the petition initially because the phrase undocumented immigrant is not synonymous with illegal alien. Further, the Policy and Standards Division’s usual sources for establishing legal terminology use illegal aliens. The division chose to keep the established heading and continue to look into the situation.

After the rejection, the American Library Association took up the cause and put forward a resolution.

In a meeting of higher administration in February, the Library of Congress discussed ALA’s resolution, DeSantis said, adding that the sudden approval of terminology change was in response to this ALA resolution rather than to the CoFIRED petition.

The Library of Congress usually changes its headings following public opinion, not preceding it, associate librarian for information services at Baker-Berry Library Elizabeth Kirk said.

DeSantis said this is the first time that the Library of Congress has changed its headings in response to community pressure. He noted the large-scale and political nature of this change, adding that a grassroots movement led to the decision rather than being driven by the library community.

Melissa Padilla ’16, the member of CoFIRED who initiated the proposal, said the subject heading used in the College catalog system came to her attention when she was working on a project for an independent study class, where she researched activism led by undocumented students across the country.

Padilla approached a librarian for help at Baker-Berry Library, and as the librarian was scrolling through documents, Padilla said she recalled seeing “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” frequently. She brought up the issue to the librarian, who said that this problem had never been pointed out before.

“[Padilla] came to the CoFIRED meeting and told us about it,” Oscar Cornejo ’17, a member of CoFIRED, said. “We were all very concerned.”

Initially, CoFIRED approached the librarians at Baker-Berry with the intent of just changing the subject headings at the College, Padilla said.

“We found out that the way the library categorizes everything in our system is actually done through the federal Library of Congress subject headings,” she said. “There wasn’t anything they could do, because this was what everybody was seeing across the nation.”

However, the librarians at Baker-Berry showed CoFIRED a list of past changes that the Library of Congress has made to other subject headings, including the elimination of the n-word and other racial slurs.

With the help of the Baker-Berry librarians, CoFIRED finalized its petition around the time that the “Freedom Budget” was being written in the winter of 2014, Cornejo said. The Freedom Budget was a list of over 70 demands for the College that related to diversity and inclusivity. The request for a change in the libraries use of “illegal alien” was one of the document’s points.

Kirk said the complaint many people have with the term “illegal alien” is that its construction makes it seem as if the people themselves are illegal, rather than just their status.

Cornejo and Padilla also said that CoFIRED helped Baker-Berry librarians in compiling all the documentation needed to support their argument.

“It was a long list of evidence,” Cornejo said. “There were articles, books, everything we could think of to demonstrate that there has been a shift in terminologies.”

DeSantis put together the summer 2014 report submitted to the Library of Congress. DeSantis said one of the challenges in navigating the petition process was compiling all the necessary documentation.

Kirk said that the College is the first institution to bring up the issue of subject headings referring to unauthorized immigrants.

This is the first time that the library has collaborated with students to create a change of this magnitude, Kirk added.

CoFIRED continued their activist efforts despite the earlier rejection, and decided to ask a different college or university to submit a petition to their library, Cornejo said.

He said that CoFIRED selected Princeton University as their first attempt.

Kirk said that it was a “wonderful affirmation” for the students that the ALA took up their cause.

That was testimony to the fact that CoFIRED was on the right track, she said.

Cornejo said that CoFIRED had not expected the sudden decision by the Library of Congress.

“We were just hoping for Princeton to send in their petition, and if that failed, ask another college, essentially wearing down the Library of Congress,” he said.

Kirk said she was pleasantly surprised by the change after the initial rejection.

Kirk said that when subject headings are updated in one place, they automatically populate out to all relevant catalogue records.

“Many libraries, including ours, outsource that updating, so ours will all be automatically flipped to the new heading, replacing all of them,” Kirk said.

She said that once the change is put into effect, if “illegal aliens” is typed as a subject heading, a record will be shown indicating the replacement of that term with “non-citizens.”

“It is a lot less pejorative, a lot better than saying illegal,” Cornejo said. “We were willing to concede a little bit.”

He added that CoFIRED would have preferred the term “undocumented immigrants,” but the Library of Congress fixated more on the word’s legal dimension.

Cornejo said that the larger issue beyond this change revolves around the terms and the connotations that permeate everyday dialogue, public discourses and the media. Many of the references to undocumented immigrants are “racializing, dehumanizing and pejorative,” Cornejo added.

“The mission of changing that rhetoric is going to be a continuing battle,” Cornejo said.

He said that there needs to be a larger cultural shift in thinking and media representations, which has seen changes in the way the disabled and elderly are described today.

“This change at the Library of Congress can make a change in the words that politicians use and what is known to be acceptable and unacceptable,” Padilla said.

Padilla said CoFIRED will now focus on getting the word out to the public about this terminology change. She has reached out to the Huffington Post, Al-Jazeera and College professors who publish in national outlets.

CoFIRED is also considering another “Drop the I-Word” campaign to raise awareness of the racialization of the term “illegal.” The first campaign, hosted in April 2014, addressed the use of the word “illegal” in reference to undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

DeSantis said that students have never petitioned to change subject headings in the library catalogue before.

“I thought it was a really wonderful opportunity to engage students in a process that was bigger than they expected,” Kirk said. “They were able to help create a change and strike a blow for inclusion for our entire country and not just for ourselves.”