Colonizing Subject Headings

Teaching a library instruction session in global politics the other day, I was soliciting topic areas from the students, one of whom wanted to research the conflict in Gaza. I suggested that we could narrow this down to Canada’s position on the conflict, and he was amenable. I suggested the use of the Alternative Press Index (API) and very swiftly came across a fascinating and instructive case of biased subject headings.

The 2013 Canadian Dimension article, “Gaza: Resisting Canadian complicity, rethinking solidarity” is a brief editorial describing how “Israel and Canada are joined together in deception” in framing Israel’s “slow massacre” of Gazans as “the right of self-defense.” The authors summarize the then-recent Operation Cast Lead this way:

Israel launched disproportionate, deadly attacks on Gaza in 2006, 2009 and 2012. There is substantial evidence that Israel initiated the violence and then used the counterattack to justify deployment of the most advanced delivery and weapon systems, including banned unconventional weapons, against the captive civilian population unable to escape total bombardment. Israel’s first military tactic is always to destroy essential infrastructure, leaving the entire population without the electrical power needed for cooking, sewage, water purification, heating or life-saving medical equipment.”

The article, which clearly sides with the Palestinians and opposes Canada’s unqualified and enthusiastic support of Israel, is indexed in API using the following API-derived subject headings:

canada — foreign policy
ethnic cleansing
israel — politics
israel and the palestinians
israeli-occupied areas

Anyone reading the article — regardless of their politics and sympathies — would likely agree with most of these headings, in that they accurately describe the contents. The one exception would be the use of the term “Ethnic cleansing”: the Library of Congress does not recognize the Subject Heading “Ethnic cleansing,” preferring “Forced Migration” or “Population Transfers” — rather passive terms which are also used in cases of natural disasters, removing a sense of agency. In this case, “pro-Israel” readers and the Library of Congress would not admit that what Israel has imposed on the Palestinians qualifies as “ethnic cleansing.”

Because API does not contain the full text of the article we were linked to EBSCO’s MasterFILE Premier, where we discovered that the same piece was assigned these Library of Congress headings:

WEAPONS systems

The contrast in indexing is remarkable; it is difficult to believe that these two sets of assigned headings are describing the same article. While the use of “Palestinians” and “Civilians in war” is hard to dispute, it is noteworthy that the indexer could not even admit that the article was about Gaza. More jarring still is that, what the authors of the article describe as a “horror” and “massacre” is seen by MasterFILE as “Counterterrorism”, with the previous heading assuming that Israel was responding to “Terrorism.” For an article that focuses on the injustices experienced by Gazans and the political collusion by which that suffering is delegitimized, the emphasis on “Weapons systems” is astonishing. A researcher would be forgiven for thinking these terms were leading to a Jane’s publication.

The LC Subject Headings assigned to this article in MasterFILE do not, in fact, adequately summarize the contents; indeed, they actively seek to disguise them, by framing the violence described in the article as justified, when the intent of the authors was precisely — and clearly — the opposite. Indeed, the indexing perfectly demonstrates the very “deception” the authors decry. It is not too much to say that such practices are a form of what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls “epistemic violence,” an act of intellectual colonization.

For the purposes of the class, I was glad to have stumbled across this article and its contrasting treatment in two different databases, for it illustrates the way that the terminology used by indexers not only contributes to supporting dominant, “official” narratives and precluding others — and thereby reinforcing permissible debate — but, on a more practical level, might potentially prevent the interested researcher from discovering the article at all.


2 thoughts on “Colonizing Subject Headings

  1. Interesting article. I’m currently writing a paper for my cataloguing class comparing LCSH and user tagging with regards to Aboriginal YA fiction in North America. It’s disheartening to see many of these biases inherent in the LC subject headings (for ex. Indians of North America — Washington (State) — Juvenile fiction…. or Inuit — Juvenile fiction). I know that it takes time to change these systems, but I think there definitely needs to be a movement towards a controlled vocabulary that practices acceptance and not exclusion. I don’t necessarily think that user tagging is the answer- but I agree that some changes do have to occur at some level.

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