Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 2

[This is the conclusion to a two part series begun with my post of January 14th 2016. Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon.].

As the venerable “backbone” or “heart” of the academy, the university library holds the fundamentally important role of supporting teaching and research through the collection of books, journals and other scholarly outputs such as theses and dissertations, and in organizing them through classification and the assignment of subject headings to provide accurate, replicable and intuitive access to them. In addition to being guided by a professional Code of Ethics (ALA 1939/2008), and principles of Diversity in Collection Development (ALA 1982/2014), academic libraries are also ostensibly committed to the American Library Association’s “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries” (2000) which states that:

The development of library collections in support of an institution’s instruction and research programs should transcend the personal values of the selector. In the interests of research and learning, it is essential that collections contain materials representing a variety of perspectives on subjects that may be considered controversial (quoted in Jones 71).

As Barbara M. Jones points out, there is in the American context at least a little-appreciated difference between public and private universities, the latter of which may intentionally reject these principles and retain greater control over their libraries’ collections (69). Even so, library collection-building in general has been subject to some controversy and accusations of bias, omission, and neglect. There is a modest but vigorous and significant body of critical library literature that argues that, under the guise of neutrality and impartiality, (and owing in part to selectors’ own biases, and other psychological factors [Quinn]), libraries have in fact failed to collect whole genres or categories of materials, (Berman 2001), or, by purchasing primarily from major publishers representing mainstream perspectives, passively neglect or marginalize certain topics and constituencies (Warner). Even if they are collected, materials deemed controversial or outside of the mainstream may be classified and described according to prescriptive and normative systems, often using prejudicial and pejorative language that “both reflect and create opinion” (Guimarães and Martinez-Avila, 22). These are biases in collections and cataloging, and, as will be shown below, have surely contributed to marginalizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

Library collections represent the cumulative product of a wide range of processes reaching from the author, through the publishing industry’s agents, houses, and marketers to reviewing journals to vendors to the selecting librarian, all of which are subject to external market forces, political decision making, and the vagaries of socio-psychological factors. For this reason – and owing to the quite varied range of controversial topics investigated — it has proven difficult to establish one particular, dominant factor in the creation of biased library collections. To cite a few examples, the literature suggests that some form of inside censorship (Berman 2001) may be a factor in the failure to collect adequately in such diverse areas as African studies (Warner), graphic novels and comic books (Toren), LGBT materials (Sweetland and Christensen), evangelical Christianity (Ingolfsland), small publisher political journals (Dilevko and Grewal), multi-ethnic materials (Sykes) and pro-life titles (Harmeyer). As this brief list suggests, areas of potential bias can cross the political spectrum; as well there is a great deal of debate in the literature concerning the methods employed to reach such conclusions, and what criteria should be used to identify “unbalanced” collections (Veeh).

Market bias, for example, would occur in cases in which publishers are unwilling to take risks on new authors, or ideas; or, if such works are published, are not given wide distribution. As the past president of the American Library Association Nancy Kranich points out, in their quest for profitability in an increasingly challenging marketplace, major publishers tend to prefer to bank on authors and titles with proven audiences, while rejecting those with potentially critical cutting edge viewpoints on important issues, leaving authors little choice but to seek out small, independent alternative presses (Kranich). The difficulty for libraries is that such houses often fall outside the traditional distribution channels including major reviewing journals – the number of reviews and notices in trade journals being positively associated with library purchases (Sweetland and Christensen). Kranach argues that building truly balanced collections requires libraries to actively seek out these alternative publishers (Kranich 1999). Quinn (2012) however suggests that there may be significant psychological factors that lead to biases against unconventional publications. While acknowledging that “[t]he ideal of the value-neutral collection is a myth” (282) he notes that:

Individuals not only exhibit a bias toward positive information but are also biased toward normative information. This is information that conforms to rules, standards, customs, practices, and expectations of one’s social group. . . . That minority behavior, deviant behavior, social taboos, and esoteric practices and ideologies strike the selector as strange or inappropriate may serve as an indicator of bias on the selector’s part (287).

We should note that collection decisions are not entirely in the hands of selecting librarians, but may be driven by faculty members, or by students themselves through emerging patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), in which click-throughs in pre-packaged e-book collections trigger purchases. In the case of the former, Lee (1988) questions the extent to which the ideological biases of faculty members – who are subject to none of the ethical principles expected of librarians – will resist excluding books and journals contrary to their own disciplinary viewpoints. The PDA model, according to Sens and Fonseca (2013), is similarly subject to an inherent conflict of interest, and one not consistent with that of the librarian: that search results will be programmed to highlight backlist titles to boost commercial publishers’ profits, de-emphasizing scholarly publishers in the process (363).

A tendency towards normatively can also result from the economics of collection development, particularly the use of pre-packaged approval plans.  Libraries create these plans by establishing profiles of their universities’ collection and curricular needs with a corporate vendor, as well as their preferred publishers, formats and price ranges, and then automatically receive only those titles corresponding with that profile. The economies of scale and deep discounts facilitated by approval plans are popular with libraries on limited budgets but inevitably favor major, well-known publishers at the expense of smaller, alternative presses, with the result that libraries are increasingly coming under fire for having homogenized collections representing only “a safe middle range of opinion…represent[ing] a consensus status quo” (Dilevko 680). Critics argue this corporate-friendly homogenization contradicts the library’s core values: Jeff Lilburn (2003) asks how “can current library policies and practices be characterized as ‘neutral’ if our collections simply reproduce the privileges already enjoyed by established and powerful media conglomerates in every other area of our society?” (p. 30), while Sanford Berman states that libraries’ “failure to select whole categories or genres of material” means that “[they] become willing accomplices in the homogenization and commodification of culture and thought” (Berman 2001, 7).

As Warner (2005) notes, the issue of bias in libraries presents a “complex picture” (184), a full explication of which is beyond the scope of the present post. Suffice it to stress however that, whatever its causes, the overwhelming presence of the mainstream side of an academic debate — and the corresponding absence of marginalized dissent – represents a significant positioning on the part of the institution as to the nature of legitimate and non-legitimate bodies of knowledge As MIT librarian Marlene Manoff observes,

[W]e need to acknowledge the kind of delegitimizing functions libraries perform in their exclusion of certain kinds of materials. . . . Academic libraries, as institutions of intellectual authority, confer symbolic status on those artifacts they choose to acquire and, implicitly at least, deny it to those they do not. Moreover, libraries, like universities, help to define what constitutes knowledge, i.e., what gets into libraries, and what are legitimate areas of study i.e., those that research libraries provide the materials to investigate. Especially in disciplines in the humanities, library research collections often limit possible areas of investigation (1993 4, 6).  

Ironically (and perhaps understandably), this normative, delegitimizing function can also be bound up in a defensive liberal reaction against the spectre of America’s culture wars over the purpose and future of the academy, as exemplified in the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (or ABOR) written and promoted by the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center and its offshoot, Students for Academic Freedom. While ostensibly espousing and defending pluralism and diversity, the Bill is seen by its many critics as an assault against both critical pedagogy and modern reason itself, being a veiled means to promote “intelligent design” and other conservative priorities in the classroom (Giroux 2006; Beitko et al 2005). Among the many regrettable consequence of such a toxically volatile public sphere is that it encourages liberal institutions and observers to fallaciously conflate a number of unrelated but marginalized views and theories – some of which are, indeed, despicable. For example, David Prosser, director of Communications for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, has publicly compared the Shakespeare Authorship Question to Holocaust denial (McNeil). Even Barbara M. Jones, one of the American library professions’ most outspoken leaders on the issue of intellectual freedom, subtly conflated these controversies with the Shakespeare Authorship Question in her 2009 book Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library, remarking,

The ABOR…assumes that all knowledge is uncertain, when in fact some discoveries have been accepted by broad consensus in the scholarly community — for example, that certain scholarship about Shakespeare is better researched and more fundamental than other scholarship (22).

Libraries depend on such scholarly consensus to impose universalized certainty over what constitutes knowledge in the form of classification and cataloguing: the disciplinary assignment and placement of books in three-dimensional space within the library, as well as the controlled vocabulary (subject headings) used to describe it in the library catalogue. The institution dominating this enterprise in academic and public libraries is The Library of Congress, in the form of its Classification system (1897) and its Subject Headings (LCSH). The former is the Library of Congress’s attempt to structure all human knowledge according to disciplines, (regardless of what is published), while the latter is based on “literary warrant” (actual publishing) and which, while also dating to the late 1890s, has undergone periodic revisions since.

Widely adopted worldwide, these Library of Congress schemes have been utilized by scholars for nearly 120 years. However, beginning in the 1960s (and corresponding with the social and political upheavals of the era) they have been subject to considerable criticism for their overwhelmingly Euro- and Christian-centric nature, as well as for many examples of sexism, heterosexism, racism, and American exceptionalism, and for their use of pejorative language to describe, exclude or misrepresent marginalized knowledge domains (Berman 1971/1993, Olson 1998, 2002). As Hope Olson (1998) argues,

The result of these factors is classification, which might be seen as…concentric circles of degrees of representation quality…a few core concepts best represented, a middle ground adequately represented, and a large periphery of poorly represented marginal concepts with some concepts outside of the limits (236).

In accordance with libraries’ long-standing value of neutrality, their classification and cataloguing schemes are created with a view to objectivity and avoiding bias. Yet, as A.C. Foskett, one of the Library of Congress’ earliest critics pointed out, they instead “reflect both the prejudices of its time and those of its author” (117). Indeed, as the literature argues, it is this very pursuit of objectivity that results in systemic normative biases (Olson and Schlegl 2001). As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila observe, “the prescriptive intention of neutrality and universality in the pursuit of a ‘better’ retrieval process” is the problem, not bias per se, which will inevitably exist in any system (24). However, as Olson and Schlegl point out in their systematic analysis of the literature, marginalized topics will inevitably be treated within a universalizing system as either

  • an exception to the presumed norm,
  • physically ghettoized away from the materials with which they should be associated;
  • depicted with an inappropriate structure that misrepresents the field;
  • assigned biased terminology, often with pejorative overtones; or
  • omitted altogether (1999).

Given the potency of what Olson (2002) calles “the power to name” we should understand that library classification and subject headings have tremendous potential to contribute to marginalization in many fields of study. As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila note,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time; they…shape reality. It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or to place it in the wrong context. An effective way to ridicule and isolate someone is by pointing her/him out as abnormal (deviating from the norm) and to exile him/her away from the peaceful and anonymous norm (standard). And, most probably, all these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo (22).

With the ability of online catalogues to discover keywords throughout a given record, there are arguments that perhaps formalized subject headings have outlived their usefulness, that they are no longer needed. On the contrary, critics contend that subject headings are more important than ever, because the alternative presumes users will always know or guess the necessary terms (and combinations) on their own (Mann 53). Berman (2013) concurs, noting that without an intuitive subject heading, unless the desired term actually appears in the title, it may not be discoverable at all.

 

Works Cited

Academic Bill of Rights. Students for Academic Freedom. n.d. Web.

American Library Association. Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1939/2008). Web.

American Library Association. Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1982/2014). Web.

Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. McFarland & Company, 1971/1993.

Berman, Sanford. “Inside censorship.” Progressive Librarian 18 (2001): 48-63.

Berman, Sanford. “Controversial Cataloguing” in Not in My Library!: “Berman’s Bag” Columns from the Unabashed Librarian, 2000-2013., 2013. Jefferson, North Carolina ; London : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013.

Dilevko, Juris, and Kalina Grewal. “A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings.” Library & Information Science Research 19.4 (1997): 359-85.

Foskett, A.C. “Misogynists All; A Study in Critical Classification.” Library Resources and Technical Services 15.2 (1971): 117-121.

Giroux, Henry A. “Academic Freedom Under Fire: The Case for Critical Pedagogy.” College Literature 33.4 (2006): 1-42.

Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves, and Daniel Martinez-Avila. “Library Classifications Criticism: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics.” Scire (2013): 21-6.

Harmeyer, Dave, et al. “Potential Collection Development Bias: Some Evidence on a Controversial Topic in California. Commentaries on Collection Bias: Eternal Vigilance the Price of Liberty. What’s Right? Adequate Representation and Numeric Equivalency: How Much is enough?” College & Research Libraries 56.2 (1995): 101-18.

Ingolfsland, D. “Books on the Historical Jesus as a Test Case for Selection Bias in American Academic Libraries.” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 8.1-2 (2009): 1-12.

Jones, Barbara M. Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library: Scenarios from the Front Lines. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009.

Kranich, Nancy. “A Question of Balance: The Role of Libraries in Providing Alternatives to the Mainstream Media.” Collection Building 19.3 (2000): 85-91.

Lee, James A. “Ideology in the Library.” Academic Questions 1.2 (1988): 39-41.

Lilburn, Jeff. “Re-Examining the Concept of Neutrality for Academic Librarians.” Feliciter 1 (2003): 30–32.

McNeil, Alex. “’Authorship Appeal’ Held at Stratford, Ontario, in October. Presumption in Favor of Shakspere ‘Not Rebutted.’” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter. 50 4 Fall 2014.

Mann, Thomas. “Why LC Subject Headings are More Important Than Ever.” American libraries (2003): 52-54.

Manoff, Marlene. “Academic Libraries and the Culture Wars: The Politics of Collection Development.” Collection Management 16.4 (1993): 1-17.

Olson, Hope A. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library trends 47.2 (1998): 233-54.

Olson, Hope A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Print.

Olson, Hope A., and Rose Schlegl. “Bias in Subject Access Standards: A Content Analysis of the Critical Literature.” Proceedings of the Annual Conference of CAIS/Actes Du Congrès Annuel De l’ACSI, 1999.

Olson, Hope A., and Rose Schlegl. “Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 32.2 (2001): 61-80.

Quinn, Brian. “Collection Development and the Psychology of Bias.” The Library 82.3 (2012).

Sens, Jean-Mark, and Anthony J. Fonseca. “A Skeptic’s View Of Patron-Driven Acquisitions: Is It Time To Ask The Tough Questions?” Technical Services Quarterly 30.4 (2013): 359-371.

Sweetland, James H., and Peter G. Christensen. “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Titles: Their Treatment in the Review Media and their Selection by Libraries.” Collection Building 14.2 (1995): 32-41.

Sykes, Vivian. (1990). “Advocacy for Ethnic Collection Development.” In K.T.A. Scarborough (Ed.), Developing Library Collections for California’s Emerging Majority: A Manual of Resources for Ethnic Collection Development. Oakland, CA: Bay Area Library and Information System. 34-68.

Toren, Beth Jane,. “Bam! Pow! Graphic Novels Fight Stereotypes in Academic Libraries: Supporting, Collecting, Promoting.” Technical Services Quarterly 28.1 (2010): 55-69.

Veeh, Elese M. Politics and Collection Diversity in California Public Libraries’ Nonfiction Holdings on Two Controversial Subjects: Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage. Unpublished Master’s Paper, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (2007).

Warner, Jody Nyasha. “Africa in Canadian Academic Libraries: A Continent’s Voices Go Missing.” Social Justice 32.4 (2005): 180-91.

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