“The Library of Congress Subject Heading as a Gendered Technology”
As Ph.D. students, we spend a significant amount of time researching our discipline in the library. We rely on the library to provide academic sources that are authoritative, scholarly, current, and credible. We use the library’s online catalog to search for and access these presumably relevant materials. We also assume that the library catalog is free of bias. Unfortunately this is not the case. My research finds that modern-day library discovery tools, despite decades of restructuring, still articulate a narrow definition of gender.

Understanding gender bias in the library catalog requires understanding the structure of the catalog itself. The easiest way to do this is to recreate a hypothetical search. Assume the user wants a book about a transgender person. The user would enter the search term “transgender” and “biography.” Software then searches the records within that particular library’s holdings. Upon finding a match, the software displays the items on the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog). The searcher can then click on any particular item from the list to explore the record in more depth, and if an item is deemed useful, the user can locate it using the call number.

Specially trained librarians (catalogers) create the searchable records described above, giving every item in the collection a unique bibliographic record that holds identifying information. A book record, for example, would include, among other things, author, title, publishing information, size, and pagination, and subject headings. The cataloger then uses a very intricate cataloging code, called MARC (Machine Readable Code) formatting, to create a digital record of the book.
An abbreviated MARC record for the book Conundrum by Jan Morris would look like this:

100 1 $aMorris, Jan,$d1926-
245 00 $aConundrum.
260 $aNew York :$bHarcourt Brace Jovanovich,$c[1974]
300 $axi, 174 p. ;$c21 cm.
500 $aAutobiographical.
600 10 $aMorris, Jan,$d1926-
650 0 $aTranssexuals.
650 0 $aTranssexuals$zGreat Britain$xBiography.
650 0 $aSex change$zGreat Britain$xCase studies.

Unfortunately, bibliographic records are woefully inadequate in meeting the needs of library catalog users and MARC records are incompatible with most of today’s data systems. Thus, librarians from around the world created a new conceptual model of bibliographic records: Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR). Adopted by the Library of Congress in 2011, FRBR gives a flexibility and granularity that was impossible with the old system. Unfortunately, through the creation of the new MARC 375 field, FRBR reinforces systemic gender bias by introducing into the MARC record a male/female classification binary.

MARC 375 Field: Outing the Transgender Author
Under the guise that “it can be a very helpful piece of information in informing you a little extra piece of identity about that person [sic],” FRBR now asks catalogers to record the author’s gender as an identifier in the newly created MARC 375 field (Library of Congress 2012). Yet it does not offer a reason for how that extra piece of identity might be helpful. In the case of a transgender person, the cataloger is to include the author’s gender before and after the date of the surgery. Below is an abbreviated MARC record for the book Conundrum, using the new standards:

100 1# $a Morris, Jan, $d 1926-
400 1# $w nne $a Morris, James, $d 1926-
670 ## $a Author’s Conundrum, 1974
375 ## $a male $s 1926 $2 [code for RDA list]
375 ## $a female $s 1972? $2 [code for RDA list]
[b. James Humphry Morris, Oct. 2, 1926;
had sex change operation, took new name “Jan Morris”]

The 375 field is troublesome for several reasons. Primarily, it defines gender by physical anatomy. The field allows three gender choices: female, male, or unknown. If the author is intersex, the gender is marked “Unknown,” and a note placed in the field. Relegating such information to the Notes section denigrates the intersex person. Further, by referring to an “unknown” gender, the rule assumes that there are only two acceptable genders: male and female. This assumption ignores other gender identities, gender expressions, gender roles, and gender fluidity (Gender Spectrum). It also ignores the transgender person’s transition, the time period when they begin to live as the gender with which they identify rather than the gender they were assigned at birth (National Center).

The fact that a bibliographic record is being prepared for a person presupposes that that person already has a public presence of some sort. But does that give the cataloger the right to search for and then codify the person’s gender? What if the gender transition was prior to the subject’s becoming known? Could this be considered a form of outing, and therefore an immoral act? Considering the crime rate against transgender persons, the cataloger may even be inadvertently risking the subject’s safety. Regardless, the cataloger has removed the transgender and/or gender-nonconforming person’s agency by publicly declaring their gender for them (Billey, et al. 10). The Library of Congress does not ask an author’s permission to permanently codify their gender, it assumes it, based on the normative m/f binary social structure in the U.S. The need for classification and/or standardization will never be justification for denying gender non-conforming persons dignity and privacy.

*The post has been edited from an extended research paper.