Casual Racism in Classification

I stumbled across this class heading on ClassWeb today while cataloging a book of poetry by a Haitian American author. It disgusts me that this type of racist mentality still exists in the Library of Congress catalog, but sadly, it’s hardly surprising.

Turns out, that .N3-N5 number extension is everywhere. (Netanel Ganin wrote a great blog post about this very issue.)

Headings such as:

  • BF432.N5: Psychology—Consciousness. Cognition—Intelligence. Mental ability. Intelligence testing. Ability testing—By specific group of people, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans
  • F1035.N3: British America—Canada—Elements in the population—Negroes. Blacks
  • PN1995.9.N4: Drama—Motion pictures—Other special topics, A-Z—Negroes. Blacks. African Americans

Short of literally occupying the Library of Congress in protest and demanding they fix these class headings (and, as a colleague of mind pointed out when I showed this to her, not all black people are African American, such as the author of that book of poetry), how are we as librarians (and catalogers) to supposed to respond? Because I feel that a response or action is warranted here.

Frankly, it would be an enormous, time-intensive, and costly undertaking to reclassify every .N4 book, especially when so many of us have so many priorities already. Do we reclassify items as they come into the collection? Chip away at existing items as we have time?

It seems crude to use time/resources as an excuse to shuffle this off to the ever-growing “future projects” pile, but it’s a legitimate quandary, particularly in institutions with a lone cataloger.

How do we act in lieu of waiting for LC to correct this instance of casual racism?

2019 ALA Council Election Analysis

A few weeks ago I finally got around to doing my good citizen duty and filled out my ALA election ballot.

I am an enthusiastic election junkie. If there’s an election, I will do hours of research on the candidates and the issues at hand. I will arrive with a cheat sheet to fill out both pages of the ballot, including the dozens of candidates in judicial races–even the ones who are running uncontested. And even if my chosen candidate doesn’t win, the point is to engage in the process and have a say in who I believe will best represent us, because every one of us is a stakeholder in our communities, whether in a congressional district or a body like the ALA Council.

However, I must admit to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information on the ALA ballot for 79 Councilor-at-Large candidates on one page. It was pretty daunting.

We were asked to choose a maximum of 38 candidates for Councilors-at-Large (around 48% of the initial crop) so there was much research and analysis to be done. Biographies provided some potential useful data points, such as current position, city, state, type of library, division affiliations, ALA activities, and length of membership in ALA.

I also considered what my own values were going into this and what values I was looking for in candidates: values like commitment to diversity and inclusion; to personal learning and serving underserved communities; and to ensuring everyone has a voice and a seat at the table.

Voting Smarter… With Data!

As I was going down the ballot, a number of questions started forming in my mind: things like gender breakdown of candidates, how many different areas of specialty were represented, how many were in administration or management, and the overall length of duration candidates had been members of ALA.

Fortunately, I had a spreadsheet that could answer those questions.

After doing some qualitative analysis and coding, I was able to break down some of the response data into a number of categories. Based on positions listed in each bio, I identified eight broad career areas: Faculty, Information Technology, Management, Public Services, Reference, School, Subject Librarian, and Technical Services.

Additionally, I identified whether candidates were in management or administration, as well as how many years they had been an ALA member. I also assigned each candidate to a geographical area using the regions and divisions of the United States (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau).

Finally, I identified whether each candidate could be considered diverse based on whether they self-identified as, for example, non-white, LGBTQ, neurodivergent, or disabled.

Note: One thing I do want to stress is that the following is an exploration of how I parsed the data from candidate biographies to make decisions about for whom to ultimately cast my 38 votes. I was limited to what candidates reported in their bios about things like ethnicity and sexual orientation.


Overall, candidates were overwhelming female, at nearly two-to-one (fig. 1). This is consistent with measures of gender in librarianship, which have found that women account for 79% of all librarians (at least as of 2017).

A bar chart showing that 50 of the candidates were female while only 29 were male.
Figure 1

There was also a relatively even split between managers and non-managers, the latter being just slightly larger (fig. 2):

A pie chart showing that the number of managers was 41 while the number of non-managers was 38.
Figure 2

However, when we look at the breakdown by gender, we see that while the number of female vs. male managers is relatively even, the number of female non-managers is significantly higher (fig. 3). Again, this finding is consistent with literature on gender representation in management and suggests that we still have a ways to go in having more women library directors and managers.


I also looked at how many candidates identified as a non-white member of an ethnic minority or LGBTQ. While this was based on self-reporting, it still suggests that about two-thirds of candidates are white and heterosexual (fig. 4). When we break that out into how many of each are in some type of managerial role, the disparities widen even more (fig. 5).

A pie chart showing that there were 30 candidates who identified as being diverse (38 percent) versus 49 who did not (62 percent).
Figure 4
Figure 5

Again, while the number of diverse vs. non-diverse candidates who are non-managers is closer to equal, there were over twice as many non-diverse managers in this data set. And the ratio of diverse vs. non-diverse managers was an even 2:3.

I will discuss the importance of this towards the end of this post, but suffice to say that it appears indicative of lingering cultural attitudes towards race in librarianship.

Length of ALA Membership

Another area I looked at was how long each candidate had been a member of ALA (fig. 6). I broke down the durations into six segments, focusing on where each candidate is at in their career (or at least how established they are in ALA).

Figure 6

We see that the majority of candidates come from a set of individuals who aren’t necessarily new members but are still relatively early in their careers (or at least as members of ALA). While I did not analyze how active each candidate has been in ALA to date (in terms of committee memberships, etc.), there is a correlation between how long individuals have been ALA members and how many are running for ALA Council.

For me, this was an important consideration because, while more established members bring experience and institutional knowledge to the table, newer members bring fresh perspectives that can lead to positive changes overall in the organization. Ideally, newer and established members should work together and learn from each other to make the Council a more representative and fairer body.

Career Area

The next area I looked at was representation by career area from the job titles candidates listed in their biographies (fig. 7), the categorization based on titles that included words like “director,” “manager,” “head,” or “dean.”

Figure 7

This element was important to consider because it is critical that those in management and those who carry out the day-to-day work on the library floor (and in technical services) be represented at the table.

About fifty percent (49.4%, n=39) of the candidates were either in public service or management, while 13 were faculty at a college or university. If I were to hazard an interpretation, it would seem that librarians who are public-facing or who are decision makers seem to be drawn to leadership roles such as the ALA Council, while those who primarily work behind the scenes tend are less inclined to participate. Of course this is a relatively small sample size, so making any generalizations from this is pretty shaky.

Geographic Distribution

One final area I looked at was where each candidate was located in the United States (fig. 8). This aspect seemed important since different regions of the country face different challenges and issues, and it is important that there be parity in representation. For instance, the relative affluence of the Northeastern states will affect libraries and users very differently as supposed to libraries and users in more Southern states.

Again, these regions are those used by the U.S. Census Bureau to track demographics throughout the country.

Figure 8

Unsurprisingly, states on the Atlantic Coast had the highest representation, followed by the eastern Midwest and those along the West Coast. If we look more broadly at geographic region, we see a pretty stark divide between the eastern and western half of the country (fig. 9).

Figure 9

The South and Northeast each make up about 32% of the total number of candidates on the ballot, while the Midwest and West only make up 20% and 16%, respectively. However, if we look at the population distribution of each region, we see some very different percentages (fig. 10).

Figure 10

If we compare the figures from these charts side by side (fig. 11), we see that some regions (West, South) are under-represented, some are relatively equal in representation (Midwest), and others are over-represented (Northeast). It’s unclear what’s going on here. Could it be that libraries in places like the Northeast have readier access to resources and funds and thus have more staff who are able to run for Council, while librarians in Southern states could be more active due to the needs of their users. More research would be needed though to make

Figure 11

And if we look at the actual distribution of candidates throughout the U.S. (the image below links to a larger version), we do see that there are larger clumps in the Eastern states and less clumping further the west we go, with candidates there coming from more urban areas.

Figure 12

Where Is This Going?

So what did all of this data mean for how it shaped my choices for whom to vote in this election? For one, it suggested that the makeup of this crop of candidates looks to be pretty non-diverse (i.e., white, heterosexual, and cisgendered), with the majority of the candidates coming from the Eastern part of the country.

We also see that candidates are predominantly coming from urban areas, especially in the Western states where they appear to be clustered around cities. This suggests that smaller and rural libraries may not necessarily be well represented, and their needs may go unheard within the broader library community. That’s speculation of course, but it is striking to see how how few pins there are in the Western half of the map above. Are librarians in this part of the country not able to participate as readily in committees? Do they lack time/resources to run for and join the Council?

However, it’s important to stress that these observations are drawn from only the data and that reality is much more nuanced. Not every white person is ambivalent about diversity and inclusion. But the data does suggest that we may be missing critical voices and perspectives at the top that could make our profession safer, more welcoming, and more diverse.

What this meant for me as I faced the ballot a few weeks ago is that I had to do quite a bit of spreadsheet finagling to come up with a set of 38 candidates who I felt 1) were best qualified, and 2) represented each category outlined above (gender, diversity, duration of ALA membership, career area, managerial status, and geographic distribution).

Frankly, we are facing a critical time in our profession for putting our actions where our stated values in terms of a commitment to inclusion and diversity. People are feeling alienated from how ALA is run, meaning that there is a disconnect between what individuals are experiencing and reporting and how leadership ultimately responds.

And the racist incident at Midwinter in January with April Hathcock indicates that our profession is still unfriendly and unwelcoming towards minorities and people of color. April wrote in a blog post that “ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.”

We have to do better than this, and it has to start with leadership. The Council is one (but not the only) way of getting there. Can it be fixed? Not sure, and I’m probably not the best person to approach that question.

4.1% of Americans now identify as LGBTQ

Findings from a Gallup poll out a few days ago suggest that the total population of adults in the United States who identify as LGBTQ has risen to over 10 million, or 4.1%. This number is up from 3.5% in 2012.

That is a pretty statistically significant bump.

Key findings from the poll include that the number of millennials who identify as LGBTQ+ has risen from 5.8% in 2012 to 7.3% in 2016, and that more women are identifying this way now than previously.

From a LIS perspective, this raises the question of what the percentage of our public library collections are also LGBTQ-related – and clearly so.

Last year, LGBTQ+ books dominated the ALA’s banned books list, according to a PinkNews article, with nearly half of the list having LGBTQ themes as the reason the books were challenged.

The first major census research on the estimate size of the LGBT Americans was conducted in the early 1990s by organizations such as the Kinsey Institute, the CDC (via the American National Health Interview Survey), and the groundbreaking research done by sociologist Edward Laumann in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The problem with these early studies is that they suffered from the phenomenon of under-reporting. Shame, social stigma, and the danger of legal ramifications kept most LGBTQ+ people in the closet, so it was difficult to get a clear picture of the true size and shape of the population. Even now, in many places social pressure and stigma still keep many people from openly identifying and reporting as LGBTQ+.

Let’s look briefly at some other demographic data.

In 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans of Asian descent made up 5.8% of the total population.

The Steinhardt Social Research Institute estimates that in 2015 the total Jewish population in the United States was over 7 million (around 2.2% of the total U. S. population). Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that only 0.7% of the population was Buddhist; the same for Hindus.

Point is, most libraries would never hesitate to include or catalog books based on their ethnic, racial, or religious content. And yet it’s difficult to get an accurate number of books in a public library collection that have LGBTQ themes or content.

4.1% is a sizable chunk of the U. S. population, and it’s time that librarians stopped being afraid to include those books in their collections.

Discoveries in LC Authorities

JusticeIf anyone has been following my Twitter feed recently, I’ve been posting updates as I finish individual heading pages for my compendium of (at last count) 879 LGBTQ-related Library of Congress subject headings. It’s the continuation of a research project that I started last fall for one of my cataloging courses on which I’ll be writing a paper once all of the analysis of the data is complete.

It’s intense.

One of the delights to come out of this project has been recording the bibliographic references in the 670 note fields in the authority records. This evening I came across one for the heading “Sodomy–Religious aspects,” a reference to a 1997 book by Notre Dame scholar Mark D. Jordan titled The invention of sodomy of Christian theology.

An excerpt from the Library Journal review on the Amazon page:

[Jordan] examines paradoxes in the moral teaching on sexuality, especially the theological context for same-sex genital acts, by exploring the history of Christian writings. Eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian coined the term sodomy in relation to the word blasphemy in an abstracted analogy to the sin of denying God through homoerotic desires.

And from Kirkus Reviews:

Although the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is at least as old as the book of Genesis, the view of sodomy as a form of sexual sin seems to have been invented in the 11th century by the Italian ascetic St. Peter Damian. Jordan (Medieval Institute/Notre Dame Univ.) restates the now generally accepted view that the sin leading to Sodom’s destruction was transgression of the laws of hospitality rather than same-sex intercourse per se, and he gives some very relevant philosophical warnings about using centuries-old texts to find answers to modern questions.

From the Wikipedia page on Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah, it sounds as if Damian was just as obsessed with the private sex lives of his contemporaries as many conservative, evangelical Christians are today (although it also sounds like there is a long tradition of people looking the other way when it comes to Catholic priests abusing vulnerable boys).

This story may be one of the roots of the Church’s (and Western civilization’s) long history of persecuting gay people, and (until recently) of the sad legacy of anti-gay bias in the LC.

Language matters… as does justice.

RPGs, imaginative play, and libraries

More good news for fans of fantasy role-playing games (or RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder!

An article by Merrill Miller posted last week on The Humanist presents the findings of a recent study published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that explores the link between imagination and irreligiosity.

There is a growing body of literature exploring the links between imaginative play and cognitive and creative development (I’ve included a sample below), on everything from teaching chemical formulas to middle schoolers to helping students learn diplomacy.

Organizations like The RPG Research Project are spearheading research on the positive effects of collaborative gaming on ethics, problem solving, empathy, racial and gender stereotype attitudes, and verbal and writing skills. There are also therapeutic applications, from treating PTSD, depression, bi-polar, and autism-spectrum disorders.

To my knowledge though, this is one of the first studies to examine the impact of role-playing and storytelling on current religious status. Miller reports in the article that “individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.”

As a librarian, I’m interested in the educational and creative applications of RPGs, especially for children and teens. However, as a secular American, I can’t help thinking of the words of Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

I had a fantastic conversation at ALA in San Francisco with two guys at the Paizo Publishers booth. They were thrilled to hear that I’m a newcomer to role-playing and to Pathfinder, and that I’d just started building my first character—a half-elf bard named Casevar (for your who-cares notebooks). I also learned that Pathfinder has a growing presence in the teen sections of many libraries, and that some librarians even keep a copy of the core rulebook as a reference material for in-library groups to use.

This gets to the core of our mission as librarians: that providing access to tools and information will help inspire, invest in, and produce better informed, curious, and compassionate individuals who are engaged and critical thinkers. RGPs such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder can reinforce this work through conversations about ethics and morality, experiencing consequences of one’s own and others’ actions, and the priorities of different qualities (such as intelligence versus strength or charisma) in a character in the context of group dynamics. It’s a remarkably complex and philosophical exercise!

I’m also curious if there are similar benefits to virtual cooperative gaming, but from my personal experience with Pathfinder campaigning, being at the same table, in person, is quite different from interacting online.

Further reading:

Chen, M., Wong, Y., & Wang, L. (2014). Effects of type of exploratory strategy and prior knowledge on middle school students’ learning of chemical formulas from a 3D role-playing game. Educational Technology Research & Development, 62(2), 163-185. doi:10.1007/s11423-013-9324-3

Newman, M. (2001). The Academic Achievement Game: Designs of Undergraduates’ Efforts to Get Grades. Written Communication, 18(4), 470.

Schmitz, B., Schuffelen, P., Kreijns, K., Klemke, R., & Specht, M. (2015). Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes: The impact of a location-based, collaborative role-playing game on behaviour. Computers & Education, 85, 160-169. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2015.02.012

Schneider, E., & Hutchison, B. (2015). Referencing the imaginary: An analysis of library collection of role-playing game materials. Reference Librarian, 56(3), 174-188. doi:10.1080/02763877.2014.1002716

Why Secular?

It seems appropriate that I’m writing my inaugural post here in San Francisco at the 2015 American Library Association conference! I had every intent of starting sooner, but from classes to travel to the general running-aroundness of life… well, that just didn’t happen.

So, to the big question—why secular librarian?

To answer this, I’d start by relating an anecdote from this past January at MLIS orientation at St. Catherine University. We were playing a get-to-know-you game of collecting interesting facts and details about each other, and one of the questions was if you had a website. I shared with one of my cohorts that I was starting this blog, The Secular Librarian, and she asked what “secular” meant.

“It means that I’m not religious,” I said, in the same voice that I use to describe my vegetarianism.

She krinkled her nose for a second and cocked her head slightly, and said, “Oh.” I wasn’t sure what kind of an “Oh” this was, because I hear many variations—an “Oh (that’s interesting)” or an “(Oh (so you worship Satan)”.

In any case, when it came time to relay some of the interesting tidbits we’d learned, she mentioned the name of my website. I instinctively tense up whenever being outed about my non-belief (either by myself or others) in a group setting, but it passed with no comment and we moved on.

But another student sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!”

It was that comment that helped cement my resolve to start this site. Because even though we live in a supposedly pluralistic society, it’s still a risky move to come out as atheist/agnostic in the United States, where studies and polls have found that atheists and rapists occupy about the same level of trustworthiness to a majority of the American people.

But secularism is not a synonym for atheism, although both terms are perceived that way, and many secularists are atheist. It’s unfortunate because secularism is one of the most democratic forms of society there is. In short, secularism is committed to the separation of church and state; to the setting aside of public spaces as either religion-free zones or zones where all beliefs are given equal treatment and access; and to the dismantling of religious privilege in society, institutions, and government.

You know… in a nutshell.

And in terms of librarianship, this is right in line with the LBR—number two in particular:

Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

So just as some librarians bring their own unique cultural or minority perspectives to their practice of librarianship (e.g., LGBTQ, Chicano, Asian-American, etc), secular librarians can also add value and benefit to their libraries and their collections.

This is the theme I plan to continue exploring over the next few months, and throughout the life of this blog.