What’s in a Naming Term?

Subject headings and inclusion for LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities

June 26, 2021

What's in a name: LGBTQ+ and Latinx perspectives on access

“It’s a trope of LGBTQ life that we come to the library to try to find out a little more about ourselves,” said Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She recalled her experience as an undergraduate working in the library, looking for reflections of her experience in the card catalog. “When I look for myself, I find myself and something that is not me.”

Access language—subject headings, naming terms, and search terms—reflect the values, priorities, and assumptions of their creators, and often demean or pathologize marginalized groups. The complexity of solving these issues—if they are solvable—was explored in “What’s in a name?: LGBTQ+ and Latinx perspectives on access terminology—challenges and solutions,” on Saturday, June 26, as part of the American Library Association’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual. The panel was sponsored by the Rainbow Round Table and moderated by Susan Wood, associate professor of library services at Suffolk County (N.Y.) Community College.

“What kinds of stories are told about us inside of the classification structure?” Drabinski asked. When examining classifications, she encourages people to pay attention to what goes unmarked—there is no heading for heterosexuality, for example, and men are rarely referenced, while women are explicitly tied to “family.” Things that are deviant from the norm are the things that get labeled. “As someone who comes to the catalog […] trying to find stuff about who I am, the classification tells me very clearly […] that I am excluded from the norm, that I am deviant,” and need to be solved, she says.

However, Drabinski cautions people to reflect on their urge to solve this problem. There’s an assumption that we can correct the language so everyone is equally represented, she says, but we are all subject to ideology. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, terms shift and change over time, and can differ between subgroups within the community. As an instruction librarian, Drabinski says that she has to balance two conflicting lessons: Teaching people to use the systems as they exist, and demonstrating that they are made by human beings and could be different. Language is inherently biased, she says, and “this is an unfixable problem, and all we can do is treat library classification and cataloging as a site of conflict and a terrain of struggle.”

Jamie A. Lee, associate professor at University of Arizona, is engaged in research on the power of naming practices in community-based archives. Community archives reflect the power of archives and the roles that communities play in identity. “How do we fit shifting identities to standards that are trying to fit us into little boxes?” Lee asks. “Imagine all of the nametags we’d be wearing today if we kept every single nametag that we had to wear since day one?”

As Lee and her team gathered information through focus groups and interviews, they began to notice the limitations and bias built into the tools they were using for analysis. AI transcription tools weren’t trained to interpret group dialects, for example. “We’re thinking about all of these tools that are fixed in ways, and we’re trying to make sense of things that don’t necessarily fit,” Lee says. These limitations became a frame for locating the biases inherent in the research.

Lee highlights the evolution of descriptions at the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) as an example of how naming conventions can be flexible and inclusive. The archive is post-custodial (it retains only digital copies of items in its collection) and participatory, which allows for a responsive, community-based approach to naming and preferred terms, according to Lee. “We start to see that the more that the archive is collecting […] it’s not easily narrativized into this easy story,” and you can see richness and complexity, they say. When a new term is needed, the archive’s staff consult within the organization and community without needing to petition any outside group. The practice of community archiving is “a story so far, it’s not an ending,” Lee says. “It’s continuing to evolve.”

Inclusive language is powerful outside of formal classifications as well, and still faces pushback within communities. Andrea Guzman, community relations library assistant at Oakland (Calif.) Public Library, shared an adapted presentation that they use to educate the library system about using gender-neutral, inclusive language in Spanish. The most common gender-neutral change is to use an ‘x’ or ‘e’ to replace the masculine ‘o’ or feminine ‘a’ word endings (Latinx or Latine, for example). They shared several common areas of resistance to using gender-inclusive language in Spanish:

  • Most people in Latin America don’t use Latinx/Latine.  Guzman notes that most people in Latin America don’t currently identify as transgender, genderqueer, or nonbinary. They encourage people making decisions about language to listen to members of the LGBTQ community directly affected, and acknowledged that there’s a long history in Latin American and white Western culture of homophobia and transphobia that plays into this pushback.
  • The Real Academia Española (RAE), the Spanish language authority, doesn’t approve x/e endings. RAE maintains that the existing standard is equal, but Guzman argues that using gendered terms as a default is not neutral. “Looking to certain institutions like that, which have a very strong colonial legacy, is not going to be the way for us to have to representation,” they say.
  • Everything is gendered in Spanish. Guzman points out that, while it’s possible to have deeper arguments about gendered language in general, human rights come first. “Objects are not having their human rights violated on a daily basis,” they say. “A table is not going to be fired for being trans.”
  • It’s hard to pronounce. “There are so many words in Spanish and English that are hard to pronounce,” Guzman says, and we learn to pronounce them. The intention of using of x/e endings is to disrupt binary assumptions, and learning is part of that.

They recommend educating library staff on inclusive language, including x/e endings in spoken and written materials, and being clear on why inclusive language is needed. It’s important as well to acknowledge that it’s not a perfect solution. Bringing people along on the learning journey—not policing language—is the goal.


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