Cataloguing trauma [content warning: self-harm]

Content warning: This post discusses self-harm, mental illness and institutional indifference to trauma.

That the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a biased, offensive and wholly outdated set of controlled terms is not a new concept in cataloguing. Plenty has been written on the innumerable ways LCSH describes people, places and concepts in ways that do not belong in a modern library catalogue. I hope plenty has also been written on the trauma this can cause library users (though I confess at the moment I can’t find much). But today I need to talk about a couple of terms in particular, terms that hit a little too close to home, and which I never want to see in a catalogue ever again. I need to talk about the trauma this causes me, a cataloguer. I need to talk. LCSH needs to listen.

Today on my cataloguing pile, there appeared a book on dealing with depression and mental illness. I won’t identify the book or its author, but it was a wonderfully helpful book that encouraged its reader to write in it and make it their own. This being a library copy, our readers naturally can’t do that, but I guess they could photocopy parts of the book if they needed. The author clearly had lived experience of these issues and sought to write a book that might help someone who is struggling, as they had once done.

One section of the book discusses what to do if the reader feels a need to self-harm. It includes things like ‘glue your fingers together and pick at that instead’, ‘count from 100 backwards and start again if you lose track’ and ‘make a list of people you can talk to, and don’t feel bad about talking to them’. To another cataloguer, it might have seemed like a minor portion of a book that is substantially about other things. To me, this topic is so important, and the advice so genuinely helpful, that I decided it needed surfacing in the catalogue record. In particular, I decided it merited its own subject heading.

Looking up ‘Self-harm’ in LCSH brought me to these terms:

Self-harm, Deliberate
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm, Non-fatal
USE Parasuicide

Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
USE Self-mutilation

The entry for ‘Parasuicide’ reads:

Parasuicide  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on deliberate acts of selfharm in which there is no intent to die. Works on attempted suicide are entered under Suicidal behavior.
UF Deliberate self-harm
Harm, Deliberate self
Non-fatal self-harm
Parasuicidal behavior
Self-harm, Deliberate
Self-harm, Non-fatal
BT Self-destructive behavior
RT Suicidal behavior

The entry for ‘Self-mutilation’ reads:

Self-mutilation  (May Subd Geog)
Here are entered works on behaviors by which individuals intentionally cause damage to their bodies. Works on stereotyped behaviors by which individuals unintentionally cause damage to their bodies are entered under Self-injurious behavior. Works on nonstereotyped behaviors and cognitions by which individuals directly or indirectly cause harm to themselves are entered under Self-destructive behavior.
UF Automutilation
Self-harm (Self-mutilation)
Self-injurious behavior (Self-mutilation)
Self-injury (Self-mutilation)
BT Malingering
Self-destructive behavior
NT Cutting (Self-mutilation)

I hit the roof.

I read these and said, out loud, to an empty office: ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ I skipped right past the dubious non-preferred terms (UFs), the distant and unfeeling scope notes, the questionable broader terms (‘Malingering’? Really?!). I zeroed in on the terms that someone, somewhere, in another place and another time, had decided were the right words to use to describe someone harming themselves.

Describing these acts as ‘Parasuicide’ is not helpful. I say this both as a cataloguer and as someone with lived experience of the acts in question. This is not good enough. This term needs to go.

People searching for works on this topic almost certainly be using the keyword ‘Self-harm’ or a close variation. If they’re using keyword search instead of subject search (and they will be, because nobody uses subject search anymore except librarians), these works will not appear in search results. They would have to know the particular term used by LCSH, thereby negating the point of having non-preferred terms in the first place, and be willing to overlook the inappropriateness of this term. I doubt anyone with an information need on this topic would be willing to overlook this. Certainly I’m not.

The scope notes for ‘Parasuicide’ are almost exclusively drawn from medical reference sources, suggesting the term is used in a medical context. Yet the term does not appear in the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), used by most medical and health libraries. MeSH instead groups the concepts expressed by the LCSH terms ‘Parasuicide’ and ‘Self-mutilation’ together under ‘Self-injurious behavior‘, with a much more cogent hierarchy and set of non-preferred terms. MeSH restricts the term ‘Self-mutilation‘ to ‘the act of injuring one’s own body to the extent of cutting off or permanently destroying a limb or other essential part of a body’, with the implication that this is deliberate.

Because my library catalogues for a general audience, using LCSH and not MeSH, I would argue it is inappropriate to base a term on medical sources. We should instead be using general ones, using terms ordinary people would use. In an LCSH library, who is most likely to need information on this topic? How do they need it described? I would think the likeliest people are those experiencing ideations of self-harm, or people who know someone in this situation. Why does LCSH draw a distinction between ‘self-harm caused by mental illness’ and ‘self-harm caused for other reasons, including supposedly for attention’, and, from an information retrieval perspective, does this distinction matter? Would works intended for a general audience be more likely to use one term over another? What harm might this cause?

This book is primarily about helping sufferers help themselves. I would like to index it $a Self-harm $x Prevention $v Popular works (leaving aside for now the issues of having a specific form heading for ‘books for ordinary people’). Instead I will almost certainly have to use the heading $a Parasuicide $x Prevention $v Popular works, or perhaps I’ll go one step higher and use the broader term to both these headings, $a Self-destructive behavior. Even though that doesn’t really cover it, and doesn’t bring out the specific issue that I wanted the heading to address.

When I tweeted the other day that ‘Cataloguing is power’, this is what I meant! We have the power to guide users to the materials they’re looking for, via the words and phrases we use. Cataloguers have a responsibility to use terms that are meaningful to their users, especially when their userbase is the general public, and to take a stand against terms in their controlled vocabulary that are no longer appropriate.

I have a greater ability than most people to advocate for change in subject headings. I would like to see the heading ‘Parasuicide’ changed to one of its non-preferred terms that includes the phrase ‘Self-harm’. Ideally this term and ‘Self-mutilation’ would be combined, akin to the MeSH term ‘Self-injurious behavior’, with the accompanying taxonomy. But this won’t happen overnight. It certainly won’t happen in time for me to finish cataloguing this book. My workplace is very strict on adherence to standards and my options for deviation are limited. I might include some key phrases in a summary field, so that a keyword search would pick them up and bring this book to the people who need it most.

This post is a direct result of my emotional response to these headings. It is informed by my own lived experience of mental illness. It is the trauma of cataloguing, just as it is cataloguing that trauma. It is a traumatic response. I had this response at 5.30pm when the office was virtually empty, so everyone I might have talked to had already left for the day. Perhaps that was for the best. Instead I’ve been able to direct my energy into researching these headings and formulating options for change. I also bought myself some chocolate, which definitely helped.

I needed to talk. You, the reader, have generously listened. Now LCSH needs to listen, and reflect, and change.

Five things I learned at #coGLAM18… and a bit extra

I am the future. It’s me. #coGLAM18

Last Sunday I went on an expedition to Sydney for Rob Thomson’s annual NSW library technicians’ unconference extravaganza. This year was an inclusive affair, with the title of CoGLAMeration attracting participants from across the industries. I learned SO much and had a great time, even if I needed the Monday off to recover from all that networking. I may also have volunteered to catalogue a capsule hotel! I know I learned way more than five things, so here are a few selections. (They are metadata-heavy, because that’s how I roll.)

We are already doing the thing! Upon announcing the first curated session, Rob also invited attendees, if they so chose, to a breakout session either on ‘cataloguing’ or ‘critical librarianship’. These are basically my favourite things in the world to talk about, so I asked if we could combine them, to which Rob responded (I paraphrase) ‘of course you can! it’s an unconference! do what you want!’ I therefore became the unexpected and slightly unwilling leader of a combined breakout session, which about 10 people attended. Fortunately everyone was enthused and ready to chat, starting with ‘so what is critical librarianship exactly?’

I reckon just about everyone in that session was already a critical librarianship practitioner—they just mightn’t have known it had a name. It was gratifying, and a little humbling, to realise that my fellow attendees didn’t need me to teach them how to ask ‘why?’. They were already asking the right questions, coming up with ways to improve their catalogue (most of which they couldn’t implement due to policy, budget or skillset, on which more later) and striving to provide the best library experience possible. Of course they were. They were seasoned library experts. I was the ring-in fresh out of library school, who still had so much to learn. They were all very nice to me, though. (Special thanks to Bonnie who helped steer conversations and provided great insights!)

Good metadata is another facet of the class war. The #critlib/#critcat 2x combo breakout session was populated mostly by school librarians, who expressed some frustration with the limited resources at their disposal. Never having worked in a school library, their stories were a huge learning experience for me. They spoke of the divide between top private schools, who can afford to subscribe directly to Libraries Australia or WorldCat, or to otherwise pay for top-quality metadata; and all the other schools, which generally use SCIS and can’t always afford a skilled library tech to improve their catalogue. (NB: I have never used SCIS and so cannot pass judgement on it.)

While I’m used to cataloguing with limited resources (I’ve never used WebDewey or ClassWeb and have grown used to using FreeLCSH), I’ve always had the luxury of a) access to Libraries Australia b) the time and space to create good metadata and c) the policy and technical abilities to modify others’ data so it meets my library’s needs. The idea that metadata is not created equal was a bombshell. Every library should have access to the right metadata—and be able to make it the right metadata for them. Seize the means of metadata production! Cataloguers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your sanity!

Next year!

Cataloguers need to sell themselves. Not necessarily monetarily, unless they’re into that kind of thing, but there’s a definite need for metadata workers to take a more active role in the promotion of our work. Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love having to do this. I am an introvert. I find people really hard. I like being able to work quietly and efficiently without too much interaction with other people. I also recently took a job as a reference librarian for exactly these reasons—because I know I need to get better at this stuff, but also because reference and cataloguing are two sides of the same coin. Getting first-hande experience of patrons’ reference and information needs will help me build a better catalogue. It will also help me extol the virtues of good metadata to the people in charge, because I’ll be able to better vocalise where it’s needed.

I appear to have become something of a cataloguing and metadata evangelist, and it’s certainly not something I ever thought I’d be doing. Honestly, though, it comes down to spotting a need. We’re not selling metadata as much as we need to. Our skills are decreasingly valued, decreasingly taught and decreasingly visible. Good metadata is not valued for its own sake. It’s up to us cataloguers to prove our worth. Just… give us a cuppa first.

I specialise in the art of good fortune, and also metadata. The breakout session touched on the issue of generalisation versus specialisation within LIS, as many participants were solo librarians and needed to be able to do everything. I was held up as an example of a specialist, and to the extent I know anything about metadata I suppose I am, but it got me thinking later on about how that came to be. What factors enabled me to specialise? Why am I afforded this luxury, while others are not?

I am, of course, a product of demographic fortune. Young, white, well-educated women have an easier road in this sector. But two things stood out. Firstly, that I was born and raised in a city with a comparative abundance of libraries. LIS punches well above its weight here, with the public, private and higher education sectors all still employing librarians. It’s meant I’ve had a plethora of library jobs to choose from, and I could afford to do what I love. Secondly, I have a single-minded focus on my career goals. I wanted to be a librarian. I now am! I wanted to catalogue for a living. I now am (and soon will be doing so full-time)! I wanted to work at a particular institution. I now am!!! These things happened because I worked hard, but also because other people took a chance on me, and because I got very, very lucky.

My tweetstream brings all the threads to the yard. Speaking of wheels of fortune, Bonnie’s fabulous talk ‘Critical making: rethinking access and engagement in GLAM’, prompted a delightful exchange on my twitter feed. At one point, Bonnie spoke of using the online screenprinting company Spoonflower to produce the fabrics used in her amazing #redactionart and #digitisethedawn dresses, the latter of which she wore to the event. (Love a dress that comes with its own hashtag!) This prompted American metadata magician Scotty Carlson to muse:

Scotty designed the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt I was wearing to #coGLAM18 (if you want one, he has a teepublic shop!). His tweet tied in beautifully with earlier conversations around cataloguing outreach, the subversive nature of textiles and the power of statement dressing. Also pockets. Such wondrous fabric might even convince me to learn to sew.

Enjoy all your successes, no matter how small. This is a sneaky sixth thing because it was a lesson I really needed to hear. I was thrilled to finally meet Bonnie in person and say ‘you’re awesome!’, and in return she bestowed upon me a large quantity of wisdom. One of these things was a reminder that success comes in all sizes: some earth-shattering, some minuscule. Not everything has to be a sector-changing event for it to be considered a success. Even getting people to think critically about Dewey, or wonder about critlib, for the first time, for even a second—these are all successes! These are all wins.

I have long expressed my frustration about the glacial pace of progress in LIS. I dislike the fact I can’t achieve three revolutions before breakfast. But Bonnie graciously reminded me that success doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay to take the long view, but don’t lose sight of the small victories.