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Library of Congress to Remove the Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens”

It’s not often that cataloging issues are considered newsworthy in the library profession at large, but this news is most definitely worth sharing.

The Library of Congress recently announced that it will soon be removing the subject heading Illegal aliens (and all related headings) from its list of authorized subject headings.

Library of Congress Subject Headings photo by liltree, cc by-nc-nd 2.0The decision comes on the heels of a year and a half of lobbying efforts which originated here in the Dartmouth College Library. Research and Instruction Services librarians Amy Witzel and Jill Baron had worked closely with the campus student group CoFIRED (Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and DREAMers), who expressed strong concerns about the use of the term “Illegal aliens” in library catalogs and other discovery tools. Amy, Jill and I prepared the necessary documentation to make a formal petition (through our Library’s membership in the SACO program) to the Library of Congress to change the subject heading. After months of deliberation, the Library of Congress denied our petition on the grounds that Dartmouth’s proposed replacement heading (Undocumented immigrants) was problematic in the context of their internal terminology.

At the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting in Boston in January of this year, one of my colleagues on ALA’s Subject Analysis Committee continued to pursue the issue of removing the subject heading Illegal aliens within various components of ALA and succeeded in bringing the matter before ALA Council as a resolution. ALA Council overwhelmingly passed this resolution, urging the Library of Congress to replace this subject heading.

In February of this year, the Library of Congress again considered the request, this time at a much higher administrative level, and agreed to remove the heading Illegal aliens and replace it with two new headings: Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration. It should be noted that it is extremely rare for the Library of Congress to make changes to its subject headings based on community pressure.

This decision represents a great victory not only for the Dartmouth students who initiated the process, but for all undocumented library users in the United States and those who champion their rights and dignity.

For more information, see:

(Photo by liltree, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

John DeSantis, Cataloging and Metadata Services Librarian and Bibliographer for Film, Theater and Russian Language and Literature

2 thoughts on “Library of Congress to Remove the Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens”

  1. Lynne

    These people are not "undocumented"; they have not lost their documents. Whatever you think of the immigration laws, people who enter the U.S. without legal approval are here illegally, hence "illegal aliens." If you want to change the immigration laws, that's your right and theirs to campaign for.

    If "aliens" makes you think of creatures from outer space, then call them "illegal immigrants" -- but illegal they are.


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