Summary of April 25 Bias in Metadata Discussion

Our session on Bias in Metadata began with Jennifer sharing the story about the Starbucks racial bias education training session that will be held in 8,000 Starbucks stores on one day as a way to combat implicit bias and prevent another incident like the racial bias incident that occurred in the Philadelphia Starbucks. [1] There is recognition that a one day training isn’t going to fix the problem but it is a place to start. We recognized as a group that we have implicit bias and we need to be proactive in preventing that from impacting the metadata work we do.

We then discussed how bias in metadata effects authority work. The saga of proposing “white privilege” as a Library of Congress (LC) Subject Heading  showed that new terms take a very long time to process (two years and two rejections in this case) and what ends up being accepted is potentially so altered as to be unrecognizable for what it was intended to describe: Privilege (Social Psychology). The question was raised, as when the U.S. Patent Office was giving patents out for web technology when that was first started before really understanding how that technology would be used or was needed, if LC is in a moment of approving/disapproving terms without reaching out to the community to understand the needs for these terms? LC is a conservative body (the term “intersectionality” was used in a book title 20 years before LC approved it as a subject heading) and it is also not the most transparent organization. Highlights and excerpts from monthly meetings are published but not the full transcript so it can be difficult to know why a term was rejected or how to better explain the need for a rejected term. It was also pointed out, however, that LC responds to proposals from within LC the same way it does to external proposals so LC’s own catalogers seem to be just as in the dark as we are regarding how to successfully propose a new subject term.

Discussion also mentioned that LC classification is based on a default perspective of a white male and everything else is “other” – the term “women” being added to further classify something that is otherwise not gendered, for example.

We also discussed specific examples of problematic items in our own digital collections. Derogatory sheet music from the 1920s and 1930s are one example. Subject headings are applied that give geographic-specific subjects. The sheet music is not from that place but is about the place and meant to be discriminatory, insulting, and demeaning. Sharing those subject headings out as geographic-specific locations that could be used for mapping purposes in aggregators like DPLA does not seem appropriate and our mapping of those collections for sharing has kept those subjects as topical subjects only and nothing geographic-specific. When items like these are shared beyond IU, the original collection site and context can be lost and the metadata can be skewed in unexpected ways.

One participant studied applying subject headings to address problematic items like discriminatory and derogatory sheet music from the 20th century to help triangulate topical subjects associated with the item and clarify that aspect of the item. The subject headings that would be used, however, don’t apply to the aboutness of the item (the sheet music is derogatory, it’s not about the derogatoriness). So it’s difficult to use subject headings to express these problems.

Another example was a digitized photograph where the description from the photographer used a racist term as the title to describe the subject of the photograph and a genre heading of “Ethnographic photographs” was applied. The photographer was an amateur photographer so is that an appropriate genre or is that somehow trying to explain the use of the racist term (the ethnography being applied to the photographer and not the subject of the photograph)?

Again, the context is easily lost when this photograph is shared outside of the collection’s original website and the title stands as it is. Should the racist term be corrected or changed? Is there research use for providing this information? Participants offered ideas and examples they have experienced elsewhere – a click-through statement that has to be acknowledged before accessing a collection that contains potentially harmful imagery or terminology; showing something as a direct transcription (racist term in quotes, for example); showing changes over time in how people express themselves and current terminology used.

The discussion then turned to how we can show these kinds of changes in cataloging practice and whether or not we have the authority to declare, for example, that something involves racist content? Our time came to an end with many questions unanswered. We now prepare to meet at the In-house Institute on May 7 to continue this conversation and consider strategies to address historical cataloging problems and ways to head off new problems in our cataloging practice.

[1] Chang, Ailsa. (2018-04-19). “A Lesson In How To Overcome Implicit Bias.” Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed. NPR.