UC Berkeley Library works to add alternative term for ‘illegal aliens’ in catalog

Moffit Library
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Starting in spring 2019 and continuing today, the campus library’s information technology team has been working to add the subject heading “Undocumented immigrants” to catalog records with the “Illegal aliens” heading, according to Jo Anne Newyear-Ramirez, the UC Berkeley Library's associate university librarian for scholarly resources.

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As some of the Library of Congress’ catalog headings have remained stagnant in the face of language change, the UC Berkeley Library is working to decrease the use of “illegal aliens” — a term that many find dehumanizing — to denote the undocumented population.

A subject heading is a keyword or phrase used to sort books and other materials by topic, through which students and library patrons can easily search for relevant media, according to a UC Berkeley Library press release. These headings are standardized across most libraries in the nation, with the master list held at the Library of Congress.

Starting in spring 2019 and continuing today, the campus library’s information technology team has been working to add the subject heading “Undocumented immigrants” to catalog records with the “Illegal aliens” heading, according to Jo Anne Newyear-Ramirez, the UC Berkeley Library’s associate university librarian for scholarly resources. This would allow searches to be conducted by either term.

“When someone sees the term ‘Illegal aliens,’ they assume those that are referenced are ‘other’ and therefore are permitted to be subject to prejudice, bigotry, and outright hate and discrimination,” said Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian of the campus Ethnic Studies Library, and Robert Toyama, cataloging coordinator for the Ethnic Studies Library, in an email. “Impressionable students may at first question or wonder about the heading, but after constant use may come to see this term as normal and accepted.”

Gisele Tanasse, the UC Berkeley Library’s film and media services librarian, said in an email that she recalled a student’s face moving from “horror to disgust to sadness” upon encountering the “Illegal aliens” heading, prompting her to introduce students to the catalog with a warning and apology.

The existence of the “Illegal aliens” subject heading has long drawn controversy, according to the press release. Dartmouth College students initiated an effort in 2014 to drop the term from the lexicon, which reached Congress but was blocked by lawmakers.

To remove the heading from campus’s catalog altogether, the Library of Congress would need to change the term, according to Newyear-Ramirez, or all UC campuses would have to agree to not use the term in their cataloging and circulation systems, according to Castillo-Speed and Toyama. If this fails, campus should include a provision in its catalog redirecting searches for “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants,” Castillo-Speed and Toyama added.

The issue is not confined to a single term, according to Castillo-Speed and Toyama, who also feel that the use of “Indians” in subject headings should be updated to “Indigenous peoples.”

“We want everyone to feel welcome while exploring the Library’s wealth of materials, and a key part of that is using inclusive, respectful language when describing those materials,” Newyear-Ramirez said in the email. “While the Library’s recent change is an important step, our work is not over.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.