How Inclusive Description Combats Harmful, Problematic, or Contested Language

Sarah Nocente
Student Metadata Librarian, Supporting Transparent & Open Research Engagement & Exchange (STOREE)
MLIS graduate, UBC iSchool

The Making Research Accessible initiative (MRAi) has developed a statement on harmful, problematic, and contested language in the Downtown Eastside Research Access Portal (DTES RAP) to honour its commitment to inclusive language.  

The MRAi, the collaborative group responsible for the DTES RAP, produced this statement in response to the significant role that subject headings play in making research findable in the DTES RAP. Consistent subject headings help people search and discover what they are looking for in a library system, but they can also reinforce stigmatizing language.

Description of an article with subject headings from UBC’s Institutional Repository, cIRcle.

Subject headings are unlike general keywords you might use in a Google search. Instead, they come from a fixed list of terms called a controlled vocabulary. Using a controlled vocabulary allows the description of a book, a film, an article, or other materials to be consistent across different libraries, in different cities or even in different countries. The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is the most widely used subject heading index in the world. Due to its global reach, the process to update or eliminate terminology in the LCSH is slow and arduous. As a result, the LCSH relies on some terminology which is outdated and inaccurate. It is also important to recognize that subject headings can carry implicit biases of the people and institutions who develop and maintain them. This can result in stigmatizing representations of communities and individuals. So, while the LCSH provides a consistent way to catalogue library materials, it also poses problems for ensuring that the terms used are representative and inclusive for its communities of users. 

One well documented example of the negative impacts of the LCSH is illustrated in the documentary Change the Subject. The film talks about the harmful effects of outdated anti-immigrant language within the LCSH at Dartmouth College Library and how student activism pushed for the offensive terminology to be changed. While language is fluid and constantly shifts to reflect changes in social and cultural values, the LCSH and other controlled vocabularies often lag behind. 

The good news is that libraries and other knowledge institutions are taking steps to create local vocabularies that suit the needs of their community of users. X̱wi7x̱wa Library at UBC is one example. They use unique, locally specific subject headings created by the First Nations House of Learning (FNHL). The FNHL subject headings are based on Indigenous theory and practice, thereby ensuring that the terminology used is both culturally relevant and appropriate (Doyle et al., 2015). Another example is Homosaurus, a controlled vocabulary that supports improved access to LGBTQ+ resources in libraries, archives, and other knowledge institutions. We can see that knowledge institutions have taken up the work of finding ways to support their communities’ social identities and knowledge systems through the use of inclusive language.  

The DTES RAP acknowledges the significance of supporting communities’ information needs by using language that is accurate and reflective of community values and perspectives. We recognize that this work requires constant evaluation and reassessment to reflect changes to community language preferences. This is why a joint project between the MRAi and the Supporting Transparent & Open Research Exchange and Engagement (STOREE) project at UBC is currently underway to create place-based, inclusive, and socially responsive subject headings for the DTES RAP.  

In the meantime, the statement on harmful, problematic, and contested language in the DTES RAP offers additional resources about this topic.  

You can view the statement here:  

DTES RAP Harmful, Problematic, and Contested Language Statement   


Doyle, A., Lawson, K., & Dupont, S. (2015). Indigenization of knowledge organization at the X̱wi7x̱wa Library. Journal of Library and Information Studies, 13(2), 107-34.