A paper describing a proposal to create a new type of library catalog—one that, in the way it uses metadata, acts as an “affirmative action” system to advocate for diversity and expose library users and readers to resources from populations traditionally marginalized in literature and publishing—has earned a best paper proposal award from a subcommittee of the Association for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T).

The idea won honors from ASIS&T’s “Culture, Community and Voice in Knowledge Organization Systems” subcommittee. It was presented by School of Information Studies Assistant Professor Rachel Ivy Clarke at a workshop at the international organization’s annual meeting last month in Vancouver, Canada. The paper is titled, “The Critical Catalog: Giving Voice to Diverse Library Materials through Provocative Design.”

Why alter the way libraries catalog information? According to Clarke, “While diversity is a core value of American librarianship, the number of published resources in the U.S. by and about diverse peoples is disproportionally small.” Nevertheless, she says, “libraries are charged with promoting diverse materials and advocating for diverse populations. Therefore, they need to explicitly express such aims in their catalogs in ways that advocate for diverse materials, encourage exposure of such materials to a broader audience, and present the unintentional erasure of such materials in library collections.”

Reversing the Norm

The way a “critical catalog” would do that, Clarke explains, flips the script on traditional library cataloging systems. Instead of filtering topics according to mainstream traditional attributes with a default of “the white heteronormative male author,” the proposed system would be mapped to be predisposed to finding materials created by underrepresented and marginalized individuals.

“Even as a mere thought experiment, our proposed provocative system offers the possibility to raise awareness of diverse library materials, expose readers to new and different resources, ideas and cultures, alter reading habits and ultimately provide more equitable representation by preventing the inadvertent and unintentional erasure of diverse library materials, giving voice to marginalized communities,” she writes.

‘Marginalized’ Identifiers

A critical catalog would work like this, she proposes: “When a user searches the keyword “childhood” and the Critical Catalog returns books created by women and people of non-traditional genders, people of color, indigenous peoples, people identifying as LGBTQIA+ and people with disabilities. Instead of user-applied filtering or other traditional attributes, this catalog challenges the library status quo by returning only results from marginalized authors.”

Library catalogs can be designed to do more than simply meet traditional objectives of finding materials, identifying entities, selecting entities and obtaining access to materials, Clarke believes. They also can fulfill the purposes of navigation and discovery, education, social connection and interaction and expression, she says.

Design in Librarianship

The concept of design as a research method in and of itself is central to Clarke’s research philosophy, and she sees librarianship as a design discipline. “If there is one thing I’d want people to know and take away from this work, it’s the incorporation of values into the design aspects” of the project, the assistant professor adds.

Clarke says she is gratified at the positive reception the concept garnered at ASIS&T, where it was recognized for proposing a unique approach and provocative methodology. She says she hopes the proposal can now move forward into a prototyping phase in order to assess its feasibility.

Working with the assistant professor on the project is M.S. in Library and Information Science student Sayward Schoonmaker, who, as a research assistant, would continue on the project, Clarke says.  

“It’s a real pleasure to work with Sayward,” Clarke adds. “She’s incredible, very smart and thoughtful, and she brings a very strong critical eye to our work. I’m really impressed with what she’s brought to the project so far.”

Likewise, Schoonmaker has enjoyed the research opportunity. “Working with Rachel has elevated my educational experience at the iSchool. I believe the research is important to advancing diversity initiatives in the library and information science field, and I am grateful to contribute to the project,” she says.

Kwasnik/Dobreski Paper Honored

Also winning an ASIS&T conference award at the fall event were emerita professor Barbara Kwasnik and doctoral student Brian Dobreski. Their paper, “Changing Depictions of Persons in Library Practice: Spirits, Pseudonyms and Human Books,” won the Bob Williams History Fund research paper award.

ASIS&T said that their “content analysis of selected information standards provides a firmer understanding of library attitudes and practices surrounding human information representations and how they relate to similar practices from other domains.” 

ASIS&T noted that Dobreski said of his selection for the award: “My co-author and I are honored to have our paper recognized with the Bob Williams History Award. We had great fun researching and writing this work and are pleased to see this fascinating piece of knowledge organization practice recognized as highly relevant to the history of information science.”