LCSH, FAST, and the governance of subject terms


Librarians are the most proactive professionals I have ever witnessed when it comes to identifying an opportunity for positive change and aggressively seeking a solution. That is just one reason out of many why I am proud to be a part of this community. Bibliographic authority, and the opportunities for the language to evolve and better reflect contemporary thinking, is continuously under such scrutiny. To point to a current example, there is an active discussion by a group within the library community about the opportunity to change the category term “Illegal Aliens” in OCLC’s Faceted Access to Subject Terminology (FAST).

OCLC fully supports changing the “Illegal Aliens” terminology in FAST, and wherever else it may appear. The phrase “Illegal Aliens” is pejorative at worst, and confusing and misleading at best. However, we are committed to the work and processes of our colleagues at the Library of Congress (LC) and the Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC), as well as to the technical processing that facets Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) into the simpler FAST headings. FAST has no history of sweeping editorial changes in headings based on pervasive cultural change without first seeing those changes in the LCSH headings from which FAST is derived.

FAST is a simplified indexing schema that facilitates assignment and management of subject headings, and is derived from the LCSH. It was developed as a collaboration between OCLC Research and the Library of Congress in 1998, designed to support library workers with a lighter knowledge of extensive cataloging rules. OCLC provides the technical infrastructure to create, manage, and discover FAST headings; LC provides support for the LCSH vocabulary.

FAST has always been downstream of LCSH changes and the governance of headings that occurs through the PCC Subject Authority Cooperative Program (SACO). OCLC is transitioning the internal management of FAST headings from OCLC Research to the Metadata Operations Team in Global Product Management, and will continue to support the service. We have no plans to establish a FAST governance model similar to SACO, nor an independent editorial group similar to that at the Library of Congress. FAST will follow LC’s lead.

We will continue to work closely with members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership’s (RLP) Metadata Managers group, who are interested in how FAST becomes a production service. They have provided invaluable feedback and are also working to understand RLP libraries’ usage of and expectations for a FAST service.

Looking forward

The library community discussion around the phrase “Illegal Aliens” isn’t new, and it exemplifies the tenacity and values of the library community. The opportunity to evolve this language was initially raised by Dartmouth College student Melissa Padilla, who in 2013 led an effort to petition the Library of Congress to change the term. The Library of Congress initially rejected the proposal to change the heading in 2014, but reviewed and reversed its decision in March 2016 following the urging and resolution of the American Library Association (ALA) Council earlier in the year. The US Congress attempted to restrict the Library of Congress from this proposed language change in June 2016. That restriction, however, did not appear in the final funding bill passed by the Senate. As of September 2017, the heading remains unchanged. But, the discussion and drive for change continue. *

OCLC agrees with the voices requesting that the LCSH term be changed. And, we also believe that subject-term governance should follow the guidance of the PCC, SACO, and the Library of Congress. OCLC looks forward to working closely with the Library of Congress and supporting their efforts as they make a final determination regarding the ‘Illegal Aliens’ subject term. We have been in contact on this opportunity, and they are appropriately reviewing this matter according their procedures. When the review is finalized, they will let the community and OCLC know their decision on the use of this term. At that time, OCLC will ensure that the FAST heading reflects the decision of the Library of Congress Subject Heading.

In the meantime, we hope—and expect—that the library community will continue to advocate for these types of changes that will better serve and reflect library users around the globe.



* The post was updated on 14 September 2017 at 4:40 pm US EST to more accurately reflect that the US Congress attempted to restrict the Library of Congress from this proposed language change in June 2016. That restriction, however, did not appear in the final funding bill passed by the Senate. Our editorial team regrets the initial error.