ARLIS/NA Statement on Removal of Library of Congress - Illegal Aliens - Subject Headings

Statements/Press Releases,

On November 12, 2021, the Library of Congress announced a decision to replace the problematic “Illegal aliens” subject heading with the terms “noncitizens” and “illegal immigration.” The proposed changes will also apply to several related headings that refer to human beings using the term “aliens.” American Library Association President Patty Wong praised the decision, saying “We are pleased that the Library of Congress is replacing these subject headings, which are both outdated and dehumanizing. This update better reflects common terminology and respects library users and library workers from all backgrounds.”

ARLIS/NA applauds the decision to remove offensive headings that refer to human beings as “aliens.” However, we are disappointed to see that the Library of Congress has opted to retain the term “illegal immigration,” which is disrespectful, and, in reference to those legally seeking asylum, simply inaccurate. Furthermore, the decision is contrary to the recommendation of ALA’s Subject Analysis Committee Working Group on Alternatives to LCSH “Illegal aliens,” which advised replacing the heading with “undocumented immigrants.” The Library of Congress did not provide justification for retaining “illegal” rather than adopting “unauthorized” or “undocumented,” terms we strongly feel would more appropriately and respectfully represent the legal status and self-identity of these individuals.

Despite the fact that the Library of Congress provisionally approved the heading “unauthorized immigration” in 2016, it retained “illegal aliens” after several lawmakers criticized the change and threatened legal action. Although those threats were never carried out, a small group of lawmakers opposed removal of the word “aliens” from the subject headings once again in 2021. ARLIS/NA believes that congressional interference is a concerning trend that challenges our professional expertise and compromises libraries’ ability to enable patrons to locate resources using terms that are both respectful and widely used.

Most art libraries in North America use the Library of Congress Subject Headings, so the terminology used by the Library of Congress affects what our patrons see in our catalogs. With a growing interest among artists, art historians, and art institutions in engaging with issues of borders and migration, it is important that the language we use is as inclusive as possible to best serve our diverse communities. To this end, many libraries have already instituted local policies to change the “illegal aliens” heading to “undocumented immigrants” or other inclusive terms, and we applaud these efforts to make our patrons feel welcomed and included.

ARLIS/NA echoes the recommendations of ALA’s Subject Advisory Committee Working Group and the librarians and students who launched the “change the subject” movement to “Drop the I Word”: Neither “illegal,” nor “aliens,” has a place describing people in the Library of Congress Subject Headings. We hope that this subject heading change, along with the critical conversation it has sparked, is a step towards broader efforts to make our catalogs – and our institutions as a whole – more inclusive to marginalized communities.

This statement has been co-authored by members of the ARLIS Advocacy and Public Policy Committee, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Cataloging Advisory Committee, and Cataloging Section.