Changing Subject Headings in LINUS: “Armenian genocide” and “Undocumented immigrants”

Today’s post was written by Peter Rolla, Head of Cataloging.

We are pleased to announce two important changes in the LINUS catalog regarding subject headings. First, the old subject heading “Armenian massacre, 1915-1923” has been updated to “Armenian genocide, 1915-1923.” This updated subject heading better represents the current understanding of the tragic events between 1915 and 1923 and how historians view those events. And second, we have removed the heading “Illegal aliens” from the catalog and replaced it with the phrase “Undocumented immigrants.”

In the LINUS catalog (as in most libraries’ online catalogs), we use subject headings to describe the subject matter of books and other library materials. This means that the catalog records for all books on a particular topic will have the same, standardized phrase to describe that topic. In this way, searching in a library catalog works differently than searching on the open web with a search engine. On the web, you can put in whatever keywords you want and the search engine will return the most relevant results based on the search engine’s algorithms. Library catalogs also allow keyword searching, but a more accurate and powerful way to search the library’s collections is by using the subject headings. This method bring all of the works in the library about a particular topic together in the catalog so that our students and faculty can see everything we own on that topic.

Because these subject headings come from a standardized vocabulary, you may not always be able to guess what the correct form is. A handy way to use them is to start your search in LINUS with a keyword search. If you find a book that looks interesting, take a look at the subject headings in its record. They are all live links, so if you click on any one of them you will get a list of all the library materials that the William H. Hannon Library owns on that topic.

screenshot of library catalog highlighting subject headings

The terms we use in LINUS for subject headings all come from the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which, as the name suggests, is a vocabulary of subject terms created by the Library of Congress. They frequently update or change the terms with the vocabulary when general knowledge or opinions about a topic changes, as in the case with the subject heading “Armenian genocide, 1915-1923.” The Library of Congress changed this heading last fall, and in early January, we followed suit and updated our catalog with the new phrase.

The situation with the heading “Illegal aliens” is more complicated. Librarians all over the country pushed for the Library of Congress to make this change as far back as 2016, but due to political push back, the change still has not happened. A group of Dartmouth College students made a documentary about this issue in 2019 called Change the Subject. Following the lead of many other libraries around the country, we ultimately decided, in this one instance, to ignore the official Library of Congress subject heading and make a local change to the LINUS catalog. On occasion, the subject term may still appear in our catalog temporarily because, despite our local decision, the Library of Congress has not yet been permitted to make the change (and the catalog records we get for new books are impacted by that), but we will manually change those records on a regular basis.

For more information about searching for books in LINUS take a look at our guide on Finding Books. For questions about the changes to the two subject headings, you can contact Peter Rolla, head of cataloging.