Queerying the catalogue: Control, classification, chaos, curiosity, care and communities

Last month I reflected on how my Bachelor of Arts degree has influenced my life and career in librarianship by giving me creative, critical thinking, research and communication skills and the reflections on my undergraduate degree have continued this month. Part of the reason for this is because I have been supporting gender, sexuality and diversity studies students a lot and therefore revisiting old theorists and concepts related to gender and sexuality. It is also because I have been finding solace, solidarity and comfort amongst these students, researchers, theorists and archives where fluidity and the questioning of systems, structures, boundaries and binaries is encouraged whilst continuing to struggle a bit within bureaucratic, institutional structures. This month’s GLAM blog club theme of Control has found me reflecting on the problematic histories of classification in librarianship and in psychology, particularly in relation to LGBTIQA+ communities, my complicated relationship with labels, and the power of play to help librarians become more comfortable with letting go of at least some of our control and authority, find courage in chaos, embrace fluidity, and change the system.

The first thing that came to my mind when thinking about control this month was controlled vocabularies, cataloguing and classification and our profession’s problematic history with classifying LGBTIQA+ material. (Also it’s problematic history with classifying material related to First Nations peoples, People of Colour, women, and religions other than Christianity!) I am not a cataloguer and the more technical aspects of cataloguing are beyond me. The thing I enjoyed most about the one compulsory cataloguing subject I did was discovering radical cataloguing movements to improve and change existing systems and practices and once I had come across them I found it difficult to concentrate on learning how to put inadequate, problematic systems into practice. I was initially very taken with the idea of folksonomies and thought they seemed like they could be a great alternative (at least in theory) to controlled vocabularies that would facilitate the democratisation of knowledge and enable more diverse and inclusive language to be used to describe our collections. Now that I’ve had some experience with folksonomies, I can definitely see that there is a benefit in using mor controlled vocabularies! I still think folksonomies should have a role in complementing controlled vocabularies and they can be one really valuable access point to collections but they shouldn’t replace them entirely.

The second thing that came to mind on the topic of control was the problematic history psychology has had with control and classification of LGBTIQA+ people. I increasingly became aware and critical of it whilst studying sociology and gender studies at the same time, and it was one of many things that made me realise that I didn’t want to be a psychologist. Interestingly, quite a few librarians at MPOW have similarly ‘escaped’ from psychology, one has just finished a PhD in it, and another is a psychoanalyst. I’ve also been finding solidarity on campus with student wellbeing colleagues (a mix of psychologists and social workers) in recent times around LGBTIQA+ inclusion. This has made me think about the similarities and connections between our professions beyond our problematic histories of classification systems. The crucial similarity is that we all care about people and want to help them, but help in different ways. We also tend to be curious about people and want to better understand how they think, learn and/or behave in order to help them. Research skills and asking questions are (or at least should be) crucial to our work and are a pretty strong focus of our training. I am still fairly critical about psychology for being individualistic/often seemingly ignoring the impact of systems on people, but I think psychologists and also social workers are very important allies for librarians in academic, public and school libraries, and believe that we need to collaborate much more. This has led me to read about the Whole Person Librarianship movement which seems to have started to facilitate greater collaboration between social workers and librarians in public libraries and has evolved to advocate for this in academic libraries too.

Labels can help us make sense of ourselves and the world and to find our communities and information and are therefore very important in the increasingly chaotic and uncertain times we are in. I guess they help us control the chaos, find solidarity, and navigate uncertainty to some extent. However, there are a lot of LGBTIQA+ folkx who reject labels and embrace fluid notions of gender and sexuality and every LGBTIQA+ group I have been part of  has had long and often heated discussions about labels and what to call ourselves (and I am aware of many other groups having similar discussions) and the language we use to talk about ourselves has evolved quite dramatically over time and as controlled vocabularies and classification systems are very slow and complicated to change, I can’t imagine they will ever be able to keep up. I have personally gone through moments of identifying strongly with a particular label because it has helped me connect with a community and moments of wanting to burn all the labels down because everything is fluid and labels are so complex and can be extremely problematic. As mentioned previously on this blog, I tend to use the label queer these days as it feels most fluid and I like it’s radical political and theoretical connotations.

As the histories of classification in libraries and in psychology illustrate quite vividly, labels can be incredibly harmful when assigned to marginalised groups by more privileged people. Labels and these classification systems can also perpetuate stereotypes and myths, medicalise people, and reinforce false binaries. We need to do more to help LGBTIQA+ people find information about themselves and their communities in their own words in our collections and I think adding folksonomy/tagging capabilities to catalogues is one great way to do this. Perhaps we could also host metadata parties to make it more fun to add tags and facilitate engagement with the collections and the process. We could learn from the community of Wikipedia editors and make tagging collections feel like a game too.  The We Are Here exhibition at the State Library of Victoria which invited LGBTIQA+ artists to work with and interpret the library’s collections to find and explore their queer histories is another great example. The State Library of WA exhibition In Plain Sight is another great example that involved bringing people in and encouraging them to interpret the library’s collections with a queer gaze. We need to let go of some of our ‘authority’ and become more comfortable with chaos and fluidity in order to give people opportunities to interpret and describe our collections in their own words (to give them control over how they are described), which I realise is probably very confronting for many librarians who already feel like they’ve already lost a lot of authority in changing and uncertain times. We’ve definitely made progress in democratising access to knowledge (and away from being the authoritative gatekeepers to it) and Nik illustrated some great GLAMorous examples of this in her post this month, but we still have quite a long way to go.

I enjoyed reading ‘Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction by Emily Drabinski which applies queer theory to cataloguing and librarianship to highlight that cataloguing and classification decisions are not neutral but rather ideologically driven and advocates for public services and/or other more front-facing librarians to join cataloguers in changing these systems and structures by helping people critically engage with the histories and ideologies that have shaped them. Drabinski argues that classification structures and controlled vocabularies should be presented as contested and in flux rather than objective and stable – which is similar to how the labels LGBTIQA+ people use to describe themselves are. I’ve started to do this at least a little bit in gender, sexuality and diversity studies (GSDS) and history classes, as there are many examples of how language and labels have changed to critique, and I stress the importance of understanding context, but I definitely need to do more. I mention it and share resources about it quite a bit (possibly too much) to GSDS lecturers and tutors…and one of them mentioned that collections and classification sounded like a great essay topic some day. The examples I have shared above are more co-curricular or extra-curricular ways to engage people with the catalogue.

So how do we become more comfortable with chaos, embrace fluidity, and let go of some of our control in order to bring more people in? I keep coming back to play, which is another theme I reflected on last month. As Phillip Minchin has illustrated, play at its best is messy, fun, explorative, creative and collaborative and it can be used to foster experimentation, innovation, inclusion, courage and resilience. It blurs boundaries, can build empathy, and creates a sense of possibility and hope. LGBTIQA+ communities have a history of playing with and reappropriating language in creative ways. Many librarians also tend to enjoy playing with language, so perhaps we could start there. The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) is coming up on May 17 and was started to commemorate the day homosexuality stopped being classified as a disease, and the theme this year is ‘Alliances for Solidarity’ so I think it is the perfect opportunity to collaborate with our  psychologist, social worker, art therapist and other wellbeing professional allies and host an event and/or start a project to engage LGBTIQA+ communities with your collections and spaces.

I’m really sorry I didn’t manage to make it to any of Phillip Minchin’s GLAMer sessions over the past month. On that note, as much as I think play has a crucial place in GLAM, it probably begins at home, so I am trying to bring more play into my life outside libraries…. And part of this plan is a trip to Ireland in June to connect with the O’Hanlon clan…. although I’m certain that GLAM will be included in this trip too…

Recommended reading on play in GLAM and beyond

Phil Minchin’s work, particularly these talking points:

Talking Points: The powers of play

Dr Matt Finch’s work at Mechanical Dolphin:


Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart L. Brown and Christopher Vaughan

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

I also encourage you to explore the resources in this Zotero library about Whole Person Librarianship:  https://www.zotero.org/groups/172771/mlismsw/items?

Recommended reading on queerying classification

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved from: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/66954

Naming the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: A Look at How Gays and Lesbians are Classified in the Dewey Decimal Classification http://drumm.info/naming-the-love/

A brief history of homophobia in Dewey decimal classification by Doreen Sullivan https://overland.org.au/2015/07/a-brief-history-of-homophobia-in-dewey-decimal-classification/

Adler, M.A., 2015. “Let’s Not Homosexualize the Library Stacks”: Liberating Gays in the Library Catalog. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 24(3), pp.478-507.

I thought I would conclude with this picture of me learning to walk on my own that I came across recently, as there’s something about it that I really like. I’m free of labels, looking fairly androgynous, just starting to get a sense of agency and control by walking on my own, and I’ve got a toy in my hand -reminding me of the power and possibilities of play!


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