Libraries in the United States and Canada are changing the way they refer to Indigenous peoples


The two largest agencies responsible for the language we use to discover books in libraries in North America — the Library of Congress in the United States and Library and Archives Canada — are changing the way they refer to Indigenous peoples.

Recently, the Library of Congress announced that by September 2022, a project would be underway to revise terms referring to Indigenous peoples.

Beginning in 2019, Library and Archives Canada made changes to Canadian subject headings, starting with replacing outdated terminology with “Indigenous peoples” and “First Nations”, and adding terms that specify Métis and other specific nations and peoples.

It is important to recognize what these library changes can and cannot do, and the need to consult and guide Indigenous communities and Indigenous library workers. This is a break with the status quo for the maintenance of these systems.

Library indexing

The Library of Congress and Library and Archives Canada manage the lists of terms used in public and academic libraries in both countries.

When a book is published, library employees use lists of approved terms to indicate the topic or topic of the book. These terms determine how the book can be found in a library search and may even be printed on the copyright page of the book itself. The catalog record is then copied to each library that holds a copy of the book.

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Obsolete terminology such as “Indians of North America” ​​has remained in these term lists despite changing usage in society and no longer corresponds to the language used in the books themselves. The management of these term lists last made international news when politicians interfered in the shift from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants”.

Systems Reviews

The old language for referring to indigenous peoples is updated by libraries.
(htomren/Flickr)CC BY-NC

“Indians of North America” has been on these lists since Library of Congress subject headings were first standardized and shared with libraries more than a century ago.

Library researchers and librarians hope that revisions to existing systems will reduce some of the friction associated with using the library for Indigenous and decolonizing research. This friction relates both to the fact that the materials are categorized in strange ways and to how the use of older terms like “North American Indians” could negatively affect some members of indigenous communities, even if there are a diversity of views in Indigenous communities on identity labels.

1,000 terms under review

Since 2015, the Manitoba Archival Information Network has shared a list of over 1,000 terms relating to Indigenous peoples with suggestions for more accurate and respectful language. Many of the recommended changes use the term “indigenous peoples”, which already exists in the term lists.

Currently, the addition of a geographical term at the end, such as “Indigenous Peoples — Asia” is a permitted title, except in the case of the Americas. Currently, terms like “Indigenous Peoples — United States” and “First Nations (North America)” redirect to “Indians of North America.”

The same goes for terms that redirect to “South American Indians”.

Library and Archives Canada continues to roll out changes such as the shift from “Canadian Poetry (English) – Inuit Authors” to “Inuit Poetry (English)”.

Indigenous Knowledge Organization

Beyond overhauling misleading terminology, library scholars and Indigenous knowledge holders (like Sandy Littletree, with colleagues) are examining how to advance the organization of Indigenous knowledge practices in library systems.

Research by my team of librarians and students shows that authors prefer their books to be labeled with Indigenous-centered or reconciliation approaches. For example, the Xwi7xwa Library is a branch of the University of British Columbia University Library devoted entirely to Indigenous materials. The indexing is adapted from a system developed by Kahnawake librarian Brian Deer in the 1970s for the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations.

A row of books with Indigenous and related themes on a shelf are seen with their index numbers.
Books seen in the Xwi7xwa library.
(htomren/Flickr)CC BY-NC

The Greater Victoria Public Library has introduced locally developed Aboriginal interim subject headings that use more current terminology.

Interviews with authors

Over the past two years, my team and I have interviewed 38 authors whose books were labeled in libraries with terms like “North American Indians.”

These authors told us that these terms did not correspond to the language of their books, nor to what is acceptable in their professional communities. They shared how these terms have created difficulties in research work by or about Indigenous peoples.

They explained how people using the library’s search functions had to use terms they disagreed with and would not use in their courses and writings. Ambiguous terms like “Indian cuisine” and “Indian activism” create confusion as to whether an item relates to the indigenous peoples of North America or India.

As the authors of our study suggested, the continued use of these terms imposes a colonial worldview on books that often resist, challenge, or expose the wrongdoings of colonialism.

Slow to change

Library systems tend to be slow to change because they prioritize consistency. Yet the Canadian and American systems are constantly being revised to add new terms and, less often, to replace old ones.

Since there are over 1,000 terms relating to Indigenous peoples in library listings, revisions to this will be monumental. In a typical month, approximately 200 new headings are added to the Library of Congress subject headings, across all subjects.

The terminology of the indigenous peoples of this continent varies as the communities themselves are numerous and diverse. At the same time, terms like “Indians” persist in legislation in Canada and the United States.

People seen in chairs in front of a teepee and Parliament Hill.
People seen in August 2021 on Parliament Hill were part of a protest calling for changes to the ‘Indian Act’ in Canada.

Colonial borders

Changes to these terms, through consultation and guidance from Indigenous communities and Indigenous library workers, can align our library systems with the language used in everyday conversation and academic research.

They cannot invalidate the terms people use to refer to themselves. A list of library terms is intended for shared and government-supported systems to enable discovery and access and does not determine self-expression.

Even in this context, changing the terms for Indigenous peoples is unlikely to change how these lists currently use the Canadian and American colonial borders. At this time, works on Coast Salish botany or art, for example, may still be redundantly labeled with “Indigenous Peoples – British Columbia” and “Indigenous Peoples – Washington (State)”.

Continued research will be needed as libraries consider how to update their practices.

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