Thinking about race like a cataloger

In librarian parlance entities, whether books or journal articles or whatever, can be said to have an “aboutness.” And as a cataloger its my job to describe that aboutness with subject headings. I’m working in an archives setting now and my job, essentially, is to sit down with photos such as the one below and, following strict rules, create a digital record that will help researchers find it in the future.

US Army Signal Corps Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Photographs

Because we place a premium on organization and arrangement only authorized subject headings are permitted, something called a “controlled vocabulary.” In the work I’m doing now our controlled vocabulary comes from the Library of Congress. One of the defining characteristics of the LoC subject headings is that they are hierarchical, broad terms are subdivided into narrower terms, which are further divided and modified in rather rigid ways.

So those are the basic rules of the game. The objective is to describe the item so that others will find it, but within the constraints set out by the LoC (typically there are in-house rules you have to take in to consideration too, etc). Alright, given all that: What is this picture about?

We know that these men are in the Army by virtue of the collection I’m looking at and the guy with the cap bearing an insignia is a Lieutenant. We can express that like this:

United States. Army–Officers.

What this subject heading shows is that all the branches of the armed forces are corporate entities that are themselves subdivisions of the United States, I’ve further specified we are talking about Army officers which is a smaller subset of that broader term.

However, not everyone in this photo is an officer. Interestingly enough if I want to include the two black GI’s carrying the litter I cannot say United States. Army–African Americans, but instead must use African American soldiers. LoC explains the difference:

African American soldiers.

  • Here are entered works on African American military personnel in the United States Army. Works on the organization, administration, and history of African American units within the United States Army are entered under United States. Army–African American troops.

This photograph is not about Army administration or history. Its about the personnel. Hence, African American soldiers and not United States. Army-African American troops.

A result of this is that the racial characteristics of some persons are labeled in the subject headings but not others. To remedy this I can utilize another field in my catalog record reserved for notes. My colleagues and I debated over the proper terminology to use, this is very important because all our word choices need to be justified (even our punctuation must be justified!) and consistently applied over the entire collection. Are we dealing with African Americans and Caucasians, or blacks and whites? Or what?

We decided to return to the LoC for guidance and here we found some interesting taxonomical definitions concerning race. Remember these are supposed to reflect the hierarchical arrangement of clear-cut definitions required by library catalogers.

African Americans

  • Here are entered works on citizens of the United States of black African descent. Works on blacks who temporarily reside in the United States, such as aliens, students from abroad, etc., are entered under Blacks—United States. Works on blacks outside the United States are entered under Blacks—[place].

Blacks

  • Here are entered works on blacks as an element in the population. Theoretical works discussing the black race from an anthropological point of view are entered under Black race. Works on black people in countries whose racial composition is predominantly black are assigned headings appropriate for the country as a whole without the use of the heading Blacks. The heading Blacks is assigned to works on such countries only if the work discusses blacks apart from other groups in the country.

Black race

  • Here are entered theoretical works discussing the black race from an anthropological point of view. Works on blacks as an element in the population are entered under Blacks.

Whites

  • Here are entered works of a sociological nature that discuss white people as an element in the population, especially in countries where they are a minority. Works of an anthropological nature focusing on the physical features that characterize Caucasians and distinguish them from other races of mankind are entered under Caucasian race.

Caucasian race

  • Here are entered works of an anthropological nature focusing on the physical features that characterize Caucasians and distinguish them from other races of mankind. Works of a sociological nature that discuss white people as an element in the population, especially in countries where they are a minority, are entered under Whites.

Race as an abstract, theoretical construct is, for the Library of Congress, defined as the domain of anthropology because of the emphasis on physical features of the body. Anything not having to do with the body must therefore be sociological!

Returning to our photograph and its aboutness, it is clear that this item does not have anything to do with abstract, theoretical constructions such as the black race or the Caucasian race, but rather is about the specific people contained within the camera’s frame, they are blacks and whites. Therefore we can proceed with describing our photograph in the notes as about African Americans (who are citizens of the United States) and whites. So the subject headings are:

United States.–Army–Officers
African American soldiers
Allied health personnel and patient

And the note reads:

“Two African American soldiers carry a white patient in a litter while a white officer looks on.”

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger currently working to describe a collection of approximately 14,000 photographs produced by the Army Signal Corps during WWII. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about race like a cataloger

  1. “In librarian parlance entities, whether books or journal articles or whatever, can be said to have an “aboutness.””

    Did someone edit this sentence?

  2. Interesting. I’m always glad to hear from another anthropologist-librarian, especially in areas like cataloging with which I’m partly unfamiliar! Cataloging seems to get particularly contested in terms of how best to define people and objects, especially because we tend to use inherited majority/dominant culture terms. Yet it’s obviously helpful to sort, label, and tag one item among thousands for easier retrieval. I’ve written before about controlled vocabulary standards for qualitative data / ethnographic research archiving, and if others are working in this sort of area I’d be very interested to hear from you!

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