Journal Club: Asexuality in the Library of Congress Subject Headings

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“‘There was Sex but no Sexuality:’ Critical Cataloging and the classification of asexuality in LCSH” by Brian Watson (2020). (requires journal access)

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.

The author gives a brief history of radical cataloging, and the process that led to asexuality being added to the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).

Background on cataloging
– The paper discusses the political nature of library cataloging, referring to the “power to name”. (It’s our old friend, epistemic injustice!)
– “Radical cataloging” critiques existing library classification systems as reflecting the predominant biases of society.
– The paper explains critical cataloging as a subset of radical cataloging that applies a social justice perspective to improve the system from within.
– Our own search suggests that “radical cataloging” and “critical cataloging” are not widespread terms; one person in our group studied library science and had never heard of them.
– A “folksonomy” is a taxonomy created by the people using that taxonomy. Although folksonomies have some value, there are also issues, for instance, if you look up “asexuality” you might not find items that use “ace” and vice versa.
– Most library systems have a central catalog, and then individual libraries copy that catalog. This is called copy cataloging.

The LCSH proposal
– The paper describes how a group of critical catalogers submitted a proposal to add “Asexuality” and “Asexual People” to LCSH in 2016. This was initially rejected (here’s the text of the rejection). The proposal was resubmitted as “Asexuality (sexual orientation)” with some new citations, and then accepted later that year.
– We discussed our perception that the author was being overly critical of the initial rejection. The rejection could have resulted from problems with the original proposal, such as having insufficient information or just citing Wikipedia. The final proposed heading seems to be an improvement thanks to the initial rejection.
– That said, while the rejection identifies some problems, it also proposes solutions to those problems which are ignorant. For example, insisting that asexuality does not belong under sexual orientation, right after acknowledging that it’s considered to be a sexual orientation in scholarly literature.
– The initial and revised proposals are in the appendix. These made us more sympathetic to the initial proposal, because the citations look fine, and it wasn’t clear that the revisions really made improvements. Although… each revision seemed to choose citations further and further away from feminist and gender studies.

Problems with library cataloging
– Previously, books like The Invisible Orientation were categorized incorrectly, as “Sexual Attraction”, “Sex”, or even “Sexual desire disorders”.
– Not discussed within the paper, even with updates to LCSH, there can be issues with individual libraries doing copy cataloging. Libraries may simply not use the new headings, and books can be copied over under the previous incorrect headings.
– We briefly mentioned the case of Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, which has an aro ace character but is usually omitted because it’s not obvious from the jacket cover.

– Although the paper complains of placing Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives under “Sexual Desire disorders”, it’s not entirely incorrect, since it does in fact contain articles on sexual desire disorders and not asexuality. Although, we suspect that nobody on either side knew that, and it’s incorrect as a primary heading.
– The paper presents the sequence of events as very definitive, as if there are no other events or context to discuss. We recalled an article by Chrysocolla Town about asexuality in the Dewey Decimal Classification that suggests many decisions like these are made for many different classification systems.
– In the private notes of the librarians submitting the proposal, we saw a statement implying they misunderstood “sexual identity” as being about biological sex (as opposed to gender). Of course, this seemed to be an informal document and the error never made it to the final proposal, but that won’t stop us from picking that nit.
– There’s a bit in the conclusion about “critical cataloging” being a misnomer because it works within existing systems whereas “the ‘critical’ part of the name derives from the fact that critical theory operates from outside power structures.” We had disagreements with this characterization of critical theory, and also don’t think being a misnomer is a big deal.
– We would have liked to see discussion of broader problems in the cataloging system, and whether we should try to make changes to the system.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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