Changing Subjects: Two DEI Metadata Projects at CCC Libraries
By Stephanie M. Roach, San Mateo County Community College District; Angela Boyd, San Diego Miramar College; Megan Kinney, City College of San Francisco; Mario Macías, Los Angeles Pierce College; and Glenn Tozier, Monterey Peninsula College
Updated April 24, 2021
This article describes initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) led by library professionals who use California’s statewide Library Services Platform (LSP), which is shared by 110 community colleges. Because the LSP is shared, we have the opportunity to make changes centrally that impact students and other library system users across our state. This article illustrates how two projects have independently progressed to address the display of racist and dehumanizing subjects in OneSearch (Primo VE), the public search interface of the LSP. The path forward for these projects has at times been winding and delayed, and the type of solution for each project has been different, involving diverse stakeholders, and requiring varied strategies.
As we launch DEI-focused projects such as these, we call upon our community of information professionals to examine our library systems and structures, interrogate our personal practice as library professionals, and question decisions about policy, procedure, practices, guidelines, and recommendations. Our systems of knowledge reflect white supremacy culture due, among other reasons, to inherited corporate and other metadata. As such, we are responsible1 for establishing mechanisms to address such negligence; we must continually monitor, identify problems, and proactively make change within our library systems. Every time we delay this work, we uphold structural oppression and allow systemic harm to continue.
Be it in our consortium of libraries, at our local districts, or in our college libraries, we must thread a network of accountability to inspect and inclusively collaborate against racist, inequitable, dehumanizing, and oppressive dispositions in our systems. Ultimately, our goal is to create learning environments for our students driven by anti-racist values and cultural competencies.
Two Current DEI Projects
The two projects described below have similarities and differences. Both are related to display of subjects in OneSearch (Primo VE). Both were championed by individual library professionals, then taken up in some way by committees or work groups. One of the projects is a well known national project initiated by students and our consortium is one of many making similar changes to local data. The other is a known problem related to algorithmic bias and proprietary vendor data. Both involve the display of racist and dehumanizing subjects in OneSearch. Two problems, two paths forward, and two solutions. Neither solution is perfect, and both require us to be vigilant and monitor for related data problems to surface, and address them as they come up.
“Change the Subject” at California LSP Libraries: October 2020 - Present
The “Change the Subject Project” has been widely discussed nationally, and has been implemented by many libraries and consortia across the country. This project was initiated by undergraduate students (now alumni) at Dartmouth College, who in 2014 petitioned the Library of Congress (LC) to officially change subject heading terms related to undocumented immigrants. A change by LC would have solved the problem for all libraries using LC’s subject heading vocabulary, including the majority of academic libraries in the United States. Unfortunately, in 2016, partisan members of Congress intervened, and LC has not moved forward with making changes. Since then, libraries have increasingly been making the changes in their system locally, using recommendations from the Subject Analysis Working Group, formed by the Cataloging and Metadata Management Section of ALCTS (now CORE) division of the American Library Association (ALA). This is the same approach now in progress within our consortium.
San Diego Miramar College implemented the “Change the Subject Project” prior to migration to the LSP, and it is possible that other libraries in our consortium had also done so. After or during migration, these libraries would need to re-implement the changes in the shared LSP. In Fall of 2020, the LSP Cataloging Work Group internally shared information from other academic libraries that had also made this change. In October 2020, San Mateo County Community College District (SMCCCD), was the first known library to implement a “Change the Subject Project” within the LSP. SMCCCD project team lead, Stephanie Roach, launched the project by gaining consensus across all three of their college libraries, and researching how to implement the change using the materials shared by the LSP Cataloging Work Group. Because SMCCCD has a representative (Kim Lim, Skyline College) serving on that work group, communication between SMCCCD, the work group, and the consortium was easily facilitated. After implementation of display changes at SMCCCD, Roach shared how-to information and advocated for central changes at the NZ level at the December 1, 2020 Cataloging Work Group Office Hour. Documentation on how to make local changes was then posted by the work group to the LSP wiki and the LSP_ALL listserv, so other libraries in the consortium could take up the project locally. Of note, the local display change is only a partial solution for removing the racist subject headings identified in the “Change the Subject Project,” and action is still required at the Network Zone (NZ) level.
Recognizing the need for central changes that would benefit all LSP libraries, the Cataloging Work Group reported on the issue to the LSP Governance Committee. Ultimately, they approved the project, and changes to LC subject heading terminology for undocumented immigrants and noncitizens is planned, and was announced to the LSP-ALL list on March 8, 2021.
The LSP Governance Committee officially endorsed the “Change the Subject Project” in early 2021 and the project is currently pending implementation system-wide. Success thus far is largely because a motivated individual--in this case Roach--had direct connections to the LSP Cataloging Work Group, and was able to implement changes locally, share how-to instructions widely, and advocate for additional changes centrally. By partnering with the LSP Cataloging Work Group, Roach was able to tap into official mechanisms such as work group reporting and a policy proposal to the LSP Governance Committee, which ultimately approves policies and any central, system-wide changes required to implement the “Change the Subject Project.” Knowledge of the reporting structure of work groups and process for policy approval by the LSP Governance Committee is useful, and an important part of change making within our consortium.
Central Discovery Index Subject Stoplist
In December 2020, Angela Boyd of San Diego Miramar College noticed multiple examples of extremely offensive racial slurs in OneSearch, which prompted her to learn more about it. Boyd began a campaign to investigate and spread awareness about the problem, in order to find a solution. Early on, she reached out to Matthew Reidsma, a librarian at Grand Valley State University and author of Masked By Trust: Bias In Library Discovery (2019), who responded to her query with a description of how discovery layer algorithms pull in subjects for display from vendor records using proprietary “word vector systems that are rife with bias.”2 Reidsma suggested that because the problem is with display of vendor data that is not locally editable, it should be reported to the vendor - in the case of the LSP and Primo VE, Ex Libris, as a software bug. In other words, a specific problem in their product to be fixed. Among others, Boyd shared this information with Roach. After discussing together and doing additional research into the problem, Roach submitted a case to the Ex Libris Support Portal in January of 2021. Ex Libris responded, and less than one month later, a stoplist was identified as the best solution. The stoplist, now live in all English language Primo VE environments internationally,3 includes the racist terms initially identified by Boyd, and one other offensive term identified and reported by others, thus preventing them from displaying as subject headings in Primo VE. During case follow-up, Ex Libris shared a new policy, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Policy Regarding Subject Headings in CDI (Central Discovery Index), which includes a link to the stoplist, as well as a way to contact their team about adding new terms to the stoplist. To do so, you can email Anti-Bias@exlibrisgroup.com. We recommend that you also keep your local and consortium stakeholders informed and engaged. LSP consortium members are encouraged to copy relevant Discovery, Electronic Resources and Cataloging work group members on stoplist emails to Ex Libris.
Notably, there were a lot of moving parts and communications on this case. Boyd brought tremendous energy and leadership to the project, and networked extensively in order to learn more and connect other interested information professionals. Other professionals contacted by Boyd also submitted similar support portal cases. In order to further connect this work to the consortium, Roach added consortium director, Amy Beadle, to the Ex Libris case. The bias discovered by Boyd affected all of our libraries, and was visible not only in all OneSearch (Primo VE) displays in our consortium, but also in those of all English language Ex Libris Primo VE customers. The impact of these changes implemented by the vendor cannot be understated. Our consortium of 110 LSP libraries is a large Ex Libris customer account, and can carry a lot of weight. Our collective voice as an Ex Libris customer is something we should learn to use more effectively, be it through NERS requests, Idea Exchange enhancement requests, Ex Libris Support Portal cases, or ELUNA user or advisory groups. There may also be opportunity to leverage negotiations as part of new or renewed contracts. As always, good vendor relationships and clear communication supports these efforts.
In this example, unbeknownst to Boyd and Roach, there was other work happening concurrently behind the scenes. Ex Libris brought the stoplist to a new DEI advisory group for additional feedback. Megan Kinney (City College of San Francisco) and Glenn Tozier (Monterey Peninsula College) serve on this advisory group as representatives from our consortium, and Boyd will be joining them as a representative this month. Consortium Director Amy Beadle looped in the LSP Governance Committee, and they connected Boyd and Roach with Kinney and Tozier. Kinney presented at the LSP Governance Committee meeting about this and other library system DEI efforts within our consortium, in recognition of the work as well as to emphasize the importance of working and communicating together. Boyd, Roach, Kinney, and Tozier collaborated along with Mario Macías, brought in as a DEI consultant, to present a Wednesday Webinar (April 21, 2021) about addressing DEI issues in our shared library systems. Collectively, we must establish an infrastructure of communication and collaboration to address systemic issues, especially those tarnished with racial discrimination or cultural bias, not only for our students and diverse communities, but for the sake of being anti-racist and accountable to cultural objectives of empathy and restorative justice.
Libraries, library vendors, and service providers use shared systems, shared data, and shared standards. As a result, we have shared problems reflecting the systemic racism that seeps (and has seeped) into every aspect of our country, including our knowledge systems. This is compounded because library systems include content created and described using language and labels that too many times are neither acceptable nor useful. Assuming shared professional ethics, we ought to anchor our actions in equitable and anti-racist commitments, in order to improve mechanisms and networks of accountability.
Because these problems have been the status quo for so long, it may be difficult for some to see. Some might see and feel ashamed to notice. Some may notice and be overwhelmed by the work to be done. Some may want to engage with an issue but feel a lack of support from those around them. And, some may doubt if they will be taken seriously. It is through inclusive practice, support, intentional looking, and learning that we can come together to effect change.
If you believe in getting into good trouble, necessary trouble, there is a place for you in this work. Your voice is an important part of the process. We all have an opportunity to turn to our colleagues, to be inclusive, transparent, and democratic when addressing these issues. Diverse professional perspectives are essential in understanding what students are seeing and experiencing when using our library systems, and in identifying the systemic problems we have a duty to root out.