A living document: Michigan libraries begin to address what they call systemic bias in collections
Indigenous officials say examples of racism are pervasive in the nearly 200-year-old Dewey Decimal System. It’s one of the most widely used systems in the United States, but it’s based on a Eurocentric structure.
“Here is a history of slavery from the beginning to the present day," said Melissa Mckenna, the head of adult services at Traverse Area District Library, which uses Dewey. She says social issues are placed under the 300s. History is in the 900s.
“That history of slavery is not in the 900s," she said. "That history of slavery is in the 300s. And you go wait a minute—isn't that history? Didn’t it happen?”
Her library plans to sort those call numbers, but McKenna said for now they’re working on changing subject headings. Those are the tags on a book that make them easily searchable.
Subject headings sometimes use outdated terms, like Indigenous religions are referred to as mythology.
For the Saginaw-Chippewa Indian Tribe, those kinds of terms are especially problematic since their libraries want to be reflective of their community.
Anne Heidemann is the only one who catalogues books for three tribal libraries as their head librarian, and she’s been doing it for eight years.
“There’s a lot of things in the systems we use that just don’t work very well for the community that we’re in—or that are actively harmful to the community that I’m serving," she said. She needs to look to the community for help on the project.
“Librarians are not, on the whole by nature, super excited about giving up control," Heidemann said. "But to me, giving up that control is very exciting because it means that we will end up with something that is so much better, so much more community driven, than I as a single individual could possibly come up with.”
The Saginaw-Chippewa library isn’t the first to reclassify for an Indigenous audience. A library in Canada started a similar project nine years ago.
“It was kind of like a library sweatshop!” said Alissa Cherry, a research manager at University of British Columbia. In reclassifying an Indigenous library, she said there were some takeaways.
“There were a few things (that happened) that there were not places to put stuff in the old classification scheme," Cherry said. "So kind of think of it like a living document that’s going to evolve and change as the collection grows and changes.”
Librarians say they have been working on addressing racism and bias for years—they can see it in the books they catalogue every day. Melissa Matyn archives books and documents at Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library.
“We’re trying to do our darndest to follow those best standards and practices and be aware of what’s going on, you know, we’re aware of the community around us,” she said.
But there’s only so much they can do, she said.
“To do something like the tribes are doing, and I totally applaud them and I respect them," Matyn said. "I would love to go and see their final product and I hope that it really works for them. It’s wonderful that they’re doing it, but for us to completely redo everything here, that would take... I don’t know how long—I can’t even visualize how many decades that would take.”
The CMU libraries are working to change their subject headings, and a reclassification project is not out of the question, said Laura Thompson, another librarian at CMU.
“We’re gonna tweak it and make it exactly what we need it to be. A lot of people say this can’t be done—you can’t decolonize a library," said Summer Peters, project coordinator to reclassify books at the Saginaw-Chippewa library.
She says the project’s goal is to customize it to the community.
“We have resources. So when people say it can’t be done, well, we’re gonna do it," she said.
After Peters saw the bias in libraries, it was hard to unsee, she said. Other community members who were picked to help with the project were shocked to have seen outdated terms and historicization hidden in plain sight.
One of the things Peters is working on is to organize the library into clans reflecting Anishinaabe tradition. For example, one clan is called Bear Clan, so it would be people who are protectors. The clan’s books would be catalogued under medicine and criminal justice. However, the project is still in the early stages, and Peters said they aren’t sure what the perfect system for them would look like.
“I just feel like it’s a seed," she said. "And it’s gonna really bloom into something that’s gonna be life-changing for a lot of people.”
Libraries are the “last tenant of democracy,” said Alissa Cherry, the researcher in British Columbia. What the Saginaw-Chippewa Indian Tribe wants to know is whether it is a tenant that acknowledges its prejudices and is willing to face the past—and properly reflects their community.