Classifying Columbus: the explorer and the school

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Classifying Columbus: the explorer and the school

Emporia State University


Spring 2012

Professor O’Neill


The purpose of this paper is to critically examine library subject headings and how they are used in elementary school libraries. Several factors will be discussed ranging from historical practices to hiring practices. Studies will be summarized and discussed. Finally, I will reveal how this all manifests into one particular library at Columbus Elementary, where I am a part-time certified library media specialist.

Classifying Columbus: the explorer and the school

Where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true.

We call it - "history."

A man's called a traitor - or liberator.

A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?

It's all in which label is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities.

So we act as though they don't exist.” (“Wonderful”, Schwartz, 2003, track 13).


Words are important. What we call something has impact, either positive or negative. From people to places to products, names matter. In 2010, the most popular names for babies born were Jacob and Isabella (Social Security Administration). It should be noted characters from the wildly popular Twilight books and movies share these names. Certainly, as Americans, we are fickle in our allegiances. What is hot today could be ice cold tomorrow.

Earlier socially acceptable labels are sometimes later deemed politically incorrect. For example, take the situation in Oregon whereby the state superintendent is calling upon the State Board of Education to “adopt an administrative rule that prohibits public schools from using names, symbols or images that depict or refer to an American Indian Tribe, custom, or tradition as a mascot, nickname, logo, or team name” (Castillo, 2012). In an exhaustive thirty-nine page report, Castillo cites research regarding the potential detrimental effects of using such names, symbols or images. While she acknowledges the historical context from which these names arose and the pride that schools may associate with these names, she clearly states “research indicates that using Native Americans as mascots promotes discrimination, pupil harassment, and stereotyping” (p.2). In all, fifteen high schools currently use Native American mascots. Many more have already adopted new mascots.

What we call something and whether or not these labels are biased is intriguing on many levels. But, when applied to an online public access catalog, bias and the organization of information intersect. According to Kaplan and Riedling, “access to information does not happen by accident or by magic. Organization of information is paramount to access” (2006, p. 13). Olson challenged librarians by concluding, “Since librarianship is committed to an ethic of universal access to information the lack of neutral meaning seems an obstacle in meeting that goal. However, tools such as LCSH can be used to open up the exclusionary cultural supremacy of the mainstream patriarchal, Euro-settler culture” (2000, p. 69).

It seems the Library of Congress plays an integral role in providing unbiased subject headings. Unfortunately, in many cases, when it comes to library subject headings, change is a glacial process, often coming significantly past its’ due. There appears to be a particular resistance on the part of the Library of Congress around changing ethnic and racial, as well as sexual and medical headings (Nuckolls, 1994, p. 241).


Criticism of subject headings is nothing new. According to Knowlton, questions started to appear in professional literature in the late 1960s (2005, p. 124). This apparent subject heading bias “shows a prejudice in favor of particular points of view, and against others.” Fischer also cited recent literature that complains about the Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH): complicated syntax, inadequate syndetic structure, outdated terminology, lack of specificity in the list, and complicated, inconsistent application of subdivisions (2005, p. 64).

Any serious discussion about LCSH must mention the quintessential Prejudices and Antipathies, written in 1971 (Berman). Berman has been a longtime, vocal critic of the Library of Congress Subject Headings. In 1971, he wrote:

“the LC list can only “satisfy” parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle- and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the Established Order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilization” (p. ix).

In 1994, Nuckolls credited the Library of Congress with attempting to update subject headings but attributed several factors that contribute to inconsistencies. Nuckolls wrote,

“As the issues brought up by Sanford Berman and others were addressed, others went unnoticed through oversight. This “piecemeal” correcting of these headings over the last twenty years, along with the lack of solicitation from librarians from all areas of the country, have emphasized the inconsistencies in the subject headings” (p. 243).

To this day, Berman continues to meticulously log examples of needed improvements of subject headings and descriptive cataloging. His recent appeals for change include subject headings: awkward/bizarre vocabulary, needed but unrecognized topics and genres, biased vocabulary, needed but unrecognized cross-references and subdivisions, inconsistent assignment to literary works, inadequate assignment, and subject heading/DDC classification mistakes (1998). Berman also targets descriptive cataloging; specifically, missing notes, mystifying punctuation and abbreviations, insufficient title and other added entries, and biased notes (Berman, 1998).

In terms of descriptive cataloging, Berman wrote, “some notes, particularly for children’s books, are misleading and inaccurately ethnocentric or monocultural” (p.323). At the library where Berman worked, the summary for Dennis L. Fradin’s Columbus Day (1990) was revised from the Library of Congress’s “discusses how the achievement of the man credited with discovering America led to the present day celebration of his arrival in the New World” to Hennepin County Library’s “discusses how the Italian explorer traveled to the Western Hemisphere under auspices of the King and Queen of Spain. Also traces the history of the holiday commemorating his activity.”

Berman’s specific example, among dozens, sparked a curiosity in me. Since I am a librarian at a school bearing Columbus’ name, I immediately honed in on the Berman analysis of descriptive cataloging. Questions I had included:

  • How do we celebrate Columbus Day?

  • By doing so, do we ignore the treatment of Native Americans by Europeans?

  • How much tinkering has been done with the MARC records at Columbus Library?

  • What sort of misleading and inaccurately ethnocentric or monocultural notes are embedded in the cataloging?

  • Who is ultimately responsible for these records?

Further digging unearthed an essay in Rethinking Multicultural Education in which Bigelow stated “children’s biographies of Christopher Columbus function as primers on racism and colonialism” (2009, p. 73). He continued this criticism by suggesting these books “teach youngsters to accept the right of white people to rule over people of color, of powerful nations to dominate weaker nations.”

So, not only is the library catalog potentially a hotbed of controversy, it seems the curriculum, nay, the namesake for the school, is scandalously accepted as a hero when maybe in fact he shouldn’t be.


Case Study

Christopher Columbus has long been credited with the “discovery” of North America. Cities are named after Columbus. Schools are named after Columbus. For example, I am gainfully employed at one. From the school’s website,

“Columbus Elementary School is located in McMinnville, Oregon, a rural community in the northwest part of the Willamette Valley. The original Columbus School opened in 1892 and was named for Christopher Columbus. The first school was replaced twice on its original site on the corner of South Baker and South Cowls Streets. The last building at that site, a brick structure, was so severely damaged during the earthquake of March 1993 that it could no longer be used safely as a school. The current Columbus School was completed and opened in January 1995.”

Massive changes have occurred at this school in the past twenty years. While gathering materials for this project, three reference items were uncovered that have been thoroughly used by previous librarians: Children’s Catalog, Sixteenth Edition, 1991; Sears List of Subject Headings, 15th Edition, 1994; A to Zoo: Subject Access to Children’s Picture Books, 5th Edition, 1998. Two of the books were deemed important enough to keep through the move from an earthquake damaged building to a new, more seismically sound building. Now I question, were they worth keeping?

Since the current Columbus School opened in January 1995, there has been considerable turnover in the library staff. At least six individuals have served as school librarian, some certified teacher-librarians, some not; some full-time, some not. Through the years, there have been numerous part-time library assistants. For example, in the past five years, there have been six different library assistants. This inconsistency in staffing has contributed to inconsistency in cataloging. Without a doubt, cataloging errors and oversights inadvertently reinforce bias in the subject headings.

In an effort to determine the validity of the library’s MARC records just on Christopher Columbus, a list was generated through a keyword search. Eighteen records were found, including two Spanish titles and one fictional picture book. The remaining titles are shelved in the 920 section of the library. (Table 1).

The first inconsistency noted has to do with the call number assignments. In practice, the library has adopted a three letter designation for authors, except in the case of autobiographies and biographies where the entire last name of the subject is included on the spine. The “pb” designation refers to the format of “paperback” and is slowly being removed from all call numbers and placed elsewhere in the item record. Fifty percent of the titles in this admittedly small sample do not meet current practices in the library in regards to accurate call number assignment. It is worrisome that if a cursory review of call numbers brings this amount of error, what will reviews of the MARC records reveal?

Table 1: Columbus titles at Columbus Library



Call Number


Columbus Day

Liestman, Vicki

394 LIE



Ventura, Piero.

909 VE


The Explorer's Gazette

Heckscher, Melissa

910 HEC


Conquerors & explorers

Ross, Stewart

910 Ros


10 people who discovered America

Black, Bruce

920 BL(pb)


Explorers and explorations

Protter, Eric

920 PRO


Christopher Columbus

Lacey, Minna



Christopher Columbus

Greene, Carol

921 Col


Christopher Columbus

Krensky, Stephen

921 Columbus pb


The story of Christopher Columbus

Osborne, Mary Pope

921(pb) COLUMBUS


Christopher Columbus

Kent, Zachary




Baxter, Nicola

972 Ba


Where do you think you're going, Christopher Columbus?

Fritz, Jean

973 FR(pb)


Christopher Columbus

Twist, Clint

973.1 TWI



Yolen, Jane



Cristóbal Colón y los exploradores Renacentistas

Hynson, Colin



En 1492

Marzollo, Jean

SPAN 970.1 MAR


The MARC records themselves seem to be in order, initially. (See Appendix). But upon closer investigation, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent application of cataloging rules. Six records designate “Sears” in the 650 field; others do not. Does this mean the records are from different sources? Since the automation of the library took place before my employment, I cannot easily determine how the MARC records were downloaded into the OPAC. It seems a combination of copy cataloging and unnecessary original cataloging might have been the method to this madness. Three other records provide evidence of shoddy cataloging where pertinent information is missing: “650 ­_a Another Topic _x Sub-Topic”.

The summaries offered in the 520 fields are often telling. According to the Library of Congress, a summary should be “a brief, non-critical, one-sentence annotation…that describes the content of the work being cataloged without making any judgmental statements (CYAC, 2011). In his example of Fradin’s book about Columbus, which Berman deemed the descriptive cataloging to misleading and inaccurately ethnocentric or monocultural, the word “discovery” seemed to trigger the criticism. A sample of summaries from these 18 records is found below:

  • “Relates the story of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and gives the history of Columbus Day.”

  • “The story of Charistopher Columbus and his voyage in 1492 told in simple text and illustrations.”

  • “A biography of the 15th-century Italian seaman and navigator who unknowingly discovered a new continent.”

The offensive word is alive and well in the OPAC at Columbus Elementary. Spelling errors also run rampant throughout we the catalog. “Charistopher” is exactly how the summary is written. Who wrote it? We’ll never know. I cannot imagine it was from the Library of Congress but it is conceivable. In 2000, Olson wrote:

“One of the illusions we try maintain is that we can keep our own biases out of describing documents. This motivation is undoubtedly one of the reasons why we seek some kind of external warrant for establishing subject headings. If we give way to the convenience of the public and to literary warrant we feel that we are enacting a neutral, if not objective, stance…We do not, however, seem to realize that these sources have significant biases and exclusions, and that by choosing to follow the convenience of a singular public and the canon of literary warrant we are introducing a bias toward the mainstream status quo that is just as much a bias as any professional judgment we are likely to employ.” (pp. 64-65)

Hoffman suggests catalogers are “encouraged to customize bibliographic records to meet local users’ needs” (2009, p.635). She continues that while catalogers might be “given authority and power to customize bibliographic records, would they know how what to do? There still exists the problem that catalogers do not know their users and do not know their users’ needs” (p. 637). So these errors may have been made in-house by well-meaning librarians. These librarians may or may not have had the necessary training and expertise to make these decisions that ultimately impact users.

In 1994, Romero introduced the issue of entry-level cataloging errors by writing: “with the limited amount of time spent in a cataloging course and the increasing number of cataloging tools with which to become familiar, it is difficult for all students to complete a cataloging course with extensive knowledge in all cataloging topics. Unfortunately, some students are left to gain a more thorough knowledge of cataloging in their first library position” (p. 210). She continues to describe one obstacle in evaluating cataloging quality is that the “process can be extremely subjective” (p. 212). In her study of entry-level catalogers, Romero focused on the cataloging area Description which consisted of six categories: Title and Statement of Responsibility (245 field), Edition (250 field), Publication and Distribution (260 field); Physical Description (300 field), Series (440 and 490 fields); and Notes (5xx field). The area Description accounted for 37.55% of all errors in all areas.

This study is alarming in many ways. While it was conducted nearly twenty years ago, and much has changed in the way of cataloging library materials, it appears many assumptions are made about who is running school libraries. While I have a Masters in Teaching with a Library Media Endorsement, I am arguably one of the more educated school librarians in Oregon. There are no state statutes about school librarians. In fact, due to this fact, it seems school librarians in Oregon are becoming endangered. The current budget crisis affecting education on a whole is impacting school libraries in immeasurable ways.

For those of us who are fortunately enough to still have jobs and educated enough to grasp some of the big picture implications of subject heading bias in library catalogs, there are a couple of bottom lines. Does it matter? I think it does. I also think it matters that of the 18 records reviewed, only four were deemed to meet current standards and practices.

In an effort to determine if end-users understood subject headings, Drabenstott, Simcox, and Fenton conducted a study where subjects were presented with questionnaires at three public libraries in Michigan (1999). The respondents (adults, children, reference librarians, and technical services librarians) were asked to write down the meaning of eight subject headings and to rate the certainty of each meaning. Researchers noted that the children subjects often needed assistance with the questionnaire. Drabenstott ( were able to “demonstrate that adults understood subject headings better than children; however, both adults and children assigned correct meanings to less than half of the subject headings they examined” (p. 140). In conclusion, Drabenstott ( recommended Library of Congress “should consider involving people who are heavy users of the system…in the establishment of new subject headings and subdivisions in the LCSH system”, perhaps through an advisory board (p. 159). While I think this recommendation is intriguing, I wonder how representative the advisory board would be of marginalized populations that don’t fit the Berman description of the typical LC audience.

Conclusion: Issues to Address, Questions, and Concerns

While this in-depth exercise has proven useful, it has also cemented what was already expected. The library catalog at Columbus Elementary School is filled to the brim with errors, primarily due to inconsistent practices throughout the years. In 1994, Nuckolls addressed the reality of small libraries and how subject headings are sometimes changed. She wrote, “Libraries that decide to change headings on their own as an in-house project have to face the difficulties of keeping track of items and making appropriate references, and dealing with software that doesn’t allow for smooth changes. In a small library, it usually falls by the wayside, as there is not enough staff to handle these changes, except where users ask…Assigning one’s own subject headings takes lots of staff time and energy” (p. 250). In my experience, when faced with the very real tasks of teaching classes and cultivating a non-biased catalog, teaching takes precedence every time. Especially now, since my hours have been reduced to half, there is even less time to pay attention to these details. But they still matter!

Other interesting developments were described by Adamich in terms of mapping subject headings to educational standards (2008, p. 3). He wrote, “as a result of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act of 2001, state-based educational agencies have made standardized testing a priority in their respective jurisdictions.” He continued by stressing the role school media librarians can play in “linking cataloging descriptions to standards and the materials that can support their achievement”. While I think this is a fine example of collaboration between school librarians and teachers, I think it’s outside the scope of what can be accomplished under current conditions. The Oregon Department of Education recently adopted the Common Core State Standards, throwing a wrench in district wide, school site curriculum maps. Standards have changed and so have the resources to support these standards. I agree with Adamich that as “the need for accountability increases in education, the use of tools to align resources to standards will prove to be a valuable investment” (p. 6). However, I think an investment in human resources must come first. Otherwise, the standards might change before anyone has an opportunity to unwrap them and apply them to one’s library collection.

Every day, I feel fortunate to teach at an elementary school library. I readily acknowledge there’s room for improvement in how we label things in the OPAC. There’s always room for improvement. But I also feel like I so much on my plate that adding another task, like ensuring unbiased subject headings, is somewhat overwhelming. I completely agree that it’s important. Perhaps a district cataloger (which we do not have) could address this shortcoming. We’re doing okay, just opening the doors for three hours a day. Other libraries aren’t so lucky.

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