This winter quarter, Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library will host a screening of the documentary “Change the Subject,” followed by a panel discussion with the Dartmouth College student activists and librarian who are featured in the film. Panelists will include Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares and Estéfani Marín, who are both featured in the film and members of the Dartmouth College Class of 2017, as well as Jill Baron, librarian for Romance languages and Latin American, Latinx and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth College, who appears in the film and serves as co-director.
The film tells the story of Dartmouth College students who were committed to advancing the rights and dignity of undocumented people by challenging the use of the term “illegal aliens” as a subject heading in the library catalog. The students’ advocacy took them from Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library to Congress, demonstrating how an instance of campus activism entered the national spotlight and how a cataloging term became a flashpoint in the immigration debate on Capitol Hill.
“By bringing this film and conversation to Cal Poly, we can collectively challenge inaccurate, dehumanizing and racist labels,” said Catherine Trujillo, curator of Creative Works at Kennedy Library. “As a library, we have the opportunity to cultivate an academic environment for all students, staff and faculty, where individuals are not defined by prejudicial slurs. Most importantly, we can communicate that immigrants are welcome in our library spaces and respected in our library systems.”
In 2016, the Library of Congress responded to requests from the Dartmouth group and the American Library Association by proposing to remove “alien” and “illegal alien” from its subject headings. In response, for the first time, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives intervened over a Library of Congress subject heading and added a provision to its appropriations bill to require the library to retain the term “alien.”
“Our students have shared many stories of encountering this kind of language in their classes, textbooks and course materials,” said Katherine Zevallos Pastor, coordinator of Cal Poly’s Dream Center. “These words can be incredibly harmful, especially when they’re left unaddressed and not properly labeled as the derogatory and racist terms that they are.
“This ultimately makes undocumented students feel unsafe in class, unsafe with their materials, unsafe attending office hours, and unsafe at Cal Poly,” she continued.
Despite the congressional intervention, other efforts to phase out the use of the terms “illegal” and “aliens” have proven successful. The Associated Press, USA Today, ABC, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times have all committed to not using the word “illegal” to describe immigrants. In 2015, the state of California struck the word “alien” from its labor code.
Last year, the California State University library faculty and staff agreed with the Library of Congress resolution, which stated “the terms ‘illegal’ and ‘alien,’ when used in reference to people, have undergone pejoration and acquired derogatory connotations, becoming increasingly associated with nativist and racist sentiments.” Beginning in 2020, changes were made in the CSU Libraries’ Unified Library Management System so that all instances of the subject heading “aliens” were changed to “noncitizens,” and the subject heading “illegal aliens” was changed to “undocumented immigrants.” This transformation allows the libraries to follow the law as mandated by the 2016 congressional provision, but offers an alternative to the dehumanizing language.
To build upon the strides made by the Dartmouth students, librarians, CSU libraries, and other activists, Kennedy Library has formed a Culturally Responsive Cataloging working group consisting of library staff and faculty members in the Ethnic Studies Department and School of Education. The group will examine labels, nomenclature and terminology across the library’s online cataloging platforms.
“We’ve seen the university show a commitment to improving the campus culture of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I believe a focus on inclusive language in our resources, archives and catalogs can be an important piece of that,” said Adriana Popescu, Dean of Library Services. “The opportunity to build on this commitment through the Culturally Responsive Cataloging team can help ensure that the library and its resources are more inclusive for our undocumented students.”
Change the Subject: A documentary about labels, libraries, and activism
When: Tuesday February 4, 2020 • 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Where: Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
Free and open to the public.
(Tickets are not required)
More about the screening: https://lib.calpoly.edu/events/change-the-subject