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Non-english cataloging in public libraries

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Public libraries in the United States have a strong history of serving non-English speakers. A major focus of the original Boston Public Library -- the first modern public library in the United States -- was on outreach to immigrant populations. Though the motivations behind this focus can be critiqued as a tool to enforce conformity with Anglo-Saxon middle-class values, the point remains that public libraries have been committed to serving foreign-born populations since the very beginning [Rubin, 2008]. Today, with over 40 million foreign-born people living in the United States, libraries must be more prepared than ever to provide information services to our country's immigrant population.

However, for many non-English speakers, the library is a hostile environment. Though libraries have striven to improve collections, communications, and outreach for people who do not speak English as their first language, our catalogs remain a huge barrier to access. Non-English books are often cataloged solely in English (with hints of Latin), and access points in the original language are frequently not provided. Many public libraries are ill-equipped to catalog non-English items, as ever-shrinking cataloging departments are forced to "make do" without catalogers who possess non-English language abilities. A number of technical limitations practically prevent libraries from adequately serving speakers of languages written in non-Latin scripts without huge investments of monetary resources. Finally, projects to improve access to non-English materials tend to require resource-taxing retroactive conversion.

A great deal has been written about non-English cataloging in academic libraries, but the literature for public libraries is much less rich. While much of the more academic-focused literature provides valuable lessons for public libraries, the relative dearth of information specifically about public library settings is somewhat discouraging.

An activist theoretical framework for serving patrons of linguistically marginalized groups can, of course, be found in Sanford Berman's Prejudices and Antipathies [Berman, 1993]. [Wellisch1980] provides a relatively early and comprehensive discussion of the challenges facing public libraries with collections in minority languages. Wellisch concludes that the “provision of bibliographic access to foreign-language materials in public libraries is at the present time either nonexistent or greatly mismanaged,” and accuses libraries that acquire non-English materials without considering how to catalog them of “provid[ing] only a token service for its minority readers, who will make very slight use of it, if any.” [Hoffert2008] contextualizes non-English library service for immigrants within broader social trends, briefly discussing both the difficulties in hiring staff competent in non-English languages and issues with relying on Romanization to provide bibliographic access to non-English titles.

Two central questions in providing bibliographic access to non-English materials are whether to describe such materials in English or in their native tongue, and whether such materials should be integrated into the primarily English-language catalog, or provided separately. Bruce Jensen argues strongly in favor of description of non-English materials in their original language, and integrating these records into the library's main catalog, noting that while "the library's collection acknowledges that not all readers use the same language, the structure of its catalog assumes, indeed demands, knowledge of English." Jensen includes several poignant examples involving non-Anglophone youth, including the inadvertent inclusion of an obscenity in a major U.S. library system's Spanish-language record for a children's book: tres a seis anos [three to six anuses] recorded as a book's age range instead of tres a seis años [three to six years].[Jensen, 2003] Spanish-language description of Spanish-language materials is also advocated by Beth Bala and Denice Adkins in a survey in which a language barrier was the most common factor contributing to non-use of the library among Latino respondents [Bala, 2004].


U.S. libraries have traditionally transliterated access points into Latin scripts to provide access to materials written in non-Latin scripts. However, these transliteration schemes, though relatively standard within the library community, are not necessarily intuitive to native speakers of languages that employ non-Latin scripts. [Jacobs, 2004] and [Jacobs, 2005] describe the creation of a Cyrillic-script catalog at the Queens Public Library in New York. While the project was successful and provided rich documentation to guide users through the search process, barriers to intuitive information retrieval still existed. First of all, there are a number of variant forms of the Cyrillic script, corresponding to the large number of languages written in Cyrillic scripts. Enabling each of these variants on public access computers, and teaching patrons to switch between them, provided a challenge in the implementation of the catalog. Another challenge was the case-sensitive searching provided by the system. A search for , for instance, will retrieve books written by Chekhov; a search for will not.

Romanization is a particularly timely topic after the 2000 decision by the Library of Congress to retroactively convert all Chinese-language records from the Wade-Giles to Pinyin transliteration scheme. [Lu, 1996] describes the rationale for adopting Pinyin in libraries, and documents the necessary steps for enacting such a wide-scale conversion project. [Chou, 2000] describes the steps taken by LC and outlines steps for individual libraries to take to retroactively convert such records.

Subject access[edit]

Subject headings are a common target of cataloger critique, and the description of non-English documents is an area open to many such critiques. [Fina, 1993] presents a case that exemplifies the systemic imperialistic biases inherent in the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). While researching her article, Fina found a book about library service for Latinos, and went to the catalog to find more under the same subject headings. Fina found that the catalog referred to the book’s target audience not as Latino, not even Hispanics, but as Socially Handicapped. Even when not as obviously offensive as Fina's example, English-only subject access creates a passively hostile environment for patrons whose first language is not English, and effectively prevents bibliographic access for patrons who do not know English.

Librarians have been developing tools to address the monolingual subject access issue since the late 1970s. An early approach, discussed in [Cabello-Argandoña, 1982], was an extensive mapping of LCSH to a new Spanish language thesaurus, and the subsequent creation of over 7,000 Spanish-language catalog records. More hopeful scenarios can be seen in the mapping approaches for French and German described in [Ballance, 1993] and [Landry, 2004]. [El-Sherbini, 2011] examines the cataloging community's focus on non-Roman subject access, showing that users generally prefer English-language subject access over Romanized non-English subject access, while librarians rarely prefer searching in the original scripts of non-English languages. One note is that while LCSH were mentioned repeatedly by these articles, the Sears Subject Headings used by some smaller libraries have seen little academic analysis.

Finally, despite Wellisch's impassioned, 30 year-old plea that administrators consider bibliographic description before acquiring non-English materials, cataloging issues have been widely ignored within the broader LIS community. A recent collaborative report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Library Services for Immigrants, failed to mention any issues with OPAC design or bibliographic description, instead focusing almost entirely on collection development and outreach [USCIS, 2004]. However, there is support within the technical services community itself for improving bibliographic access to linguistically underserved populations, as demonstrated by a 2007 ALCTS report, which emphasized the role of coalition-building in addressing these issues. [ALCTS, 2007]


[USCIS, 2004] (2004). Library services for immigrants: a report on current practices. Report, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

[ALCTS, 2007] (2007). Technical report, Association for Library Collections and Technical Services: Task Force on Non-English Access.

[Bala, 2004] Bala, B. (2004). Library and information needs of Latinos in Dunklin County, Missouri. Public Libraries, 43(2):119–22.

[Ballance, 1993] Ballance, V. (1993). Cataloging in the official and heritage languages at the National Library of Canada.

[Berman, 1993] Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and Antipathies: a Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. McFarland.

[Cabello-Argandoña, 1982] Cabello-Argandoña, R. (1982). Subject access for Hispanic library users. Library Journal, 107(14):1385–1387.

[Chou, 2000] Chou, Y.-l. (2000). Final report on pinyin conversion. Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, 9.

[El-Sherbini, 2011] El-Sherbini, M. (2011). An assessment of the need to provide non-Roman subject access to the library online catalog. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 49:457–483.

[Fina, 1993] Fina, M. (1993). The role of subject headings in access to information: the experience of one Spanish-speaking patron. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 17(1-2):267–74.

[Hoffert, 2008] Hoffert, B. (2008). Immigrant nation. Library Journal, 133(14).

[Jacobs, 2004] Jacobs, J. W. (2004). Cyril: expanding the horizons of MARC21. Library Hi Tech, 21(1):8–17.

[Jacobs, 2005] Jacobs, J. W. (2005). Making the Cyrillic OPAC a reality. Slavic and East European Information Resources, 6(2-3):135–49.

[Jensen, 2003] Jensen, B. (2003). The monolingual cataloging monolith: A barrier to library access for readers of spanish. Multicultural Review, pages 49–52.

[Landry, 2004] Landry, P. (2004). Multilingual subject access: the linking approach of MACS. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 37(3-4):177–191.

[Lu, 1996] Lu, S. (1996). A study on the Chinese Romanization standard in libraries. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 21(1):81–96.

[Rubin, 2008] Rubin, R. (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts, chapter 1, Stepping Back and Looking Forward: Reflections on the Foundations of Libraries and Librarianship. Libraries Unlimited.

[Wellisch, 1980] Wellisch, H. H. (1980). Bibliographic access to multilingual collections. Library Trends, 29(2):223–244.