Change the Subject, a student film


I have been listening to some of the half-hour “Doc Chat” weekly episodes of the New York Public Library’s Center for Research in the Humanities. One of them was about the library’s Picture Collection (1.5 million images strong) and the way in which it is organized. Librarians have made and make decisions about which of the thousands of physical folders, by subject, a new image should go into. Digitization has begun, but those who use the physical folders say there is nothing like examining the actual object, and nothing like being inspired by the serendipity of what’s accumulated in the file over time, which is lost in the digitization process.

During this conversation between the head of the Picture Collection and a photographer/professor who uses the collection, the fact that libraries across the nation use subject headings set by the Library of Congress came up. We were referred to a film made by Dartmouth College students called “Change the Subject,” which is about an hour in length. It is the story of a student’s discovery that the Dartmouth library used “Illegal Aliens” as a subject heading, which led to the discovery that all libraries use it because it comes down from the Library of Congress. They decided to do something about it, and this is their fascinating and frustrating story:

5 comments on “Change the Subject, a student film”

  1. Oh, gosh, why didn’t I do this before I posted? I just checked my library’s online catalog, which allows for searching by subject. “Illegal Aliens” returned 369 results and “Undocumented Immigrants” returned 0 — a big goose egg.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I just finished watching this- excellent find, Teri. Óscar hit it for me when he said something like – being inside the place where the laws are made and being undocumented made the whole idea of law seem quite imaginary 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent find indeed, Teri. I too was struck by the phrase borkali mentions. Also when he says that being there feels subversive. Subversive is a good thing. The layers of disregard embedded in our culture, in our institutions, boggles the mind.

    I was also delighted to learn of Sanford Berman (?) who was referred to as a subject heading activist. And of course, I couldn’t help but think of Erica Baum.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JNaz, I’m glad you found it worth your time. I hadn’t thought of Erica Baum, so thank you for that connection.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s