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: https://www.library.dartmouth.edu/digital/digital-collections/change-the-subject