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ANTH 262: Language and Power: Browsing & Bias

Professor Joel Lee

More on Search System Bias

Using Subject Headings

Subject Headings are terms that are most commonly used to describe the topic that a resource covers. Unlike keywords, which are user generated, subject headings are created and maintained by an authoritative institution. Since Williams Libraries, and most academic libraries, organizes our resources using the Library of Congress Classification, we also utilize Library of Congress Subject Headings to provide access to our collections by subject. Subject headings are arranged systematically, and can be useful tools to help browse the collection by topic. Subject headings for each resource are located in the "Details" section of the catalog record, under "Subjects."

 A screenshot of the Details section of a record in the library catalog with the subjects section in a green box

Politics of Search Systems

While often considered neutral by information seekers, the systems that power the searching of information (subject terminology, search engine algorithms, etc.) have been created by humans, and so are inherently biased. This is important to keep in mind as you navigate these spaces. Here are a few things to consider:

- Does the language you are using to find resources hold any social and/or political bias? What sort of language might the "other side" of an argument use when talking about your topic. Terms like "Illegal Alien" vs. "Undocumented Immigrants" vs. "Noncitizens" bring this to light - try performing individual searches with a variety of similar keywords and/or subjects to see how your results differ.

- How does the search tool you are using make money? How might that influence the ranking of the results you see?

- Who are the primary users of the search tool you are using? Does this change what is included, or how one might perform a search?

Algorithms of Oppression - Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble

Research on Search Engines

Dr. Safiya U. Noble

Cathy O'Neil 

What About Google and Library Search Engines?

The topic of bias in classification structures is often discussed within the field of critical librarianship, a movement of library workers dedicated to bringing social justice principles into our work in libraries - find out more at 

Scholarly Articles about Library Classification and Bias:

Drabinski, Emily. "Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of CorrectionThe Library Quarterly (Chicago) 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111

Olson, Hope A. "The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs.Signs: Journals of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 3 (2001): 639-68.

Howard, Sara A., and Knowlton, Steven A. "Browsing through Bias: The Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings for African American Studies and LGBTQIA Studies." Library Trends 67, no. 1 (2018): 74-88.

Roberto, K.R. "Inflexible Bodies: Metadata for Transgender Identities."  Journal of Information Ethics 20, no. 2 (2011); 56-64.