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Chapter 19. Ethics and Critical Cataloging

Chapter Outline

  • Introduction

  • Ethical Issues in Resource Description

  • Ethical Issues in Identifying and Representing Agents

  • Ethical Issues in Subject Analysis, Access, and Knowledge Organization Systems

  • Critical Cataloging, Inclusive and Reparative Practice

Key Takeaways

Knowledge organization is a complex area and involves not only the representation of our world of knowledge but also that of an information resource's content. Both types of representations have been faced with issues of biases, misrepresentations, and ethical concerns. Different cases of biases and ethical concerns are covered with examples.


The majority of literature on biases is in relation to the terminologies and categorizations in knowledge organization systems (KOS), especially subject headings lists and classification schemas.

Can there be neurtality?

Metadata creation, cataloging, and classification practices have been traditionally guided by and adhere to standardized rules, standards, best practices, vocabularies, and classification schemas. Often, this has given the false appearance of scientific and technical objectivity and the neutrality of libraries, their processes, and services.

Critical cataloging

Critical Cataloging is a subset of Critical Librarianship and focuses on mitigating the ways in which knowledge organization, including cataloging and classification, codifies systems and hierarchies of oppression. There are many efforts to make changes, to advocate for inclusive and reparative practice, and for more critical cataloging moving forward. These efforts include training and conference sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion, reparative practices for different areas, changes needed in the presentation of marginalized areas and offensive terminologies, and cases of change. Alternative KOS are developed and used instead of or in addition to traditional library KOS.  Changes are also seen in the editorial processes for the revision of KOSs.

Codes of ethics

In addition to more general LIS codes of ethics and competencies that address matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field, several efforts focus on cataloging ethics. Among them is the Cataloguing Code of Ethics, released in January 2021.

Chapter References/Notes

  1. A select list of Sanford Berman’s works:

    1. Berman, S. (2014). Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.

    2. Berman, S. (1984). Where have all the Moonies gone? In Gordon Stevenson and Sally Stevenson (Eds.), Reference services and technical services: Interactions in library practice (pp. 133–143). New York, NY: Haworth Press.

    3. Berman’s papers are available at the ALA Archives: “Sanford Berman Papers, 1933, 1942-1943, 1950-1953, 1959-2013”. ALA Archives.

  2. A select list of knowledge organization ethics works:

    1. Beghtol, C. (2002). Universal concepts, cultural warrant and cultural hospitality. In M. López- Huertas (Ed.), Advances in knowledge organization: Vol. 8, Ergon-Verlag.

    2. Mai, J.-E. (2013). Ethics, values and morality in contemporary library classifications. Knowledge Organization, 40(4), 242–253.

    3. Olson, H. A. (2000). Difference, culture and change: The untapped potential of LCSH. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 29(1–2), 53–71.

    4. Olson, H. A. (2002). The power to name: Locating the limits of subject representation in libraries. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    5. Smiraglia, R. P. (2012). Epistemology of domain analysis. In R. P. Smiraglia & H.-L. Lee (Eds.), Cultural frames of knowledge (pp. 111–124). Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag.

  3. ALA. Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee. (2021). Cataloguing code of ethics. Retrieved from https://

  4. ALA. Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee. A code of ethics for catalogers: The official website of the Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee. Retrieved from

  5. ALA. Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee. (2021). Cataloguing code of ethics. Retrieved from

  6. Adler, M. (2017). Classification along the color line: Excavating racism in the stacks. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017).

  7. Library of Congress. (2022). Demographic group terms. Retrieved from

  8. Library of Congress. Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC) Ad Hoc Task Group on Gender in Name Authority Records. (2022). PCC Task Group in Gender. Retrieved from

  9. Library of Congress. Library of Congress Demographic Group Terms. L400. Retrieved from

  10. Carpenter, T. (2022). NISO I/O Gender Identification and Cataloging Practice: Reconsidering Gender in Personal Name Authority Records. Retrieved from

  11. ALA. Rainbow Round Table (RRT). Retrieved from

  12. Name Change Policy Working Group. Retrieved from

  13. QueerMetadataCollective.Retrievedfrom

  14. ISNI. (2021). Representation of gender identities in ISNI records and the ISNI database. Retrieved from

  15. Mai, J.-E. (2010). Classification in a social world: bias and trust. Journal of Documentation, 66(5), 627–642.

  16. Olson, H. A. (1999). Exclusivity, teleology and hierarchy: our Aristotelian legacy. Knowledge Organization, 26(2), 65–73.

  17. Select works about Melvil Dewey: Wiegand, W.A. (1996). Irrepressible reformer: A biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.


Additional Readings

Here, you will find readings specific to the contents of this chapter.

You may find more readings about similar topics on the Cataloging and Classification Web Resources page

Critical Cataloging
Ethics in Cataloging
  • Bair, S. (2008). “Toward a code of ethics for cataloging.” Technical Services Quarterly, 23(1), 13-26. DOI: 10.1300/J124v23n01_02  

  • Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee. (2021 January). Cataloging code of ethics. American Library Association Institutional Repository. Retrieved from  

  • Ferris, A.M. (2008). “The ethics and integrity of cataloging.” Journal of Library Administration, 47(3-4), 173-190. DOI: 10.1080/01930820802186514  

  • Knowlton, S. A. (2009). “Three decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A study of changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 40(2), 123-145. DOI: 10.1300/J104v40n02_08 

  • Martin, J.M. (2021). "Records, responsibility, and power: An overview of cataloging ethics."Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 59(2-3), 281-304, DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2020.1871458

  • Pettitt, K. and Elzi, E. (2023). Unsettling the library catalog: A case study in reducing the presence of “Indians of North America” and similar subject headings. Library Resources & Technical Services, 67(2), 44-52. Retrieved from  

  • Snow, K. and Shoemaker, B. (2020). "Defining cataloging ethics: Practitioner perspectives." Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 58(6), 533-546, DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2020.1795767

  • Watson, B.M. (2021). "Advancing equitable cataloging." Proceedings from North American Symposium on Knowledge Organization, 8. DOI:

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