Information Bias in Library Catalogs

Timothy Binga

Sanford Berman (see preceding News and Comment piece) has been working tirelessly for years to improve the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and keep the subject headings and classification system up to date. As mentioned in his article, Berman points out a subtle bias that is created because library catalogs do not truly represent the subject heading and classification that is indicated. His example of climate change denialism is but one classification that should be added, and it is not correctly represented with the term climate change skepticism.

As Berman mentions, the Library of Congress is slow to make changes. This is not only because they are a conservative institution but because they are undergoing a “modernization” of cataloging rules. The Library of Congress is moving toward a new system that will provide many other access points to information than were found in older library catalogs. It still takes considerable effort to make even the simplest of subject heading changes to become more modern, or remove an archaic item, and it seems as though the Library of Congress might not be working as fast as they could to modernize the classification schemes.

Library Information Systems are heading toward more social interaction that allow for tagging materials by patrons. These systems do not necessarily have formal subject headings from the Library of Congress; however, the system is trying to overcome some of these issues, current relevance being one important one. This is done with a social tagging element as both patrons and librarians are using keywords (such as denialism, AIDS denialism, etc.). This is not formalized, which in itself is a problem. Since anybody can tag, there is no control, and there is no guarantee that the tag is relevant to everyone. This also creates another bias.

Knowing there is a bias in the information helps us to think critically about the information that is represented in the library catalogs. As a part of their profession, librarians and information specialists try to remove these biases. But even our profession can sometimes create these problems, both unwittingly and on purpose.

Earl Lee, in his book Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity ( Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2001) points out that there have been many issues with cataloging library materials, particularly with those of a controversial nature. The example I use in my article “Library Collections on Unbelief ” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007) shows how books dealing with evidence for and against the existence of Jesus are placed incorrectly in the subjects “Atheism” or “Christianity—Controversial literature” versus the correct heading of “Jesus Christ—Historicity.” Many reasons could be to blame for this, but Lee points out that this type of book usually is cataloged by a subject expert, which would likely be in religion or philosophy, and there could be a bias there.

Also, many book creators and publishers today are cataloging their own materials, and this becomes a library cataloging issue too. They are using subject headings that are not always correct but ones that would sell books better. We see some of those effects in skeptical book sales; Joe Nickell’s University Press of Kentucky books were promoted as paranormal books, placed in the New Age section of Barnes and Noble, and had only secondary subject headings of skepticism. Good librarians might change the subject headings a bit for their own library, but many don’t have the time or the ability to do this.

I support the improvement of the LCSH with those suggestions Berman has written about here. Hopefully we will still see information professionals continue to help patrons make informed decisions on what they are looking to read.

Timothy Binga

Tim Binga is director of Libraries and IT manager at the Center for Inquiry and an adjunct instructor at the University at Buffalo. He holds a master's degree in library science and dual B.A.’s in history and humanities. He has written for Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines and is a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Time (2009), the Dictionary of Early American Philosophers (2012), and the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2006). He is a passionate researcher and cataloger and has lectured on the RMS Titanic, digital libraries and R. V. Pierce.


Sanford Berman (see preceding News and Comment piece) has been working tirelessly for years to improve the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and keep the subject headings and classification system up to date. As mentioned in his article, Berman points out a subtle bias that is created because library catalogs do not truly represent …

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