Posted by: Emily | June 8, 2008

Reading the library catalog like a text

I have finally gotten around to filling in the citations on this paper I read at the GLBT Archives, Libraries, and Special Collections conference at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies last month (GLBT ALMS 2008, for short), and am posting it here: Pedagogical Implications of GLBT Cataloging Practice. The quick and dirty summary: What if we thought about and taught our students to think about the library catalog as provisional and made real only in the act of the researcher’s “reading” of it? What do you think?



  1. Emily, I am so glad you posted your paper here. I enjoyed getting to read it again, and, as ever, I really appreciate your particular writing voice.

    When I consider what it might look like to teach students to read the catalog critically, I found myself thinking about a few things.

    First, I find myself thinking of the particular student populations I work with and the topics they are interested in. The work that students do here is quite different than the kinds of research questions Sarah Lawrence students grapple with. That is to say, the IUS curriculum is much more mainstream and less on the margins. You don’t really see the kind of “queered” courses you describe. It then follows that the typical IUS first year student is engaging topics that are also much more normative and mainstream, and therefore more easily capturable (?) and representable in LCSH and database controlled vocabularies. The sort of crisis of representation that you recount in your paper does not really happen here.

    This is not to say that we do not run into problems of representation at all, ever, but not in the same way you do, I think. I do try to talk to students about this problem of representation. When teaching students how to generate keywords from a topic, I explain to them that the library catalog and databases do not speak the same language we do, so in order to get useful results, you have to experiment with the way you describe the topic.

    Is that really “queer,” though, what I’m doing there? It is critical, maybe, and something approaching anti-normative, maybe. But queer? I am not sure. Like all pedagogical approaches, is queer pedagogy context-dependent? I think so. And it seems to me that the possibility of queer pedagogy depends on the particular student populations and subjects you’re working with, and this conditionality (?) is, in itself, interesting to me.

  2. I mean, it probably depends on what we mean when we say queer, right? Like at ALMS, I gave this paper and then someone in the audience raised her hand and pointed out, and rightly so I think, that all i was suggesting was what librarians have taught students all along–try some words, and if they don’t work out, try some others, and if you want to get everything, you’re probably going to have to look lots of places. And, shrug, I guess she’s right. So I wonder if what I’m talking about here is less about a change in concrete practice and more about a change in the way I think about the catalog. For me, thinking about it as a fluid text has been helpful, and for me, I understand fluidity/provisionality/etc. specifically in terms of queerness. but maybe the same approach–teaching the catalog in any class to any group of students as a structure that has to be continually grappled with rather than mastered once and for all–can be taught without resort to this queer thing?

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