‘Words matter’: Why the UC Berkeley Library is embracing another term for ‘illegal aliens’

Card catalog
The way libraries’ materials are discovered have changed throughout the years — and so have the terms used to describe them. (Photo by Violet Carter for the UC Berkeley Library)

Editor’s note: This article contains terms that, while offensive, are included to provide historical context.

Gisèle Tanasse’s class visits come with an apology.

When she’s introducing students to the UC Berkeley Library, and helping them sift through its collections using the online catalog, she warns them about what they might find.


“You’re going to see some things that are really othering and problematic,” says Tanasse, Berkeley’s film and media services librarian, recalling her message to students during a pre-pandemic interview at Moffitt Library’s Media Resources Center. “And I’m sorry.”

The “things” Tanasse is referring to aren’t controversial films or antiquated tomes in the Library’s collections. They’re subject headings, woven into the Library’s catalog itself.

Subject headings usually exist outside of the realm of dinner-table banter, often confined to discussions among library folk. But in recent years, the heading “Illegal aliens” and its ilk shot to national attention.

After a hard-fought (and ultimately unsuccessful) war of the words started by students at Dartmouth College, which would have changed subject headings used by libraries across the country, the UC Berkeley Library saw an opportunity to act. Along with other institutions nationwide, the Library has adopted alternatives to the controversial heading — a step toward greater inclusion.

What’s in a name?

If the topic of subject headings seems wonky and in-the-weeds, that’s because it is. But subject headings are also incredibly important and powerful, bundling materials by topic within and across libraries, and opening up worlds of information that otherwise may have slipped through the cracks.

“A keyword search, which a lot of students might think to do first, will maybe bring up something from the title, the author, something like that,” says Jean Dickinson, the Library’s Slavic cataloger, who serves on the Library’s cataloging and metadata group that developed the proposal to introduce the new subject headings. “But what if the title is called The Bluest Eye, so you don’t know what it’s about?”

“Is it a novel? Is it an optometry text? Is it something about color? Fashion? You don’t know,” adds Randal Brandt, head of cataloging at The Bancroft Library, who is also a part of the cataloging and metadata group.

If you are in the thick of researching, say, African Americans in fiction, searching by subject heading can quickly help you find what you need. Meaning The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel — and other relevant works, no matter how obscure their titles — would pop up in your results.

But where do subject headings come from?

Based in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress is America’s de facto national library. And its long list of subject headings — from “Absentee voting” to “Zydeco music” — serves as the authoritative standard for catalogers in libraries across the country, including at UC Berkeley.

These subject headings establish a “controlled vocabulary,” with obvious benefits. As terms inevitably change — “Aeroplanes” becomes “Airplanes,” for example — materials across history on the topic will remain united under a common heading. And because most libraries around the country use the same list of subject headings, with some local variations, researchers can swiftly search by topic from library to library with relative ease.


“That’s kind of the beauty of it,” says Susan Edwards, social welfare librarian and head of the Library’s Social Sciences Division, who started the effort to adopt alternatives to the “Illegal aliens” heading at Berkeley. “But the problem with it is it’s incredibly vulnerable to the bias of the times.”

Over time, subject headings can shift and evolve, reflecting how the world and the words we use change around us. For example, “Negroes,” a subject heading used by the Library of Congress through much of the 20th century, changed to “Blacks” in the 1970s. “Blacks” — still used when referring to people of African descent who aren’t American citizens — split off into “Afro-Americans” in the 1990s, which was replaced by “African Americans” in 2000.

Subject headings can be slow to change, and some terms — though once widely favored — now resemble linguistic time capsules, vestiges of days long past.

Add “Illegal aliens” to the list of subject headings that are in dire need of an update, critics say.

“Illegal aliens” as a Library of Congress subject heading dates back to 1993, when it was revised from “Aliens, illegal,” which was established in 1980. The term “illegal aliens” has been condemned as dehumanizing and offensive by human rights groups, politicians, and many others, who say it marginalizes people who have entered the country illegally — including hundreds of thousands who arrived in the U.S. through no choice of their own.

With help from librarians — and with buy-in from the American Library Association — the grassroots effort to drop “Illegal aliens” from the Library of Congress’ subject headings wound its way to the halls of Congress, only to be thwarted by conservative lawmakers. The pushback was unprecedented: Never before has Congress intervened in the routine, and decidedly mundane, process of updating Library of Congress subject headings. (The effort, sparked by students at Dartmouth, was chronicled in the 2019 documentary Change the Subject, screened as part of Berkeley’s Documentaries at Doe series.)

For now, the Library of Congress’ subject heading remains unchanged. But in the meantime, libraries across the country — including at the University of Colorado Boulder, Cal State, and Yale University — have taken matters into their own hands.

Like some other libraries, Berkeley didn’t scrub “Illegal aliens” from its catalog altogether — that likely won’t happen until the Library of Congress makes the change once and for all. Instead, the Library’s IT team layered “Undocumented immigrants” into the 5,000-plus records with some version of the “Illegal aliens” subject heading.

“It’s not the ideal solution,” Brandt says. “We hope this is temporary. We hope this is a stopgap measure.”

But for Tanasse, with the unenviable task of warning students about the biases that reside within the Library’s catalog, “it’s a step in the right direction.”

Soon, the Library might take a bigger leap. Recent police killings of Black people have set off waves of protests and discussions around the globe, including frank conversations at the Library and a vow to take action. For its part, the Library’s Cataloging & Metadata Council — the group that developed the proposal for the “Undocumented immigrants” heading — has officially taken up the effort to make language in the Library’s catalog more inclusive and respectful.

“The UC Berkeley Library is committed to ensuring inclusion and sensitivity around access and discovery of its collection,” says Jo Anne Newyear Ramirez, associate university librarian for scholarly resources and interim co-chair of the council. “We will continue to assess and adapt how we describe our collections and resources, to ensure that care, consideration, and inclusion are reflected across our Library’s collections.”

Expecting Library patrons to use antiquated and, at times, offensive terms when searching the catalog is, in some ways, “insulting,” she says.

“I just feel like we need to adapt to the times,” she adds.

‘No person is illegal’

For Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian and Chicano studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library, adopting the new subject heading “just made sense.”


“I know it’s … a bumper sticker kind of thing, but no person is illegal,” she says.

Inclusion has been baked into the Ethnic Studies Library’s mission from the very start.

Concerned by the lack of diverse perspectives in campus libraries, Berkeley students in the late ’60s began collecting materials representing voices from their communities, forming the basis of the Asian American Studies Library, the Chicano Studies Library, and the Native American Studies Library. In 1997, those libraries merged to become the Ethnic Studies Library, whose legacy of inclusion flourishes today.

“You have very impressionable (students), straight out of high school,” says Robert Toyama, cataloging coordinator at the Ethnic Studies Library. “Many of them come from communities in which they’ve never seen a person of color, for example, or a gay, lesbian, or transgender individual. .… I think it’s very important, particularly at a young age, to familiarize them with the proper terms.”

Still, pundits and politicians — including President Donald Trump — throw around the term “illegal aliens” and paint a bleak (and often inaccurate) picture of the economic and public safety threat immigrants pose.

Given that, the Library’s new subject heading might feel insignificant — like a drop in the bucket, or the ocean. But for the university’s community, including the more than 500 undocumented students who study at Berkeley, it could send a simple but powerful message: You are welcome here.

When it comes to belonging and inclusion, “words matter,” Edwards says. And even at a time when so many problems can feel intractable, this is an area where the Library, and librarians, can make a difference.

“There’s something about working where you are,” she says. “And this is where we are.

“This is what we can do.”