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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 20. Knowledge Organisation: Information, Systems and Social Change by John Lindsay


This essay is dedicated to the memory of John McKay, Librarian of Ravensbourne College of Art and then of the Glasgow School of Art. He was also co-founder of Librarians for Social Change, the Gay Librarians Group and Gay Rights at Work, a life long trades unionist, and was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. While I was writing it, he was ill, but I did not know he would die before I would finish it. There will be a more substantial publication during Gay History Month, to commemorate his work.


Actually it is not Gay History Month, it is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) History Month, but I think I will prove the gay bit is hard enough and leave the others to someone else.

The approach taken in this essay follows that in Librarians for Social Change and in particular in Radical Librarianship twenty five years ago. What was argued then was that while librarians have no control over what is published, control is exerted over the stock (in terms of books, journals etc.), which is selected. Furthermore, librarians exercise control over the terms that are allocated in controlled vocabularies, and the associations that are established in classification schemes as well as the terms. Control is also exerted over the shelf mark.

What was argued in those articles was that staff in libraries have an obligation to give a positive and discriminatory approach, such that the identities of LGBT people (but I am going to stick to gay) should be supported.

Concepts in libraries

This was, and probably still is, contentious. I have a recent example. The enquiry desk of my university library, (Kingston University), was staffed by a science subject specialist. I asked her to describe how the key words were allocated in our catalogue. While describing the approach, she 'outed' herself and a science specialist and therefore not the best person for my query. She also explained that the organisational form of faculty and school shaped the selection policy. I remarked that the literature on the attitude to 'homosexuality' within scientific method was such that a systematic distortion of the scientific record has probably been constructed. Furthermore, that librarians have an obligation under the charter to and the UN declaration of human rights on freedom expression and access to information to ensure that selection policy should be much wider. Within a very short while, for writing this has taken longer than the conversation, we were in very deep water indeed and agreed not to follow further.

That the matters of this material have moved so little seems to me to need further exploration. However, before engaging on that project I wish to clear the undergrowth, as Locke might have said, on human understanding, by establishing what we currently know of the organisation of documents on the concept of 'gay'.

The concept, needless to say, is contentious, for we have to decide whether when we first put on our 'Glad to be Gay' badges we were creating the concept. Did it exist before the badge?

We will have to limit ourselves to the word in English, though we will not have to limit ourselves in regard to the material. In fact it appears very frequently in the past, but it is not at all clear what the word means. For more than one hundred years there has also been another word, 'homosexual' and a concept 'homosexuality'. These raise a similar issue: what was the activity or the practice, or the practitioner with which this term was associated? Presumably the practice existed before the term, but did the term create a new association?

This paragraph is simply yet another restating of a debate that has enthused practitioners, summarised as a constructionist, essentialist debate. Has the phenomenon always existed, or at least within history, or is it an invention after the word?

We must jump to a third string, 'queer' for there is now an established literature on what is called queer studies and queer theory. The origin of this term is in turning the words of the oppressors and this is often cited within a domain called popular culture. I am afraid though that in proper popular culture it still carries its earlier pejorative. There are lots of other terms too but I think we can leave them out. We will have enough trouble with these three.

Since those articles we have seen the development of the Internet. It is more than likely that someone approaching the topic will search on Google before going to a library. But this is, in turn, part of what I want to explore. How does the Internet and Google stand up against a library, and the social forms that have been inserted and constructed to map the information landscape?

University libraries

My starting point was which clumps the library catalogues of the university libraries roughly, within the M25 - a motorway which surrounds and encircles with motorism - London, England. In another search though I found that the retrieval of the clump is unreliable.

So, I will start instead with my university library catalogue. There is a keyword search function and an author search function. On keyword it gives 89 records for gay, 91 for homosexuality, 9 for homosexual and 23 for queer. There records have widely differing classification numbers attributed. 06776 is sometimes used as an extension to a root, but it is clear that a number of decisions have been made about what a book is about. We need to bear in mind that gay will include John Gay.

My query produced the understanding that the record is part of the purchase of the book. Dawson¹s are our predominant supplier. We do not know at this stage who allocates the keyword apart from the occurrence of a string within the title. There might then be some intervention by a subject librarian - that would depend on which faculty. So we have class number and keyword as contested categories of human intervention.

It is also interesting to note that, looking up 'Wilde' records in my university library catalogue hides any reference to the significance of his sexual orientation.

The university management refuses to provide access to the subject heading, or use that as a hypertext term, to which I will return.

Public libraries

Hallelujah, Hallelujah! In Westminster Public Library, searching on gay, with 187 results, I found in one the use of a subject heading as a hypertext pointer, 'homosexuality and music', and when I clicked on that it brought me to Harris, E. Handel as Orpheus. This is radical. I had the idea a while ago that Handel should be in my stack, and began to look at gender in his operas. I want to make quite clear how this moves us forward. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on Handel. In a lifetime I could not read them all, and it would be a complete accident were I to stumble on this one, which provides significant evidence. When I tracked the book down, I found the subject heading included in the Library of Congress CIP data as a LC subject heading. So what has happened is that LC has constructed the category, someone has decided to allocate the category (thought it is not clear without examining the book what the thrust is, and someone else might not agree that this is the main thrust). Westminster has either willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, taken the category, included it, and made it available. This is the sort of issue that we were arguing about thirty years ago. At last a library has made some of this information available.

After that it is rather down hill. I looked on 'What's in London Libraries', and found a rather depressing story. For brevity we could point to the use of the search terms I used above, try it, and see what sort of results one can get. I went to Tower Hamlets to try it out in practice and found six copies of a Muslim publication on homosexuality and Internet pornography, which I have not yet tracked down. But that was the only title to have more than two copies. I have not yet looked at Brent, Newham and Croydon. However, attending a meeting on libraries at the Royal Society of Arts I heard a librarian from Newham, and another from ReSource make remarks about the role of classification and cataloguing that I regard as so heretical that I would call it unprofessional, but to that we will return.

I am not going to look further at libraries because we have established enough.


I next visited a couple of bookshops to see how they were organised. Borders and Waterstones seem accidentally to locate material in a gay and lesbian section. McKenna on Wilde, which was celebrated while I was writing this, appears in different places in different bookshops.

Electronic resources

The next category is the retrieval instruments to which Kingston University subscribes. These appear accessible to anyone within the local area network, or who has logged on to the campus wide Intranet. They will be accessible with an Athens password. (which is in itself a nightmare for my faculty technical staff who require me to change my password frequently, and will not allow me to reuse previously used ones. Then Athens will not recognise me, but I exist already.) Sigh. Who said any of this was going to be easy?

The resources to which the university subscribes is organised by faculty and school and this follows the funding regime in which subject specialists are the fund managers. So we will leave this till we have dealt with a more general resource and then return.

The Joint Information Systems Council (JISC) funds a thing called the Resource Discovery Network. This has been a long time in the making and needs a much more considerable history than I am going to allocate here. You will probably want to read this in parallel with logging on to the site. There are eight gaytes. Go to each of them and type in the three search strings we have identified, gay, homosexuality and queer. Write your own evaluation. Is this knowledge organisation?

The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) gave me more than one hundred, whereas the others at most around ten. The problem with SOSIG is that the list is in alphabetical order without any further segmentation. The site says there is a subject map, but all I could find were a short list of topics.

I have for a long time argued that the Electronic Development Information Service (ELDIS) ought to be included but without success. I might do a circular argument and search on these and see which find ELDIS. But given the contest in developing countries about gay liberation, we will have to give ELDIS a try too. Were there other resources I would presume we would have retrieved them.

Genuinely useful, I would also include Rictor Norton¹s two sites, the bibliography and the literature. Searching on Google I failed, for I had not remembered how correctly to spell his name.

The queer theory site I did not know about, nor the gay history one. Both of these have developed their own taxonomies and methods for organisation, which we might call information, which needs navigation and within which we cannot be confident we know whether something is there or not without surveying the whole. I also did not know about the gender studies journal, which in turn has its own list of resources.

Comparing the cost of producing this, with the JISC sites, I wonder where we might allocate bang for buck and buck for bang? With the electronic journals however we have no alternative to reading through the contents lists, for there do not appear to be thematic cataloguing resources.

Possibly the gem which should inspire us all is the New York Public Library. I had no idea this resource existed. Read the introduction. Does any institution in Britain promote itself like this? I am not sure their claims are supportable. It would certainly be interesting to read a history of how they got here. What would Sanford Berman say?

InforM25 I have mentioned, now more on clumps, zetoc and copac. Should these have come before the gates, for they refer to books? We are being driven to put form over content. There is a process at play. Books in my immediate library, electronic resources, journal articles, books in other libraries, journal articles in other libraries - is that the order?


Google I may dispose of in a moment for I do not think we can consider this knowledge organisation. Were we able however to establish more precise search terms, then we might move forward. I have argued this in some detail in the case of Bacon, Francis, with Meautys and Gorhambury and will use that case somewhere appropriate. It is available from me in the meantime. I have done another on the case of Antonio Perez, then to my joy and delight, discovered from Maranon that I could join them, for Perez and Bacon had met.

Retreval tools

Should we now investigate our tools?

Dewey 21



Library of Congress

Library of Congress Subject Headings

UN and UNESCO macrothesaurus

UK archive thesaurus

Central and local government category lists

Point to Currier perhaps

I am not sure that simply listing these will help. Perhaps we need a study of how people have been taught to use them.

This section has been episodic as I want to point to what needs to be done, rather than do it all myself, though I will undoubtedly return to all this.


Perhaps, to end we should return to the beginning. Why do we need any of this? There are two answers. The first is fairly obvious, that to know about ourselves is partly the consequence of knowing what exists, what may exist, and what does not exist. This is the heart of knowledge organisation. The second is more problematic: is the experience of 'gayness' simply an issue of taxonomy, or classification? I have to take words that I did not create and apply them to my experience as a sense of making activity, whether the words are appropriate or not. By making a badge which said 'Glad to be Gay' or by forming an organisation called the 'Gay Liberation Front', or by writing a pamphlet called 'The Gay Liberation Manifesto' a category was brought into being with which I had to associate. This was the case even if much of it did not make much sense to my experience. Then, participating in a group called 'Gay Rights at Work', being involved in producing a pamphlet, 'The Word is Gay', going to a bookshop, 'Gay's the Word', being involved in setting up 'Gay Switchboard' and the 'Gay Librarians' Group', I make a category with which I am associated - even if its meanings are without my manipulation.

To all this we will return, but if you, gentle reader, want to undertake some field work, as it was called in anthropology, or even make a contribution during Gay History Month, you might consider the following:

Plato (an easy start but perhaps Phaedrus rather)
Handel (given a lead already)
Gay (easy this one, Nokes)
Walpole (easy ditto, Mowl)
Gray (indeed, he of country churchyard)
Hervey (amphibious thing)

John Lindsay
Reader in Information Systems Design,
Kingston University


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