In March of 2021, a group of library staff from departments across John Hopkins Sheridan Libraries formed the Critical Cataloging Interest Group to discuss issues of justice, equity, and diversity within our library catalog, Catalyst. One of our first projects was to improve the subject headings related undocumented immigrants in the catalog. We have now established rules to replace or overlay instances of “illegal aliens” or “illegal immigration” with “undocumented immigrants/immigration.” 

In cataloging of books and other resources, librarians have traditionally relied upon “subject headings,” topical words or phrases to help categorize what a resource is about and to help users find the materials they are looking for. In the United States, subject headings produced and maintained by the Library of Congress are widely employed by academic libraries for this purpose. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is a controlled vocabulary, which means that the cataloger must use the exact word or phrase prescribed by the source organization.   

Until 2021, the LCSH referring to undocumented immigrants was “illegal aliens,” which was well-known in the library community to be outdated and offensive. In 2014, students and librarians at Dartmouth College proposed replacing the Library of Congress (LC) subject heading “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants,” along with similar headings. In January 2016, the American Library Association Council called on LC to change the subject heading. LC then proposed the cancellation of the heading “illegal aliens” and opened the proposal for feedback, but then made no more comments until fall of 2022.  

While waiting for Library of Congress to make changes, Dartmouth and numerous other libraries made changes in their own catalogs to replace or supplement the heading “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants.” Two federal agencies’ thesauri, ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) Thesaurus and MeSH (Medical Subject Headings), as well as Academic Search Premier by EBSCO and Getty Research Institute, use the term “undocumented immigrants,” signaling a wider change in policy in libraries. Likewise, the Hopkins Critical Cataloging Group planned to replace the heading “Illegal aliens” with “Undocumented immigrants” in our own catalog. 

As we began testing and implementing these changes in the fall of 2022, the Library of Congress announced they would be changing “illegal aliens” to two different headings, “noncitizens” and “illegal immigration.” However, our group felt that these new headings were still problematic, as they kept the dehumanizing term of “illegal” and inaccurately equated citizenship status with documentation status. Given this, we decided to move forward with our plan to use the term “undocumented immigrants” to replace these headings. Additionally, recent improvements to our catalog mean that Catalyst now includes records from outside sources, giving our patrons access to millions of additional resources. While we do not control these records directly, we were able to remove harmful language from the public display. We are happy to announce that these changes are now live in Catalyst. 

With these changes, we hope to now evaluate a wider range of potentially problematic subject headings in the catalog for replacement. For this task, users can report offensive or inaccurate language using the Catalyst issue reporting form


Change the Subject at Dartmouth 

Report of the SAC Working Group on Alternatives to LCSH “Illegal aliens.” 

ALA Council, Resolution in Support of the Professional Cataloging Processes and Determinations of the Library of Congress. 

Library of Congress Drops Illegal Alien Subject Heading, Provokes Backlash Legislation. Library Journal. 13 June 2016.