“Browsing through Bias” among the most read Hopkins Press articles of 2022

Steve Knowlton and Sara Howard

“Browsing through Bias: The Library of Congress (LC) Classification and Subject Headings for African American Studies and LGBTQIA Studies,” an article by Steve Knowlton, Librarian for History and African American Studies, and Sara Howard, Librarian for Gender and Sexuality and Student Engagement, was named one of the most read journal articles from Hopkins Press in 2022. 

The piece is an examination of the Library of Congress’ knowledge organization system used to classify and describe books in the fields of African American studies and LGBTQIA studies. The interdisciplinary nature of these fields, as well as the language biases that exist within their subject headings, complicates the organization of items within the library’s collection. Howard and Knowlton’s article proposes tools that scholars can use to better find the titles they are searching for.

The article’s origin dates back to the 2016 renovations at Princeton University Library’s (PUL) Firestone Library. 

“Before the Firestone renovation, there was an African American studies reading room on the third floor,” Knowlton recalled. He added, “It was put in place around 1969, and it had a dedicated collection,” noting that alumni had many fond memories of the space, which featured a fireplace and a cozy atmosphere. 

The items in that room however, were eventually moved among PUL’s general collection. Only a few—mostly literature books from the personal collection of Professor Claudia Tate— were housed in the newly renovated African American Studies Reading Room on the B-Floor.

After starting at the Library in 2016, Knowlton embarked on restoring the collection, which he planned to accomplish by gathering important reference works and collections of primary sources from PUL’s African American Studies books.  He hoped to use a list of Library of Congress classification numbers to guide him in finding those works. 

There was one problem: that list didn’t exist. 

“So I started by going through the official LC Classification documents and pulling out all the call number ranges that apply to African American Studies,” Knowlton said. “Using that list, I pulled in the books to populate the reading room.” Realizing that others could benefit from his work, Knowlton, at the suggestion of Associate University Librarian for Collections and Access Services David Magier, was asked to present his work at a 2016 meeting of “selectors”—librarians who decide which materials the Library should acquire, and often also serve as subject specialists. 

“Steve presented his work at a 2016 selectors meeting and my first thought was, ‘yes’!” Howard recalled. “I want to do this for LGBTQIA materials. 

Howard reached out to Steve and they got to work. First Howard and Knowlton did a poster presentation at the 2017 American Library Association conference, after which Nicole A. Cooke, who was the editor of this issue of Library Trends, reached out to Howard to submit an article on this work. 

Collaboration is Key

What began as an independent project for Knowlton quickly blossomed into a shareable framework for librarianship. Despite having expertise in varying fields, he and Howard were able to build a strong partnership based on their fundamental training in library science. 

Having a wealth of PUL resources available also made the research and writing process flow smoother. Knowlton and Howard called upon items in the ReCAP storage facility as well as PUL’s vast array of journal literature to better understand the work other librarians had done on the LC classification system.

“The best partner is one who is as eager as you are to learn more about the subject being researched,” Knowlton said. “So the key is to identify a colleague who has already shown their interest, and built on your shared desire to advance the scholarship.”

Howard added, “The best advice I can offer is to find a collaborator who shares the (sometimes) stresses and more importantly the accolades of the publishing/presentation process.”

Published on March 24, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications