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Library of Congress Subject Heading Change Announcement

by Nicole H. Scalessa on 2021-04-15T13:38:00-04:00 | Comments

The Vassar College Libraries announce our adoption of nationally recognized alternative terms for the current Library of Congress subject heading “Illegal aliens” (and related terms).


Library of Congress Subject Headings, a list that allows users to search across library catalog systems, often includes compromised or outdated terminology for groups of people. Because it is a national standard, most US libraries adhere to these terms. However, there are times when the system fails and libraries need to seek out alternative measures. The case of the subject heading (and related terms), “Illegal aliens” is one example. Students and librarians from Dartmouth followed the procedure to petition the Library of Congress to change this group of subject headings (see the movie Change the Subject for more information). The Library of Congress confirmed this set of offensive terms should be changed to a combination of “Undocumented immigrants” and “Non-citizens” in 2016. But in an unprecedented and highly politicized move, the US Congress intervened and legally blocked the change, thereby prohibiting the Library of Congress to update the subject headings list.

The need to use inclusive and accessible language when describing the people represented by or documented in library materials is now a guiding principle for librarians. Many libraries have either changed the headings in their local catalogs to the headings approved by the Library of Congress or added alternative headings. The vast majority of libraries opted to use “Undocumented immigrants” for “Illegal aliens” and all other instances where subject headings contained “illegal aliens.” 

As a result of consultation with the Library Committee and the Academic Engagement Librarians, the Cataloging Working Group will make similar changes in the library catalog on Monday, April 19. The list of changes is below.



Alternative Heading



Illegal aliens

Undocumented Immigrants 

Alien detention centers

Immigrant detention centers

Children of illegal aliens

Children of undocumented immigrants

Illegal alien children

Undocumented immigrant children

Illegal aliens in literature

Undocumented immigrants in literature

Women illegal aliens

Women undocumented immigrants


The decision to use alternative headings cannot be made lightly. Using alternative headings creates additional work for staff and could cause confusion for library patrons. When librarians determine that problematic headings need changing, the Vassar Libraries will first formally propose the changes to the Library of Congress, following its guidelines for making proposals. If this process fails, and, based on our guiding principle that we need to use inclusive and accessible language when describing the people represented by or documented in our materials, we will proceed in the following way: 

  • Research options for new language

  • Garner input from stakeholders about the new language

  • Create new local authority records for the headings

  • Make changes in the library catalog

  • Announce and teach the changes 

For further information, please contact Debra Bucher, Head of Collections & Discovery, at, or

Debra Bucher, chair, Cataloging Working Group
Ann Churukian
Linda McAteer
Mark Seidl
Laura Streett
MaryBeth Will

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