Repairing bias in Library of Congress Subject Headings

As users of Library of Congress Subject Headings, we acknowledge that certain terms in our catalog are harmful and offensive, and the UVA Library seeks to help to correct this through the Subject Access Enhancement Initiative.

We maintain a limited but growing reparative taxonomy that documents the changes that we have made in our catalog to this point. We engage with university expertise to build knowledge in a series of learning sessions to better understand the varied communities that we describe. Videos of past learning sessions are posted online: 

Help the Library improve

You can help us in these efforts by identifying offensive terms in our online catalog, Virgo, and suggesting a suitable replacement. You can find subject headings in our records in an item detail page (view an example) next to the “subject” label.

Make a suggestion now to improve Library of Congress Subject Headings at UVA.

We thank you for your engaged efforts to improve our catalog for all library patrons.

If you have questions or would like more information about this work, please contact

Learn more about subject headings

Library catalogers describe topical information in resources by consulting lists and assigning predetermined terms called subject headings. These subject heading lists, or controlled vocabularies, are shared among catalogers to reduce duplicative efforts and standardize description across libraries. The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is a very popular controlled vocabulary used by librarians.

Creating catalog records with Library of Congress Subject Headings is time-consuming but it helps UVA Library visitors discover resources related to their information needs. For instance, researchers can browse or search the Virgo catalog by selecting a specific Subject Heading to retrieve additional resources on a topic.

Changes over time

The history of LCSH begins in 1898 when the Library of Congress first published a list of Subject Headings for use both internally and by librarians around the United States. Today the vocabulary (PDF) is very large, consisting of over 350,000 terms. An editorial board at the Library of Congress manages LCSH and is responsible for approving proposals to add to or revise the vocabulary.

Over the course of its history and development, bias related to race, gender, sexuality, and religious and ethnic groups evolved within the framework of LCSH. This led to the use of offensive and harmful terms in library catalogs that visitors notice today. Sometimes these terms are the product of systemic racism and biased viewpoints which skew toward white, heterosexual, able-bodied men. Other times, antiquated terms based on common use in natural language and scholarly publications have not been updated to terms that better reflect current attitudes and perspectives. For example, the LSCH entry for “Railroads” contains an older variant referring to railroads as “iron horses,” a relic of earlier times.