Categorization: What Do We Need to Do Better? A (Hopefully Brief) Summary of Current Metadata Issues and Practices

Metadata makes up the very foundation of most library classification and knowledge organization standards. However, like all things that are created by individuals, metadata  often takes on the biases and exclusions– both intentional and unintentional– of the time and of its creators. The existing literature on recognizing and combating bias in metadata is ever-expanding. As societal understanding and acceptance of minority and marginalized communities steadily improves, the way in which these groups are categorized by knowledge information systems and metadata has attempted to slowly evolve as well. From Library of Congress subject headings, to community-driven vocabularies and standards, researchers have worked to understand where the gaps in metadata exist, how they can be addressed and remedied, and the implications for all researchers whether or not they are part of a specific community.  With all of the metadata that exists for marginalized communities as well as for society in general, one would think that it would be fairly simple to establish consistent, useful metadata standards for these communities. However, persistent implicit biases and the continued use of outdated or even offensive terms for the sake of “historical accuracy” are detrimental to research done by and about these marginalized communities. What, then, can we as librarians do to help combat these biases in metadata and create a more inclusive literature and research atmosphere? 

Although there are gaps and issues in metadata for most marginalized communities, one of the most prevalent gaps that I have observed is in metadata for the disabled community. This is due largely to the fact that the terms “disabled” and “disability” can be so broadly defined. While broad terminology is useful in that it can encompass a variety of physical, mental, and other forms of disability, it can become cumbersome and problematic when it allows outdated and even offensive terminology and ideas about disabled people to persist. The persistence of terms such as “crippled” and “handicapped” in search results and other headings does not reflect the advances that have been made in regard to term reclamation by the community, or the ways that researchers and other individuals have a better understanding of the medical and social implications of certain terms and perspectives.

Something to consider is whether the inclusivity and usability of metadata is improved when members of marginalized communities are involved in the creation of metadata and determination of standards. Evaluation of the current metadata landscape and the push to make it less biased and more community-driven is an intricate and ongoing process. Although there is an increasing amount of research and literature on metadata diversity, there seems to be a lack of initiatives or projects to actually make less-biased metadata a reality. My hope is that this project will expose me to more of these metadata efforts, as well as what we as researchers can do to further the process.


Adler, Melissa, et al. “Stigmatizing Disability: Library Classifications and the Marking and Marginalization of Books about People with Disabilities.” University of Chicago Press Journals, 17 May 2019,

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out. Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, 1999.

“Glossary of Disability Terms.” NCCDD, 2016,

Johnson, Matt. “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Subject Access: History and Current Practice.”, 2007,

Koford, Amelia. “How Disability Studies Scholars Interact with Subject Headings.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 2014,

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