How LCSH represents transgender children and young people

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is a list of headings used by many libraries to describe books and other items in their collections so that they are findable by users when searching catalogues. This post explores how transgender children and young people are represented in LCSH including:

  • How LCSH works
  • How transgender children and young people are currently represented in LCSH
  • How other classification systems represent transgender children and young people
  • Why this is important
  • What can libraries do
  • Where to learn more

How LCSH works

When a new resource (book, eBook, DVD etc) is added to a library collection, multiple pieces of information (metadata) about it are added to the catalogue. This includes subject headings (such as LCSH) which describe what a resource is about. If someone asks for books about video game players, the library staff can look up LCSH (free online here or here) to find the exact heading ‘Video gamers’. This search term can then be used in the Advanced Search of a library catalogue to search by Subject. All resources that were tagged with the heading ‘Video gamers’ when they were added to the library’s collection will be returned in the search – even if they don’t have the words video or gamer in their title or description.

Subject headings can be expanded to include places, time periods and subtopics, and resources can have multiple subject headings to describe what they are about.

How transgender children and young people are currently represented in LCSH

There are a few different headings relevant to transgender children and young people in LCSH including:

However, there are two LC subject headings that could be considered problematic:

In controlled vocabularies such as LCSH, a ‘broader term’ for a subject heading is the bigger category it belongs to. The broader terms for these two subject headings in LCSH are psychosexual disorders, which implies that being transgender is a mental disorder, or a problem or illness.

Heading in LCSH Category in LCSH (Broader Term)
Gender identity disorders in children Psychosexual disorders in children
Gender identity disorders in adolescence Psychosexual disorders in adolescence
Gender identity disorders Psychosexual disorders

The visibility of these subject headings online in a library catalogue could signal non-acceptance of transgender children and young people. A search of the online global catalogue WorldCat shows that resources published this year are still being catalogued using these subject headings:

It is important to note that some libraries use catalogue records provided by publishers and other sources, and may not have actively chosen the subject headings for all of their resources.

How other classification systems represent transgender people

Despite being used in LCSH headings, the term ‘gender identity disorder’ is outdated, and was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2013. It was replaced by the term ‘Gender dysphoria’, and was also moved out of the Sexual Dysfunctions category. In describing these changes, the American Psychiatric Association stated that changing disorder to dysphoria “removes the connotation that the patient is “disordered”.”

In 2019 the term ‘gender identity disorder’ was also removed as a mental illness from the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD), and replaced by ‘gender incongruence’ as a sexual health condition. Many transgender support organisations consider ‘gender incongruence’ as a temporary term, but still a step towards transgender depathologisation.

Why this is important

These subject headings are relevant to:

  • Transgender children and young people seeking library resources for themselves with a positive portrayal of transgender people
  • Parents supporting their transgender children seeking non-fiction and fiction resources.

Transgender young people in Australia are significantly more likely than other young people to experience depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, bullying, homelessness and discrimination (Strauss et al., 2017, pp. 15–35). Libraries should be a safe space where transgender young people can independently seek and access information relevant to them. The use of the word disorder to describe transgender children and young people is not appropriate.

What can libraries do

Online library catalogues appear as a single interface to users, who are unaware that this is a mix of systems, standards and vocabularies containing records created both from inside and outside the library.

Libraries need to ensure that appropriate headings with a positive portrayal of transgender children and young people are consistently applied. A search by subject for ‘Gender identity disorders in children’ and ‘Gender identity disorders in adolescence’ will reveal if these headings are being used in a library’s catalogue. If so, alternatives such as ‘Transgender children’ and ‘Transgender youth’ could be used – but this needs to be assessed on a resource by resource basis.

Libraries can also make sure their resources for transgender children and young people are visible and findable. One way to review these resources is to consult the recommended reading lists of relevant support organisations, and check that any resources already in a library’s collection have LCSH such as ‘Transgender children’ and ‘Transgender youth’. This review will result in more relevant resources being found by transgender children and young people, and their families.

The implications of using outdated terms is that transgender children and young people may not feel seen or supported. Controlled vocabularies are always works in progress and can be questioned.

Where to learn more

Cataloguing

We need to talk about cataloguing: the #NLS9 transcript’ by Alissa McCulloch

Depathologisation

Trans health care from a depathologization and human rights perspective’ by Dr Amets Suess Schwend

LCSH resources

Library of Congress Subject Headings PDF Files (includes About and Intro)

Recommended books for and about transgender children and young people

17 Books about Gender Non-Conforming and Transgender Kids’ from No Time For Flash Cards

Transgender Reading List for Children’ from PFLAG 

Transgender Terminology

GLAAD media reference guide: 10th edition from GLAAD

Background to this post

I’m a Master of Information Management student at Curtin University, and researched this topic as part of a unit last year. It includes my personal views as an early career information professional, as I do not have lived experience of how the LCSH discussed would affect transgender people and the finding of relevant library resources.

Thanks to Dr Hollie White, Curtin University for encouraging her students to delve into “the problematic representation of peoples in LCSH” in her excellent Resource Description and Access unit.

Photo of a lamp shaped like an open book. The lamp is switched on and is glowing softly in a dark room.Photo of a book lamp

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