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Black square with white text that reads "The Reparative Cataloging Project." Beneath that is a white Middlebury shield.

The Middlebury Libraries are happy to announce that we join our colleagues at institutions like Dartmouth, Harvard, and Vassar in eliminating the term “illegal aliens” from our cataloging. 

What is a subject heading, anyway?

Middlebury, like all academic libraries in the United States, looks to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to provide standardized subject headings (or a “controlled vocabulary” in library-speak) for use in describing books and other works in our collections. In other words, a subject heading will tell you what - or who - a work is about.

Library of Congress subject headings allow researchers to conduct searches at different libraries using similar terms. These terms change over time (“Water-closets” became “Toilets” in the 1970s and “Moving-pictures” became “Motion pictures” in 1987) but materials on those topics remain united under a single heading, making them easier to find.

Changing the subject

In 2014, a group of Dartmouth students and librarians petitioned the Library of Congress to change the subject heading “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants.” (Watch the documentary here)

The Library of Congress announced plans to change the heading in 2016 but was prevented from doing so when two bills (the Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act and the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill) were filed by House of Representative Republicans with the object of retaining the heading. 

With the Library of Congress unable to implement the change, many libraries are doing it themselves.

Anti-racism and the Reparative Cataloging Project

This spring, Middlebury joined the growing list of academic libraries that have changed the heading from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants,” affirming that only actions, not people, can be illegal and that the term “alien” is othering and outdated. 

As a result, a number of headings that previously included the term “illegal aliens” have been updated as well. You can now find ”Women undocumented immigrants” and “Children of undocumented immigrants” listed as subject headings in Middlebury’s library catalog.

Updating subject headings like this one upholds the Anti-Racist Statement published by Middlebury Libraries in July 2020 and which states:

We acknowledge that libraries and archives are not neutral, and have served…as instruments of exclusion, colonialism, and assimilation, and we will identify ways both large and small to undo this harm.

This work is also part of the Middlebury Libraries’ Reparative Cataloging Project, which seeks to address catalog records that are historically inaccurate, offensive, discriminatory, or harmful. 


To read more about the libraries at our peer institutions, be sure to check out similar posts by Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Vassar, all of whom made the switch in 2021. 


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