“Housewives as authors”

Unless you’re a librarian or maybe a scholar, you’re probably unaware of Library of Congress subject headings. They’re just a (more or less) systematic way of describing books’ and other materials’ subject matter, intended to help people find stuff. All well and good, as far as that goes.

You’re probably also unaware of folks like Sanford Berman, radicals and activists who have pushed back against the racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and other isms embedded in this quite old system of organizing and labeling texts. I find this whole conversation utterly fascinating, in the nerdiest way possible.

So you will imagine my dismay-mingled-with-amusement when I came across Christina Katz’s book Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids in my public library’s catalog, with this gem of a subject heading: “Housewives as authors.”

Will the book be relevant to my life if I don’t have a house? What if I’m an unmarried writing mother? Oh dear, that would never do!

And I’d be very surprised indeed to find a book about fathers with writing careers labeled “Househusbands as authors.”

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  1. Posted 11 February 2013 at 11:40 PM | Permalink

    This is so ewwwwww! Who comes UP with this kind of stuff?! And, yes, that would be the day…”house husbands as authors.” I feel a little sick.

    The book sounds interesting though–is it?

    • Molly
      Posted 12 February 2013 at 9:25 AM | Permalink

      I didn’t read the whole thing, because it’s not focused on what I’m investigating (I was looking up freelance writing & word work broadly speaking, and it’s focused very strongly on breaking into writing for magazines). For that purpose, it does look useful and well-done. A LCSH that indicated that focus would have been more helpful to me as a searcher/user!

  2. Lara
    Posted 12 February 2013 at 7:51 AM | Permalink

    I am also fascinated by, and highly invested in, cataloging. Clearly, the question now is not which single label will be attached to a work, in these days of digital catalogs and massive amounts of materials on line. I have heard many advocates for dropping labeling; you can just let people search the text. But as a historian of topics that were rarely called by their official names (sex, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, etc.), I sure am happy when someone has attached some subject headings! When you publish a book these days, the publisher asks the author for key words for the book and for each chapter, though the presses aren’t entirely sure what they’re planning to do with the key words yet. And it’s not selected from a LOC list, or anything. What would be best at the Library of Congress? Can we invest in re-labeling every decade or so, to keep up with changing language and social mores? (I’d be thrilled to see us invest in the library this way, but unless there would be some commercial interest, I’m not sure it’ll happen.) If we did re-label, would we leave the old labels? Could we at least quickly and cheaply link old labels to some more modern synonyms, in places where the category still stands but the label is old (i.e., Negro to Afro-American to African-American)? Is erasing older, potentially offensive, labels like censorship, or not? What would we want to do about “Housewives as Authors?” I might decide that it’s not inherently offensive if used to label works from the decades when the authors themselves are likely to have self-identified in that way, so let it stand, but create an overlapping new label. What would it be? “Writers who care for their families full time”? What is the phenomenon we’re trying to describe? Is the category still valid? From what I’ve seen, people who write professionally and have kids generally are on kid-duty a fair amount, if they have a spouse, since writers rarely have well-paid 9-5 jobs. Would we add the label to some older works by men who did a lot of the child and household care in their lives? Or only if the work itself referenced that identity? For a certain body of works, from a certain time period, “housewives as authors” is actually a pretty helpful descriptor, and would be what the authors would have put on their own works if they had been asked for keywords. But it certainly became dated quickly. Part of the issue is also how not to just plain lose track of these historical labels, if we let them lie, but switch to something new. As a historian, I’d hate to lose them, whether through censorship or through forgetting they’re there, since the labels themselves are important historical documents, and link together sets of documents. But they could be segmented off as “archaic” labels, or something.

    • Molly
      Posted 12 February 2013 at 9:46 AM | Permalink

      In this particular case, the historical and topical disconnect between subject heading and work is what makes it particularly eyebrow-raising: this is a how-to book from 2007 and definitely doesn’t address married homeowner women specifically. Mothers as Authors would seem more appropriate. It does also carry the LCHS “Authorship — Vocational guidance,” which is how I got to it & which is helpful.

      I agree that the historical shifts in language and culture interact in complicated ways with language-based systems whose purpose in life is (at least in part) to be standardized, uniform, enduring. I do endorse noodling with those systems to A) preserve findability as users’ language changes over time and … relatedly … B) adjust to the reality that white Christian wealthy American straight able-bodied men are not the only people who use libraries or create knowledge. I get where you’re coming from as a historian, but as a sometimes-librarian, I see usability as trumping preservation AND think we can definitely do both (partly through the awesome power of technology that you mention!). And of course this is inherently a living, breathing system that changes as new phenomena and areas of study come into being, whether we adjust for inclusivity or not.

      I do think a lot of improvements can be made, as we go along, with little or no financial investment, by thoughtful catalogers.

      Interesting to consider whether changing existing labels is in some sense censorship (of early catalogers). Is prohibiting such changes censorship, too (of current catalogers)?

      LOVE to hear from somebody else who thinks about this stuff!

      • Lara
        Posted 13 February 2013 at 9:58 AM | Permalink

        I think I’d favor new labeling, as much as we can find funds to do, and move the old labels to an “archaic label” field. So they’d be searchable for historians’ purposes, but not required usage. It will be interesting to see how things evolve, as everyone working outside the LOC system has authors make their own keywords. It will be kind of like having a wikipedia dictionary, or something. A dictionary of terms that essentially writes itself. I wonder how that will be better and worse, along all the lines of concern you’ve outlined?

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