The celebration of April as Arab American Heritage Month is relatively recent, having previously been celebrated by some states at different times of the year. Due to grassroots and independent advocacy from the Arab American community, the move to April has gained increasing support. First introduced in April 2019, Michigan Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell have led a Congressional resolution to recognize the contributions Arab Americans have made in the United States through the month of April. While gaining support, this bill is still pending, and the designation has not yet recognized across the entire federal government. This April, the US State Department also designated April as Arab American Heritage Month, highlighting the contributions Arab Americans have made throughout the country and within the agency itself.
Arab heritage includes a vast spectrum of languages, religions, traditions and experiences, representing cultures thousands of years old, and principally originating from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North African region, including Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Immigration by people from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States began on a large scale in the late 19th century. Since then, several periods of immigration to the US have been marked by the dynamics in countries of origin, along with changes in US immigration policies. I encourage you to explore the resources provided by Dale Correa below, highlighting the aspects of Arab American heritage, and the contributions made by Arab Americans.
Alsharif, Mirna “April is Arab American Heritage Month, the State Department declares”
While conventional wisdom points to the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 as the gateway for the founding of the first Arab American national political organization, such advocacy in fact began with the Syrian nationalist movement, which emerged from immigration trends at the turn of the last century. Bringing this long-neglected history to life, The Making of Arab Americans overturns the notion of an Arab population that was too diverse to share common goals.
As Arab Americans seek to claim their communal identity and rightful place in American society at a time of heightened tension between the United States and the Middle East, an understanding look back at more than one hundred years of the Arab-American community is especially timely. In this book, Elizabeth Boosahda, a third-generation Arab American, draws on over two hundred personal interviews, as well as photographs and historical documents that are contemporaneous with the first generation of Arab Americans (Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians), both Christians and Muslims, who immigrated to the Americas between 1880 and 1915, and their descendants.
Today thousands of students and educators nationwide are participating in GLSEN’s Day of Silence. Originally created by UVA student Maria Pulzetti in 1996 as part of a class project, GLSEN now helps organize the annual event in which participating students & educators remain silent throughout the school day to draw attention to erasure and harassment of LGBTQ students inside the classroom. Through their silence, participants intend to highlight the power of words—to show how both violent language and the failure to acknowledge existence contribute to the exclusion and dehumanization of queer and trans students.
Words are the foundation of our profession, and as library staff, it’s crucial we recognize the ways in which erasure and violence have been built—often purposefully—into our systems. Last month on the blog, Daniel Arbino & Gina Bastone highlighted how UT librarians subverted standard cataloging practices to create two collections, the Black Queer Studies Collection and the Latinx LGBTQ Collection, that challenge racist, homophobic, and transphobic library systems. In observation of Day of Silence, we wanted to both provide some further context for the cataloging practices that Daniel & Gina mention and spotlight efforts of queer and trans librarians in developing their own descriptive vocabularies.
Cataloging, by nature, requires categorization, and institutional classification of groups of people always reflects broader histories of power and struggle. Libraries, as institutions, are no exception. Epistemic networks connect library work to other academic, state, and professional institutions’ vocabularies, which inform the language we use in cataloging and descriptive practices today. Literary warrant, or the practice of using existing domain literature to create terms, directly links the descriptive methodologies used by varied institutions and scholars to thesauri like Library of Congress (LCSH) and the Getty Vocabularies. At LCSH, which was first formed in the 1890s, early to mid-20th century medical and psychological scholarship were employed as appropriate sources to build vocabularies for LGBTQ+ concepts, crystallizing terms meant to pathologize LGBTQ+ communities for organizing, describing, and disseminating library holdings. Other terms, like those for Indigenous gender identities, were deliberately excluded from these vocabularies in accordance with early anthropological theories and assimilationist government projects. LCSH’s dominance in cataloging standards broadened this impact with archives, academic institutions, and visual resource collections also implementingLCSH-derived content.
Legacies of biolence and exclusion are particularly salient in the lack of appropriate transgender, queer, and nonbinary terminology in LCSH that demonstrates the full & rich diversity of gender expressions. For example, nonbinary is still a “see also” term, meaning that it is not preferred for cataloging use and does not have a persistent identifier assigned, limiting its cataloging utility further. Problematic hierarchies and knowledge organization systems also hamstring LGBTQ+ descriptive efforts, as demonstrated by the fact thatmaterials pertaining to Two-Spirit peopleare still located solely under the broader “Indians of America” subject heading. Issues abound in other vocabulary systems as well, such as the Getty Vocabularies: artist records within Getty’s Union List of Artist Names (ULAN) can only have a male, female, or N/A value for gender. WhileFAST, or Faceted Application of Subject Terminology, replicates some of LCSH’s terminology issues, due to its vocabulary base being built from LCSH terms.
Wherever there are systems of power, there are always histories of resistance—changes to cataloging terms, like changes in any other institution, mirror these histories, too. Trans and queer communities have a strong tradition of self-determination: creating their own terms, vocabularies, and knowledge collectives to suit their needs, and LGBTQ+ library professionals have sought to change violent terminology for better & more inclusive knowledge sharing. In the 1970s and 80s, these efforts focused on changing terms in LCSH that classified gay and lesbian subjects as “sexual perversions,” and further sustained efforts in the following decades have led to additions of LGBTQ+ terms to reflect Trans identities, even though limited in scope. Adoption of terms like “Two-Spirit/2 spirit” and “Indigiqueer” in the catalog seek to reclaim Indigenous trans/queer identities violently suppressed by colonialism. Continuing in these traditions, library/archives staff and scholars have also collaborated to create resources outside of LCSH to improve LGBTQ+ description. Homosaurus is a linked data vocabulary for LGBTQ+ terms, meant to capture the linkages and complexities in LGBTQ+ identities. The Digital Transgender Archive includes rich collections on transgender history as well as a listing of transgender-related terms used throughout the world. And Histsex is a collaborative effort to create a bibliography of gender and sexuality terms and content.
It should go without saying that the language we use to describe and categorize people in library systems matters; providing all patrons with fair & open access to credible information is an unachievable goal when cataloging practices and search terms are violent, inaccurate, or exclusionary. And, at a point when the majority of state legislatures are considering transphobic and homophobic policy projects which draw upon the same descriptors as library standards, the persistent violence in cataloging systems is especially painful. On this Day of Silence, we invite you to explore the resources in this post & think about how you might use them in your work in the future.