Classification Along the Color Line: Excavating Racism in the Stacks


  • Melissa Adler University of Kentucky-School of Library and Information Science



Classification, Racism, Cutter, History


This paper contends that systemic violence is fundamentally a classification problem. The interrogation of the production of racialized library subjects in relation to one another and in relation to political and social conditions may shed light on the intensely complex problems of racism in the United States today. I discuss the ways that sections of library classifications were constructed based on ideas about African Americans in relation to American social and political agendas. My claim is that the structures that were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are deeply embedded in our libraries and have participated in the naturalization of certain racialized assumptions and associations. In the 21st century we continue to maintain, apply, and refine a flawed structure. My aim is to provide a window into how epistemic violence affects American consciousness about race by revealing some of the ways that our library classifications have been woven together by a group of men who cited and informed one another and ultimately, organized and universalized American history. These classifications are structured around assertions about timeless and fixed national values constructed out of progressive conceptualizations of the nation and its citizenry. A reliance on racial exclusion was necessary for this grand narrative, and scientific theories and classifications provided legitimacy and fuel for racist programs. One of key ways that exclusion was legitimated and supported was through the application of evolutionary theory and principles. Social engineering, white supremacy, and conquest were justified and propelled by beliefs in the evolutionary superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. It is not by accident that these ideas became foundational to classificatory practice in libraries. In fact, Thomas Dousa has drawn attention to the intellectual climate in which late 19th century library classificationists worked - particularly, the theories and classifications of the sciences and nature as devised by Auguste Compte, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin - and argues that these ideas and systems inspired the introduction of evolutionary principles into bibliographic classifications.[i] The present paper is in agreement with Dousa's claim and argues that such a conclusion carries critical implications for understanding libraries' classifications of race and ethnicity. Emphasis is placed is on the legacy of the classification of books about people of African descent as variously named and conceptualized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The last section of the paper examines the classifications as performatives to examine some of the processes by which racism has become systemic on library shelves.

[i] Thomas M. Dousa, "Evolutionary Order in the Classification Theories of CA Cutter and EC Richardson: Its Nature and Limits." NASKO 2, no. 1 (2011): 76.