The “Use Our Words” Toolkit

It is the responsibility of allies to undertake decolonization work to clear the way for Indigenous Peoples.

Tanya Ball, June 5, 2020


Subject terms can be triggering to First Nations, Métis, Inuit (FMNI or Indigenous), and other non-white, non-straight, or non-cis library users. The two most common metadata schema, the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and Canadian Subject Headings (CSH), are well documented as being colonial and problematic when it comes to describing Indigenous materials. This toolkit will assist academic and public libraries in conducting an evaluation of the subject headings in their catalogues in the decolonization process of removing culturally insensitive headings that cause harm to Indigenous communities. It includes a guide on finding problematic subject headings; suggested alternative terminologies; links to relevant resources; and training activities for cataloguing staff.


Though librarianship in North America aims to uphold the American Library Association’s values of diversity, access, and the public good1, it always has and continues to be led and built on white settler structures2. This whiteness is so entrenched in libraries that it has influenced the systems used to catalogue and categorize information. Knowledge organization systems are intended to be universal systems of organization, but are these systems really universal? Are the subject headings used to categorize information really reflecting everyone, or do they continue to only reflect white settle colonial worldviews? 

Currently, subject headings and metadata schemas such as Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH) and Canadian Subject Headings (CSH) are built with controlled vocabularies that are outdated and created with a white settler lens. When looking at popular descriptors for Indigenous Peoples, it is evident that these metadata descriptors are built on racist language, are unrepresentative of Indigenous Peoples, and are often generalized when categorizing Indigenous topics. In turn, this means of cataloguing directly influence access, or more common, lack of access opportunities for Indigenous Peoples. Call to Action #69 in the report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires that all Library and Archives Canada holdings related to residential schools be made accessible to the public3. Many of Canada’s libraries are trying to answer this call – however, colonialist subject headings keep many of these items hard to find.

This toolkit aims to get academic and public librarians and library staff to critically evaluate their collections and their usage of subject headings and metadata concerning Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Worldviews. This toolkit acknowledges the importance of ethics of care when cataloguing and classifying culturally sensitive materials and aims to put Indigenous Peoples at the forefront and in charge of descriptions in subject headings and metadata labels.


The authors of this toolkit would like to recognize that the toolkit was built on land that is part the Haldimand Tract, the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe (Anish-nah-bay) and Haudenosaunee (Hoe-den-no-show-nee) peoples. The toolkit is hosted by the University of Alberta which is situated on Treaty 6 territory, traditional lands of First Nations and Métis people.

We acknowledge our settler-colonial roots and we respect the histories, languages, and cultures of FNMI, and all First Peoples of Canada, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant communities.


Critically analyzing a collection can be a daunting task, especially if you have not done this type of evaluation before. Thankfully the research into Indigenizing LCSH, CSH, LC, and DC, is extensive. Below we have compiled a list from this literature of some of the problematic language, subject headings, and classification schemas that you can use as an entry point to analyzing your collection. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will allow you the opportunity to quickly see if your collection is contributing to racist and unrepresentative classification systems. 

Please examine some of the examples below and apply them to your collection. If you notice that these patterns are occurring in your collection, please continue through this toolkit to find staff training, suggested alternatives, and further reading into this topic. 


When considering Library of Congress Subject Headings and Canadian Subject headings and Indigenous peoples, the most common indicator that the subject headings used are not reflective of Indigenous Peoples is the usage of the subject heading “Indian”, in the subject headings. Some subject headings you can use to check your collection include:

  • “Indians of North America”
  • “Indian Philosophy”
  • “Inuit Mythology”
  • “Literature–Indian Authors”
  • “Older Indians”

(For a more extensive list please feel free to refer to the University of Manitoba MAIN spreadsheet of subject headings to change or delete).


One of the biggest problems in the Library of Congress classification system is the designation “E” (history). This history designation for Indigenous Peoples implies that Indigenous Peoples are products of history and do not exist today as thriving Nations. Further, the classification designation of “E79-E99” (between pre-Colombian America and Early Explorations) continues to historicize Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Worldviews, Knowledges, and practices. 

When reviewing your collection consider the type of materials being designated as history. Do these items fit in with the context of historical events? Or, is your classification system placing active practices, Worldviews, Peoples into the category of History? 


Similarly to the problem of historicizing Indigenous Peoples and active practices, Worldviews, and beliefs in LC, Dewey Decimal also use the history designation  970’s, “General History of North America” to classify Indigenous materials. In addition to this, another common issue with DC is the placement of Indigenous Knowledge and Worldviews into the designation of 398 “Folklore”. This designation actively invalidates Indigenous Worldviews, Knowledges, and cultural practices and nefariously emphasizes the settler worldview as the only worldview that is not “folklore” or “myth”.

The issues presented above in both the LC and DC do not include the full list of known problems with these classification systems but are among the most prevalent and glaring issues. The problems above are meant to be an entry for staff to begin to analyze the subject headings and classification system in their own collection so they can then begin to consider alternatives or adjustments to classification access. 

Preferred Alternate Terms

Below is a short list of alternate subject headings and classification systems. Some like the MAIN work with existing classification systems, others include subject heading lists from alternative classification systems.

The Manitoba Archival Information Network (MAIN) Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) working group was established to; devise and implement a strategy to replace LCSH that were culturally insensitive towards Indigenous Peoples, to ensure the Association for Manitoba Archives does not perpetuate the culturally insensitive legacy of LCSH, and to ensure that the archival descriptions remain searchable. This spreadsheet represents the final draft of the Working Group’s listing of subject headings for intended import into MAIN. It includes; title page, added subject headings, changes to old/deleted subject headings, guidelines, and bibliography:

The National Library of New Zealand as part of the Māori Subject Headings Project developed a tool that provides a structured path to a Māori Worldview within library and archival cataloguing and descriptions. They have made their subject headings available online: 

X̱wi7x̱wa Classification – University of British Columbia: The X̱wi7x̱wa library catalogues items on the UBC Library Catalogue. The X̱wi7x̱wa classification system is based on the Brian Deer classification system but has been altered to reflect the area’s Indigenous Peoples.  You can find more information about the X̱wi7x̱wa Classification system and subject headings using the links below. 

Embedded below is the slide deck for the training workshop that this toolkit is built around. The workshop is grounded in Indigenous methods and will help you lead cataloguers through the acts of finding and the decolonizing problematic subject headings. The workshop is designed to be taken and adapted to your local context. All we ask is that you attribute the original workshop to us, and share your localization as openly as we’ve shared the original.

Please feel free to download the original, editable version of the workshop from Google Slides.


University of Manitoba Libraries: Developed a working group to Indigenize their subject headings. Information about this working group can be found at the link below. Additionally, they have created a document with suggested alternatives and next steps you can find in the link below as well. 

Library and Archives Canada: Created a PowerPoint on Canadian Subject Headings related to Indigenous Peoples. Included in the PowerPoint is an overview of current subject headings used, opportunities for revisions, and opportunities to add to the CSH.  

University of Alberta: Sharon Farnel et al (2017) developed a PowerPoint discussing the Decolonizing Descriptions working group at the University of Alberta. Outlined in the PowerPoint is an analysis of the University of Alberta collections, recommendations, challenges, and considerations. 

University of Victoria Libraries: Created a report on Digital Ethics Considerations for cataloguing online Indigenous materials with a focus on decolonizing descriptions and metadata. 

CFLA: Indigenous Matters: The Committee on Indigenous Matters exists to and work with Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) people to address issues related to libraries, archives and cultural memory institutions. 

Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC): In order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation, the TRC compiled a document with calls to action.

Here you’ll find a list of journal articles and book chapters that talk about the colonialism issues inherent in the current state of Dewey and Library of Congress subject headings. This list is a starting point to help guide you as you begin your journey to better understand why it’s important to decolonise the subject headings we use to describe Indigenous materials. Please note that this list is non-exhaustive.



  • Adler, M. (2016). The case for taxonomic reparations. Knowledge Organization, 43(8), 630–640.
  • Bone, C. & Lougheed, B. (2018). Library of congress subject headings related to Indigenous peoples: Changing LCSH for use in a Canadian archival context. Cataloguing and Classification Quarterly, 56(1) pp83-95.
  • Campbell, S., Dorgan, M., & Tjosvold, L. (2014). Creating Provincial and Territorial search filters to retrieve studies related to Canadian Indigenous Peoples from Ovid MEDLINE1. Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association (JCHLA), 35(1), 5–10.
  • Dale, H., Wilkinson, E. H., & Bardenheier, P. (2015). Ki te Tika te Hanga, Ka Pakari te Kete: With the right structure we weave a strong basket. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5/6), 496–519.
  • Doyle, A. M., Lawson, K., & Dupont, S. (2015). Indigenization of knowledge organization at the Xwi7xwa library. Journal of Library and Information Studies, 13(2), 107–134.
  • Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction. The Library Quarterly, IL), 83(2), 94–111.
  • Duarte, M. E. & Belarde-Lewis, M. (2015) Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous  Ontologies, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53:(5-6), 677-702, DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2015.1018396
  • Farnel, S., Koufogiannakis, D., Laroque, S., Bigelow, I., Carr-Wiggin, A., Feisst, D., & Lar-Son, K. (2018). Rethinking representation: Indigenous Peoples and contexts at the University of Alberta libraries. The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion, 2(3) pp 9-25.
  • Harper, A., & Staiger-Williams, E. (2019). Making space for Indigenous knowledge in Canadian health librarianship: A literature review and recommendations. Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association (JCHLA), 40(3), 124–136.
  • Hobart, E. (2020). Recording creator characteristics for Native American authors: An analysis of bibliographic records. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 58(1), 59.
  • Kam, D. V. (2007). Subject Headings for Aboriginals: The Power of Naming. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 26(2), 18–22.
  • Kelly L, & St Pierre-Hansen N. (2008). So many databases, such little clarity: Searching the literature for the topic aboriginal. Canadian Family Physician, 54(11), 1572–1573.
  • Laroque, S (2018). Making meaningful connections and relationships in cataloguing practices: The decolonizing description project at University of Alberta libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 13(4) pp 2-6.
  • Lee, D. (2011). Indigenous knowledge organization: A study of concepts, terminology, structure and (mostly) Indigenous voices. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library & Information Practice & Research, 6(1), 1–33.
  • Martens, M. (2006). Creating a supplemental thesaurus to LCSH for a specialized collection: The experience of the National Indian Law Library. Law Library Journal, 98(2), 287–297.
  • Metoyer, C. A., & Littletree, S. (2015). Knowledge organization from an Indigenous perspective: The Mashantucket Pequot Thesaurus of American Indian Terminology project. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5/6), 640.
  • Sandy H. M. & Bossaller, J. (2017) Providing cognitively just subject access to Indigenous knowledge through knowledge organization systems, Cataloging & Classification  Quarterly, 55(3), 129-152, DOI: 10.1080/01639374.2017.1281858
  • Strottman, T. A. (2007). Some of Our Fifty Are Missing: Library of Congress Subject Headings for Southwestern Cultures and History. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 45(2), 41–64.



  • Benedetti, J.M. (2008). Folk art terminology revisited: Why it (still) matters. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (pp. 112-125). London: McFarland.
  • de la Tierra, T. (2008). Latina lesbian subject headings: The power of naming. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (pp. 94-102). London: McFarland.
  • Exner, F. & Bear, L. (2008). North American Indian personal names in national bibliographies. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (pp. 150-164). London: McFarland.
  • Johnson, M. (2008). A Hidden History of Queer Subject Access. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (pp. 18-27). London: McFarland.
  • Webster, K. (2008). Don’t class me in antiquities! Giving voice to Native American materials. In K. R. Roberto (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (pp. 189-197). London: McFarland.





  1. American Library Association. (2006). Core values of librarianship.
  2. Mckenzie, L. (2017). The white face of library leadership. Inside Higher Ed.
  3. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Use this tool kit. Please. We’ve made it available so that you can take it back to your library and customize it to your needs. Localize it, adapt it, use it in your library technician and MLIS classes. Decolonizing the subject headings in our collections is a communal effort, we need as many libraries as possible to be doing this work. Indigenous Peoples deserve to be described using their own words.

Comments, Concerns, or Questions? Contact your friendly librarians:

Lauren Bourdages (email)

Kassandra Caporiccio (email)

Lauren (she/her) holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. She is currently working on her MLIS at the University of Alberta. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She is also a Contributing Writer for Hack Library School, hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and is a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat |
Kassandra (she/they) holds a honours Bachelor of Arts in Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies and Religious Studies with a specialization in counselling from the University of Waterloo and is currently working on a Masters in Library and Information Sciences through the University of Alberta. Kassandra’s interests are in anti-oppressive librarianship, public librarianship, and social justice in LIS work. Kassandra currently works at the Kitchener Public Library as a senior library assistant in information services with a focus on adult programming, content, outreach, and information services for newcomers and refugees to Canada.
Find her: @kasscaporiccio

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The “Use Our Words” Toolkit by Lauren Bourdages & Kassandra Caporiccio
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