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Internship Diaries #4: WEB3CHAMs: a Hard Limit

 ·  ☕ 4 min read  ·  ✍️ Brian M. Watson

Blog the Fourth

Preface, apologia &etc.

Not that anyone in particular is reading this, but wow! It’s been awhile! Partially, well, I got sick—with this strange new…hmm, no, maybe the word is ‘novel’ virus 🙃 & then, y’know things got kinda crazy in the month of March—not too crazy, not like an international pandemic or anything—and before I knew it it was April and I am absolutely underwater with these blog posts. The internship calls for a total of eleven posts, and this is the fourth of those, so I need to write uhhh seven more posts or I don’t get to I’d better get to it!

Problems, etc.

Last time, on “Musings from the Internship” we learned exactly what a thesaurus is after all (it’s not what you think it is! or maybe it is. who am I to judge your nerdiness?), as well as some of the advantages and uses of one.

For this and next post, let’s talk about some of the problems with thesauri and other controlled vocabularies.

There are a few broad issues with thesauri in general, but in this and the next post I will talk about two big ones: WEB3CHAM and maintenance.

Western Centric

The first significant problem with thesauri is that they are a product of their designers. Very often, they are projects of designers that lived decades or even centuries ago.

This is especially noticeable in systems like the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which, as a number of voices have pointed out, is a classification system designed with “white, ethnically European, bourgeoisie, Christian, [cisgender, citizen,] heterosexual, able-bodied, men (WEB3CHAM) in mind. WEB3CHAM subjects operate like a black hole, pulling items about WEB3CHAM together and dispersing others materials around the library under unfamiliar terms.

Access to information on sexual health, resources, and support is often a matter of life and death. Furthermore, “finding oneself,” under a subject heading that is incompatible with one’s self-identity or even humanity, can have a measurable health impact, as Ilan Meyer has demonstrated, focusing specifically on the health outcomes of minoritized populations. Call numbers are taxonomies, and taxonomies are not neutral. Libraries and their cataloging and classification systems have “actively contributed to the construction of the sexed subject.”

Indeed, these sorts of biases or knowledge gaps are one of the reasons that libraries, archives, and special collections create their own controlled vocabulary.

This was one of the reasons that Jo Ann Brooks and Helen C. Hoffer, the authors of Sexual Nomenclature, a Thesaurus cited for the construction of the KI’s vocabulary. In the introduction they say

[By the 1970s] the Institute Library was using a subject heading list that was developed piecemeal following Library of Congress Subject Heading format. Although that subject heading list did not provide the detail needed by the library for the periodical literature, it did provide an excellent basic subject list…

In their concluding remarks, they hope that even though SNT “was developed for a highly specialized library” and that “there are no other collections quite like those of the Institute For Sex Research,” they hope that that other libraries “will be able to apply at least parts of it to their own collections.”

They also offer their hopes that it

will represent the beginning of vocabulary standardization in this multidisciplinary field. As the field grows, so will the concepts and vocabulary used to describe those concepts. To accommodate this growth, the Institute for Sex Research Library will continually update the thesaurus as new descriptors are needed. In an effort to promote standardization, suggestions for new terms from sex researchers and librarians in the field will always be welcome and considered for inclusion.

I think there might have been a slight overestimate in the number of readers of cutting-edge ANSI thesauri—I mean, I read it cover to cover but.. 😂

Works Cited

Hope A. Olson, “Difference, Culture and Change: The Untapped Potential of LCSH,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 29, no. 1–2 (June 2000): 53–71,; Hope A. Olson, “How We Construct Subjects: A Feminist Analysis,” Library Trends 56, no. 2 (2008): 509–41,; Hope A. Olson, “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 3 (April 2001): 639–68,

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist