E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library

The library where I work has recently been working on a large project converting from the Dewey Decimal system of classification to the Library of Congress. It’s been taking us a while, but we’ve finally moved on to the last phase: our large collection of media, including DVDs, video games, audiobooks, etc.

It’s understandable that with such a large undertaking, mistakes will be made. I would hardly expect every single item to be correctly catalogued during the conversion process. And I’ve been proven right, from minor technical errors (the misplacement of a decimal point) to major categorization flubs (‘Why is The Flintstones filed under “Celtic languages”?’), I’ve come across a number of labels that have had to be changed. It’s not a difficult process–if something doesn’t seem right, I just hand it off to our local staff person who works in cataloguing (we have a separate cataloguing branch as well; they assigned the call numbers in the first place), she looks it up and decides whether it needs to be changed. The other day, I was shelving a batch of DVDs, and came across a call number mistake that wasn’t just odd–it made me angry.

Disney’s Pocahontas was assigned a main entry of E99.P85. For those who don’t have LoC call numbers memorized (which I’m assuming is most people), E is the broad heading for American History. Numbers in the range around E90 are specifically American Indian History, and E99 is for History of Tribal Groups. The P85 specifies further the tribe the book is about.

Pocahontas was being classified as a historically accurate documentary.

I’d like to think this was some sort of mistake. But according to OCLC Classify, there are 1242 holdings of this film classified under this call number in libraries that submit data to OCLC. Pocahontas was deliberately assigned a call number such that it could pose as Native history.

I doubt I need to convince you that this film does not accurately represent the history of the woman who was Matoaka, but just in case, here’s a statement from the Powhatan Renape Nation, as well as information from multiple other sources. What I’m concerned about is the carelessness that librarians have taken in curating information about people.

I would argue that librarians have a social responsibility to the public they are trying to serve. Part of that responsibility is to make sure that information about people is not only available and readily accessible (via good classification schemes) but also that such information is curated in intellectually honest (and, I would suggest, socially just) ways.

Native peoples have had not only their lands and their lives, but also their histories taken away from them and misrepresented for hundreds of years. The colonialist imaginary has justified what is essentially genocide by taking indigenous stories and twisting them to fit a destructive mold that permits the violence of colonialism. Pocahontas is one of those stories. Kids who grow up knowing Pocahontas as their story about American Indians grow up knowing lies about who American Indians are and the history surrounding the colonization of America, and very specifically, grow up learning lies about the Powhatan tribe, John Smith, and the founding of Jamestown. I was trained in the academic study of children’s literature by Debbie Reese, who documents extensively the dangers of the misrepresentation of American Indian lives and cultures in her wonderful, wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. (I specifically use the plural, because there is no one “Indian culture.” That is another colonial myth.) I will leave the more in-depth discussion about representation specifically to her and others like her, more qualified than I to discuss such matters.

What I am concerned about here is the fact that fiction posing as truth is allowed by the field of library science to continue to do so. Even if you are quick to dismiss my rant on Pocahontas as left-leaning polemics (an accusation I’d be proud to bear), you must admit that it is intellectually dishonest to call an animated film with talking trees “history.” Debbie has written elsewhere about The Education of Little Tree, which was passed off an an autobiography before being exposed as a fraud. Many libraries still have the book classified as a biography.

It is critical that if we wish, as information professionals, to right some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated in American history against marginalized groups, that we not allow such things to happen. Indeed, classification in this way only perpetuates this kind of misrepresentation and oppression.

I refused to put Pocahontas on the shelf as history, and I requested that we find another classification for it. It now resides alongside other feature-length, fictional films. But it is critical that we continue to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. The ways libraries present information matters. I cannot help but think of a tribally enrolled member of the Powhatan nation coming into our library and seeing that film on the shelf, posing as their tribal history. How are cataloguers acting as the arbiters of saying what counts as authentic information? I think of the ways that books on Native religion are often classified as “folklore” instead of as genuine religion, or the ways in which films with a queer protagonist are automatically classified under “sexuality,” while heterosexual softcore porn with names like Pleasure Party masquerade as being about “relationships.”

When we recenter our analytics outside of the dominant (white, cis-masculinist, able-bodied, and heterosexual) viewpoint, what does our method of knowledge classification look like? This is a question I wish to continually ask myself as a librarian, and I want to make central to library science. Let’s not be dishonest about people’s lives.

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4 responses to “E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library

  1. Thanks for writing about this, AND for taking steps to change it. I’ve shared your post with a couple of librarian listservs. I hope it prompts other librarians to take similar steps.

  2. Thank You for this Blog Post! As a young Native Librarian, I have had a real issue with libraries, especially academic and public libraries that dismiss my culture and misrepresent it. I am very happy to see this post and hope that you join the American Indian Library Association and keep this conversation going!

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