Bibliographic Violence

Not knowing their preference, I’ll refer to the person about whom I write with the neutral-singular they/them/their.

In constructing a bibliography, I went to my university library to get a citation for a source that I was reading. Naturally, the library record showed the author’s full name. Normally, there is no problem. Except that the author is trans*.

I have written how I personally made peace with my former name. Additionally, I performed the appropriate mental recalibrations. It was either that sanity-saving maneuver or disowning my past writing, which was not an option, personally.

So it may just be that the author has come to terms with this as well. Let’s for the moment assume this to be the case. My reaction to coming by this information was, first, a jolting shock joined very quickly by sadness and downright anger. First, this in not something that I had any right to know about the author. Nor was it something that I had wanted to know. I do not mind when trans* friends tell me their former names, as long as it is something they do of their own free choice. And that’s where the sadness comes in. This record robbed the author of their agency to decide, or not, to disclose this to me. Rather, I feel not only like I had walked into the room as they were in an unflattering position, I felt a little like I had just been non-chalantly shown some of their most personal records for entirely gratuitous reasons. (Which is what bibliographic records are, of course.)

That’s where the anger comes in. I have absolutely no curiosity about the author’s former name nor, quite frankly, should anyone else. Yes, this is exactly as much about me as it is about the author. And that’s because I’m trans* too. This is a sticking point for many of us, largely because it’s a cheap jab employed against us. Over the years, I’ve grown tired of the fascination we have with knowing people’s birth names. It’s all over celebrity pages, newspaper stories, wikipedia, etc. I’ve also known quite a few cis folk who have had deep problems with former names and I’ve respected their discomfort and preferences. For trans* folk, of course, former names can take on added layers discomfort and lead to possibly dangerous situations. Furthermore, getting to the point of taking on a new name is usually a profound point in most trans* people’s lives. We need to have agency and control over how much of our histories we disclose.

Of course, the preceding is the better of the two alternatives. Above, regardless of my feelings, the author is unfazed by the betrayal. Yet, what if the author is not unfazed. For example, suppose the author releases a personal copy of their work augmented with their chosen name. Regardless, the library’s record will still betray them. Librarians, this is unacceptable.

Regardless of what the actual situation may be, the fact stands that there are not mechanisms in the system to creatively address these potential alternatives–outside of my first dichotomy of Accept versus Disown. We can throw our hands up in the air and declare, “well, we’ve always done it this way… what’s written is written.” But those fixity-bound arguments are less convincing in these days of fluid digital text. Not everybody wants to be linked through a 400a field. I think that we can go back and just plain change the 100a with informed consent and understanding of the bibliographic risks involved. After all, in some states, people can correct their birth certificates these days; the purity of our bibliographic records is even less sacrosanct. Surely, we can come up with something much better than translating the ossified status quo into the digital realm.

The other matter is that authors do not even know possible courses of action. I arrived at my own course of action largely on a whim. And I’m a librarian myself.

In the meantime, things can’t be unseen, as the saying goes. Now, when I run across the author, I’ll have to fight this guilty knowledge in my mind. And that makes me sad; it’s not a power that I ever wanted to have. Should I ever meet them, I feel like I owe them a big hug and an apology.


Edited to add: There’s room for a discussion on very practical aspects brought up by this. However, I also want to point out that there’s some larger philosophy: namely the idea that dry, ostensibly matter-of-fact bibliographic records aren’t value-neutral… in fact, not at all. And some of the non-neutral values they carry with them can be hidden to most eyes.

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