by Maureen Richards


As cultures evolve, so does language. Terminology, or what we call things, matters.  And not just in a sociopolitical cultural context.   It matters to libraries and for searchers who rely increasingly, and sometimes exclusively, on keywords to find things.  However, when terminology changes or a topic is referred to by different names, keyword searching can be an ineffective way of finding what you need.

Helping students find materials relating to Latinx, the relatively new gender neutral term for Latino/a’s that is widely used at John Jay, is a case in point.  Should keyword searches also include Latino/a’s, Latin Americans, Hispanic Americans, or some combination of these and other words?  The answer is all of the above, and more (or less), depending on what your objective is and what you learn along the way. 

For example, if you enter the keywords Latinx in the OneSearch box on the library’s home page you will get over 16,000 results—which seems like plenty if you are just looking for something.  Search the keywords Latino OR Latina instead and you get over 1,000,000 results. Search the keywords Latin Americans and you get about 300,000 results.  Change your search terms to Hispanic Americans and you get more than 600,000 results.  Why such big differences and what is missed (and included) when you only search Latinx?

What about searching by using controlled vocabularies or indexes—those classification tools relied upon by librarians and advanced researchers—of carefully structured lists of words and related terms that are both targeted and comprehensive enough to help users identify resources even when terminology changes?  Where do Latinx and other words with Latin American roots fit in?  The answer depends on where you are searching because each database selects its own “controlled vocabulary.”


Library catalog

If you are looking for items in the library catalog or WorldCat (the catalog of libraries from around the world), the answer can be found in the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the controlled vocabulary of choice for academic libraries.  The LCSH does not currently recognize Latinx as a subject heading.  To find resources in the library catalog relating to Latinx, some relevant subject headings include:

HISPANIC AMERICAN/S (includes Latino Americans, Latinos in the United States, Hispanics in the United States, Spanish-speaking people in the United States, and Spanish-surnamed people in the United States. These headings are also used in their adjectival form followed by a noun, such as HISPANIC AMERICAN COLLEGE STUDENTS or HISPANIC AMERICANS ETHNIC IDENTITY).

LATIN AMERICAN/S  (which can be divided geographically to create the subject heading LATIN AMERICANS-UNITED STATES).

COLOMBIAN AMERICANS, MEXICAN AMERICANS, PERUVIAN AMERICANS, etc. (there is a subject heading for every Latin American country, as well as many adjectival subject headings that begin with these geographic subject headings such as MEXICAN AMERICAN FAMILIES).

OneSearch and specialized library databases

OneSearch, the library’s discovery tool for finding a majority of the content in all of the library’s databases and its catalog, aggregates the metadata from these databases including metadata from a “subject” field.  These specialized databases often use some combination of LCSH and discipline specific vocabulary to create their own controlled vocabularies. These controlled vocabularies can be found under various headings including subject terms, index or thesaurus or by clicking on the title of a selected result and looking at the metadata in the subject field.

If you use the advanced search screen to search Latinx by subject in OneSearch you will get 112 results. These results suggest that Latinx is in the beginning stages of being recognized as a subject in some library databases. The results include materials published between 2009 and 2019, providing insight into how recently Latinx first began appearing in the literature. Most (90 of 112, or 80%) of the resources are dissertations, followed by 20 citations to peer reviewed journal articles. Note that none of the sources are from the library catalog since the catalog uses Library of Congress Subject Headings which does not include Latinx

Words matter and so does context. Understanding how language or terminology changes over time helps provide that context.  Searching is a multi-faceted process that involves using keywords and subject headings. Next time try adding a search by controlled vocabulary to your tool kit. Click on the title of a relevant resource to find the controlled vocabulary in the subject metadata or ask a librarian for help.


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