US: Scottish? English? Library Thinks Twice
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Wed Jan 16 14:42:35 UTC 2008
Scottish? English? Library Thinks Twice
By Mike Wade
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; C05
The stroke of a pen at the Library of Congress -- which rebranded 700
years of Scottish literary tradition as "English literature" -- has in
recent weeks generated a spluttering uproar here. And last week, faced
with Celtic fury, the American institution made an undignified U-turn.
The decision by the library's Cataloguing Policy and Support Office to
abandon 40 headings and subheadings for Scottish writing meant every
author in Scotland would be categorized under predominantly "English"
categories. In a country whose domestic policy is run by a minority
Scottish Nationalist government, the "English" labels caused
Not even the national bard, Robert Burns, was exempt from the new
Library of Congress rules. Despite penning the indisputably Scottish
line "Wee, sleekit cow'rin, tim'rous beastie," he stood to be
reclassified from the heading "Scottish Poetry" to "English Poetry,
Scottish authors," under the system.
The reclassification took place in 2006 but wasn't noticed until the
London Times called attention to it just before Christmas.
Then, after weeks of protest from "appalled" government ministers,
writers and academics, Washington relented. In an apologetic letter to
the National Library of Scotland here and the British Library in
London, Librarian of Congress James Billington said the institution
would return writers to their former Scottish status.
"The letters acknowledge that it was their interest and concerns over
the issues created for them that led to the reversal," said Matt
Raymond, a library spokesman.
The letter to the British institutions states: "After reviewing
thoughtful comments received from several correspondents, the
Cataloguing Policy and Support Office of the Library of Congress will
be reinstating headings for Scottish literature, Scottish poetry and
similar headings. . . . Bibliographic records will also be updated to
restore former subject entries."
It is hard to overestimate reaction to the Library of Congress policy.
Many Scots believe the country is enjoying a literary renaissance with
writers such as Irvine Welsh, A.L. Kennedy, Ian Rankin and Christopher
Brookmyre selling millions of books worldwide. The country's literary
tradition is founded on authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert
Louis Stevenson, who strongly asserted their sense of Scottish
The effect of the recent Library of Congress system had meant that
works by John Buchan, a Scottish aristocrat, would be found under
"Adventure Stories -- English," rather than "Adventure Stories --
Scottish." The same was true in other categories, from science fiction
to gay literature.
The absurdity aside, the change was likely to have dramatic
consequences. Library of Congress subject headings are adopted by
libraries, publishers and retailers throughout the world, raising
fears in Scotland that its proud literary heritage would be buried.
"The Library of Congress did not make a logical decision," said Cairns
Craig, professor of Scottish and Irish studies at the University of
Aberdeen. "If you are going to have national literatures in English,
then Scottish literature ought to be one of them since it is the
oldest national literature in English other than English itself."
Craig was one of a number of Scottish delegates at last month's
American Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, which
agreed to lobby to have the policy reversed.
Rankin, who has sold 20 million books worldwide, had also bitterly
opposed the Library of Congress decision and said he was delighted by
the reconsideration. His Inspector Rebus series was written and set in
Edinburgh but would have been filed under "Detective and Mystery
stories, English" had the library policy continued.
"If you talk to Scottish crime writers and ask, 'What are your
influences?,' instead of answering Raymond Chandler or Agatha
Christie, they will tend to say 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner' or
'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, or
John Buchan's 'Thirty-Nine Steps.' We have grown up reading different
books and grown up in a different culture," Rankin said.
Linda Fabiani, the minister of culture in Edinburgh, played a leading
role in seeking to have the policy overturned, lobbying Rep. Mike
McIntyre (D-N.C.), who then raised the issue in Washington. "I am very
pleased," he said, "that the U.S. Library of Congress has made the
proper decision to recognize Scottish identity for Scottish
literature. This is a very important issue to the Scottish people,
Scottish heritage and to Scotland-U.S. relations."
Scotland's resistance to English rule goes back centuries.
Responsibility for domestic government in Scotland was given over to
the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh in 1999 by British Prime Minister
Tony Blair's Labor Party administration. In last year's Scottish
election, the National Party, which favors complete independence for
the country, won the biggest share of the vote.
(c) 2008 The Washington Post Company
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