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Undocumented Populations: The Power of Language in the Library: The Battle to Change the Subject Heading "Illegal Aliens"

This guide includes selected Pfau Library resources about undocumented populations, research materials on the history of DACA/DREAM Act, campus resources for undocumented CSUSB students, and more.

Details and resources on how student activists urged the Library of Congress to change an offensive subject heading, Congress intervened, and the CSU Libraries responded.

What is a Subject Heading?

In short, a subject heading is a word or phrase that describes a source. Students and researchers use subject headings to help them determine what a book, etc. is about. You can also search for materials using subject headings. In this way, subject headings are similar to hashtags. In the example below, the subjects tell us this book is about physical fitness and physical education for children in the United States.

catalog record with subject headings listed

For consistency, many libraries (including CSU libraries) use subject headings determined by the Library of Congress for items in their catalog (what you see when you search OneSearch's "Books & Media").

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A Brief Timeline of Events

February 2014. A Dartmouth student discovers the subject heading “illegal aliens” in her library’s online catalog. She shares this with fellow student activists of the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and DREAMERs (CoFIRED).


July 2014. CoFIRED works with Dartmouth librarians to create and submit an official subject heading change proposal. In it, they ask the Library of Congress to change “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants.”


March 2016. The Library of Congress announces it will replace “illegal aliens” with “noncitizens” and/or “unauthorized immigration.” It states that “the terms ‘illegal’ and ‘alien,’ when used in reference to people, have undergone pejoration and acquired derogatory connotations, becoming increasingly associated with nativist and racist sentiments.”


Spring 2016. The House of Representatives orders the Library of Congress to continue using “illegal aliens,” as this is the terminology used in federal law. This is the first time Congress has ever intervened in a planned Library of Congress subject heading change. 


January 2020. Recognizing that offensive and dehumanizing subject headings are “no longer appropriate for unbiased library cataloging that respects and reflects our diverse society,” the CSU Libraries replace “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants” and “aliens” with “noncitizens” in records in its Unified Library Management System. The older subject headings remain searchable, but the new terms are displayed in OneSearch’s “Books & Media” options.


April 2021. The Biden Administration directs department heads at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection to stop using terms such as “alien,” “illegal alien” and “assimilation” when referring to immigrants in the United States. “Alien” will become “noncitizen or migrant,” “illegal” will become “undocumented,” and “assimilation” will change to “integration.” The Library of Congress subject headings remain.


November 2021. The Library of Congress replaces the subject headings "aliens" and "illegal aliens" with new subject headings "noncitizens" and "illegal immigration." Although this change removed the offensive term "aliens" from use, use of the term "illegal" remains, frustrating many activists who advocated for the term "undocumented." The CSU Libraries retain their use of the term "Undocumented immigrants."


CSU Decision

catalog record showing subject headings "undocumented immigrants"

Additional Information

Change the Subject shares the story of a group of college students, who from their first days at Dartmouth College, were committed to advancing and promoting the rights and dignity of undocumented peoples.  In partnership with staff at Dartmouth, these students – now alumni – produced a film to capture their singular effort at confronting an instance of anti-immigrant sentiment in their library catalog.  Their advocacy took them all the way from Baker-Berry Library to the halls of Congress, showing how an instance of campus activism entered the national spotlight, and how a cataloging term became a flashpoint in the immigration debate on Capitol Hill.