Scottish? English? Library Thinks Twice

The Library of Congress briefly labeled Robert Burns English.
The Library of Congress briefly labeled Robert Burns English.
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By Mike Wade
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

EDINBURGH, Scotland

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 disbelief.

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 identity.

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.


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