The Times, December 22, 2007
With a few strokes of a bureaucrat’s pen, the entire Scottish literary tradition stretching from the medieval epic poetry of John Barbour to the drug-addled excesses of Irvine Welsh has been dismissed by the US Library of Congress and now appears as a subheading of another topic: English literature.
The decision to reclassify 700 years of Scottish writing as a subset of English has prompted the Scottish Government to raise the matter with the US Congress and sparked outrage among Scottish authors and academics.
The Washington-based institution is accused of “subjugating” a unique literary canon and classing Scots as an ethnic group within England. The poet Liz Lochhead described the American move as “appalling” while the crime writer Ian Rankin said the library’s dictat “made no kind of sense”. Even a spokesman for that most reserved of bodies, the National Library of Scotland, accused the Library of Congress of “a gross inaccuracy” and urged it to reconsider its decision.
Under the new rules – announced in the library’s Cataloging Services Bulletin - the heading “Scottish Literature”, and more than 40 Scottish subjects ranging from “Erotic poetry, Scottish” to “television plays, Scottish” are replaced just three headings: “English Literature – Scottish authors”, “Dialect Literature, Scottish” and the catch-all “Scotland - Literatures”.
The results are almost laughable. Readers searching for The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan and similar works of derring-do by Scottish writers will have to look for the books under the heading “Adventure Stories – English”, rather than “Adventure Stories – Scottish”, because that category has ceased to exist.
Similarly, differences between genres of Scottish poetry are wiped out. “Science Fiction, Scottish” becomes “Science Fiction, English”, while fans of crime writing seeking modern “Tartan Noir” authors will have to search in “Detective and Mystery Stories, English” .
But if the changes can seem absurd, they could have far reaching consequences. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are routinely used around the world. Even local libraries which employ the familiar Dewey decimal system for organising collections refer to LCSH when accessing material by topic. Publishers and booksellers worldwide are heavily influenced by the classification, raising the prospect that modern Scottish literature and poetry will be subsumed under the heading “English”.
Some of these difficulties have already been raised by the National Library of Scotland, which has urged the Library of Congress to restore distinct subject headings for Scottish literature. A National Library spokesman said that “aside from the obvious objections on the grounds of national identity”, the American decision presented practical problems.
“We are now in the position of having to choose between adopting these changes, thereby adopting what we consider to be a gross inaccuracy to our catalogue records and risking the alienation of many our readers, or else we abandon this international standard and accept a substantial increase to our cataloguing workloads,” said the spokesman.
Linda Fabiani, the Culture Minister, said the decision was ultimately one for authorities in the USA. However, she added: “This government believes that Scottish Literature is quite distinctive from English Literature and should be recognised as such . I shall also be raising this issue directly with Congressmen early in the new year.”
The Library of Congress maintains that “English literature” does not refer to the literature of England, but to all the literature of the countries of the United Kingdom, and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Irish authors writing in English conform to “the customary scope of English literature as a discipline […including] works by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.”
The wider Scottish literary community reacted to this position with a mixture of incredulity and rage.
“Any Scottish writer would be appalled by this,” said Lochhead, the award winning poet and playwright. “We write in English – but sometimes not. I can’t imagine how this can happen, without anyone being consulted. There must be a very strong protest. The British Isles is not England alone. This goes absolutely against the political and cultural movements in Scotland.”
The crime writer Ian Rankin – who has sold around 20 million copies of his novels worldwide – said he was mystified by the library's stance.
“There are specific cultural differences between the countries of the United Kingdom but this smoothes them all out, If I was Irish, I would think it very odd to find Irish poetry lumped in with English poetry. And it is very odd to find Hugh MacDiarmid listed as if he was Shakespeare,” said Rankin.
The novelist AL Kennedy – who recently won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award for her novel Day – said that the decision was depressing and harked back to her literary apprenticeship in the 1980s, when Scottish writers were routinely treated as if they were part of the English tradition.
“There has always been this difficulty that English literature can mean literature in English. I have one collection of English literature in my house which contains only one author who is actually born in England. It is depressing that there are centres of very fine centre in America which specialise in the study of Scottish literature. It is disappointing that this has happened,” she said.
A spokesman for the Library of Congress said it would consider the issue again.