Monday, 14 January 2008

Great Scots written back into history

The Times, January 12, 2008

When cataloguing staff at the world’s most powerful library consigned a 700-year-old literary tradition to history, they little realised the storm they would release on the other side of the Atlantic. But now, just weeks after the revelation that it had abolished its Scottish literature headings, the American Library of Congress has been forced to climb down.

Last month, The Times revealed that a decision of the library’s Cataloguing and Support Office in Washington had effectively reclassified authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Irvine Welsh as ‘English’. The policy cause outrage, prompting an intervention from the country’s culture minister and drawing an unprecedented condemnation from the National Library of Scotland, which accused its American counterpart of “a gross inaccuracy” in its cataloguing system.

Under pressure from the authors, academics and politicians, the library has reinstated around 40 Scottish headings and sub-headings. It turns out that Scottish literature – whether is the medieval epic poetry of John Barbour, the doggerel of William Topaz McGonagall, or the modern ‘Tartan Noir’ school of crime writing - is not English after all.

The Library of Congress confirmed its revised policy in an e-mail to the National Library of Scotland and the British Library yesterday. The text reads: “After reviewing thoughtful comments received from several correspondents, the … Library of Congress will be reinstating headings for Scottish literature, Scottish poetry, and similar headings. The reinstatement will appear on a future weekly list of subject headings issued by the Cataloguing Policy and Support Office. Bibliographic records will also be updated to restore former subject entries.”

The move was met with delight in Scotland. Ian Rankin, whose works are quintessentially Scottish, said: "If you talked to a lot of Scottish crime writers and asked, ‘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.”

Under the system which had been proposed Library of Congress, the heading “Scottish Literature”, and sub-headings ranging from “Erotic poetry, Scottish” to “television plays, Scottish” had been removed and re-categorised under English headings.

The object had been to introduce “conformity” in cataloguing practice, by removing “redundant” headings, explained a policy document. The aim was not “to imply that such authors are ethnically English”, but that their works formed a “subset” of the totality of English literature.

The effect of the new system meant that John Buchan’s works were filed under “Adventure Stories – English”, rather than “Adventure Stories – Scottish”, and that novels filed under “Science Fiction, Scottish,” were filed under “Science Fiction, English”.

The proposals had far-reaching consequences. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are used by libraries, publishers and retailers throughout the world, raising fears that modern Scottish literature would be buried under the heading “English”.

The climbdown was welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. "I am very pleased that the Library of Congress has made the proper decision to recognise Scottish identity for Scottish literature. This is a very important issue to the Scottish people, Scottish heritage, and to Scotland-U.S. relations,” said Congressman Mitchell. The Scottish culutre minister, Linda Fabiani, said she was delighted that there had been a change of heart.

Cairns Craig, professor of Irish and Scottish studies at Aberdeen University, said that the issue was a matter of logic. “This is part of the old difficulty about whether the literature is a function of the language, or whether the literature is the function of the nation. 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,” said Professor Craig.

Alasdair Gray, author of Lanark said it was important that libraries were accurate. “If a library is allocating literature to national areas then it ought to do it accurately. If you put all the authors who wrote in German under the heading ‘German literature’, Kafka would become a German, along with umpteen others, he said. "And by God! If they are going to put Scottish authors into English literature, I insist they put the Americans there too.”

The author Allan Massie said: “English is both a country and a language and the language has a wide application. Most Scottish writers write in English, so there is a grey area, but then so do most American, Australian and many Indian authors. My novels are not set in Scotland, but I think of myself as a Scottish writer. “

Not everyone was celebrating. Gregory Burke, who wrote the hit play Black Watch, said Scottish literature headings were unimportant. “Someone once said: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’ It [Scottish literature] is a dialect of English. I don’t care about things like that – you can file me under anything you want. There are bigger things to worry about.”

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