Review: Cruising the Library (2017)

Mary Mann

Melissa Adler. Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. 248 pages. Paperback. $28.00.

“Cruising the library is the only way to obtain books that address the intersectionality and complexity of sexuality and subjectivities,” (121) writes Melissa Adler, an assistant professor in University of Kentucky’s School of Library and Information Science. Her own cruises through the stacks over the years has led her to books on sexuality and gender, while also making her aware of systems of classification that effectively ostracize these books. It is this eternally imperfect meeting of sexuality and classification that she explores in Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge.

Adler’s choice of “perversities” in the title reflects her specific focus on the Library of Congress classification system, which in 1898 began placing books about nonprocreative sex — everything from homosexuality to non-monogamous sex to pedophilia — under the heading “Sexual perversion.” Through the course of Cruising, she tracks these diverse texts as their subject heading changes to “Sexual deviation” in 1972, then to “Paraphilias” in 2007 — a particularly opaque heading that remains to this day.

While this careful tracking of the sex-specific biases in the catalog provides a valuable record, it’s Adler’s diversions into historical examples along the way that make for the most enjoyable reading. A highlight of such examples is a chapter-long exploration of the Delta Collection, a restricted access Library of Congress repository for anything obscene, “which included books, motion pictures, photographs, playing cards, and other materials” (63). While the beginnings of the Delta Collection are murky (no fault of Adler’s, as she details the dearth of information), it’s clear that its heyday was the forties and fifties, when fear of corrupted American values was high and “accusations of homosexual and communist tendencies became interchangeable” (71). The Delta Collection did have a fair amount of materials on homosexuality, but it also covered many other realms of sexuality, including what Adler considers to be a surprising amount of texts on sex during marriage. Seized materials flooded into the library from customs and postal officials all over the country, as well as from raids conducted by Morals Division detectives, such that by the 1957 the library was petitioning Congress to be allowed to burn some of it just to get back some space.

Congress’s ongoing involvement with the Delta Collection elevates this chapter from diversion to a viable hub of Adler’s argument, more so — for this reader at least — than the history of the Paraphilias heading that dominates the text. Adler contends that noticing biases in classification systems isn’t just important for libraries and their patrons, but for any citizen of a nation, because “classifications contribute to the production of national ideals, identities, and ideologies” (10). In other words, they are built to reflect cultural norms, like the 1898 idea that homosexuality is perverse, but in the process they also reinforce those norms, making them seem less like norms and more like facts. And so they’re carried over into other realms, out of the library and into the algorithms of major websites like Google and Amazon, which Adler spends a few pages discussing. But the Library of Congress is her particular focus because, as she explains both through argument and example, it is very much a government library, which means that its subject headings don’t just seep into culture at large, they also directly reflect and inform policy. And the government really pays attention to any changes in how the Library of Congress sorts its material. Congress in the fifties had strong opinions on how the Delta Collection should be handled. A few chapters later, Adler reminds us that Congress in 2016 had strong opinions on whether “Illegal alien” should remain a subject heading. The continued investment of politicians in the organization of knowledge reminds us that classification systems have effects far beyond simple shelf placement.

The intertwining of nation-building and library classification reveals itself to be the primary argument in Cruising, and a compelling one at that, as Adler effectively reveals how it manifests in how both library and law deal with sexuality, as well as — true to her quest for intersectionality — race and gender. Cruising is strongest when dealing with these flaws in the system, while the solutions presented in the final chapter on reparative taxonomies are vague at best. Readers looking for concrete solutions to the problem of bias in classification systems will not find them in this text. But whatever it lacks in prescriptiveness, Cruising makes up for in Adler’s ability to contextualize theory, providing tangible and engaging histories of the catalog’s inability to deal with “the elusive, expansive, and shifting nature of perversion — and, for that matter, all of sexuality” (51).

Mary Mann is a MLIS Candidate at Pratt Institute, Fellow at Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library, and author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom.