If you encounter language in the finding aids and other archival description records in the University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) that you find harmful or offensive, or if you have questions about the statement below or about our work, we welcome your feedback. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archival description at UASC:
When processing (arranging, organizing, and describing) archival collections, UASC staff make choices about what language to use when describing collections and the people and organizations who created or are represented in them. UASC staff describe collections and collections materials at varying levels, from collection to item, in various systems and formats. When processing new collections we often re-use language provided by creators, donors, or former stewards of the collection, as a way both to make collections available for research more quickly and to provide important context about the materials and those who maintained them.
Current and ongoing descriptive practices at UASC:
We recognize that many of our materials are created by and/or represent marginalized groups of people. It is our responsibility not only to describe marginalized people and organizations accurately and respectfully, but to do so in a way that is not harmful or offensive. As part of this work, UASC staff are dedicated to considering and balancing archival standards, efficient and timely processing and cataloging, preservation of original context, and an awareness of the importance of language and its effect on users of our materials and those represented within our collections. We recognize that we may not always make the right decision and welcome feedback so that we can learn and refine our practices.
When describing archival materials, which may include both physical and digital material, UASC archivists and staff follow guidelines to reduce the use of harmful or offensive language. These guidelines include the following:
- Actively weighing the benefits of re-using pre-existing description with the effect it may have on users encountering that description.
- Identifying and using alternative thesauri that may include more appropriate or community-oriented language, and implementing their use in our description. In the absence of appropriate existing thesauri, UASC staff may use local terms to describe materials. Where applicable, local terms will be created in consultation with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials.
- Consulting directly with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials, researching how communities describe themselves and their own histories, and/or connecting with other institutions that have grappled with similar collections or issues.
- Privileging individuals’ self-identification in regards to name, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
- Striving for transparency and evidence-based description by including citations and notes to document our decisions, and notes addressing changes that have been made to description.
- Creating biographical and historical notes that avoid re-creating or reinforcing previous inequities and overvaluation of traditionally privileged groups.
- Assessing and remedying issues brought to UASC’s attention, and communicating transparently about remediation work.
Legacy description at UASC:
Despite our current description policy, many of our finding aids and item-level descriptions of objects were created years or decades ago and may contain offensive or harmful language. We recognize that identities are both socially constructed and fluid and the ways in which individuals and groups self-identify changes over time, and acknowledge the value of historic terminologies as well as modern user discovery needs. UASC is dedicated to revisiting and updating descriptive language, but with hundreds of finding aids and other descriptive records, this process is iterative and will take time.
Last Updated: September 2021
This statement draws on the work of many others. Much of this statement is based on the Temple University Libraries “SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging” and the Tufts “DCA Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description”. Please see our Additional Sources and Further Reading on this topic.