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Statement on Archival Description and Harmful Language

Statement on Archival Description and Harmful Language

When describing archival collections, staff at archival repositories make choices about what language to use when describing not just the papers and records, but also the people and organizations who created or who are represented in them, including those from historically marginalized groups. For a variety of reasons, researchers may encounter offensive or harmful language in the finding aids of PACSCL member institutions, including but not limited to language that is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist. 

While some descriptions in finding aids are written by staff, others reflect language that was used by the people and organizations that created the material. This includes language that was considered acceptable at the time but is now no longer appropriate, including language that marginalized and oppressed groups and individuals used to refer to themselves but which are no longer favored by members of those groups, or language or description that was considered offensive even at the time it was created. Harmful and offensive language is frequently retained in creator-provided collection descriptions to document the social context in which archival material was created and the perspectives of its creators.

In such cases, the work of the archivist is to provide additional context. In addition, archivists follow the standard practice of using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for better searching and discovery of materials; however, many LCSH terms are outdated, offensive, and harmful. 

PACSCL supports the various efforts that individual member institutions as well as those throughout the library and archives professions are taking to address these issues, including remediating harmful language in existing finding aids and employing inclusive descriptive practices for authoring new archival description. For more information, please see the following member institutions’ and PACSCL-affiliated projects’ published statements on harmful language:

Drexel University

Haverford College

In Her Own Right project 

Library Company of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives

Princeton University 

Swarthmore University 

Temple University  

University of Pennsylvania

Additional resources

In addition to the statements noted above, others that informed PACSCL’s statement can be found on the Cataloging Lab’s List of statements on bias in library and archives description. For information on how those doing archival description can address harmful language, specifically anti-Black description, see the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Resources

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, Inc. Endorsed by the PACSCL Board, 09/2021