DCA Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description

If you encounter language in Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) finding aids and other archival description records in the Tufts Digital Library or JumboSearch 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 archives@tufts.edu, call us at 617-627-3737, or fill out our feedback form.

Archival description at DCA:

When processing (arranging, organizing, and describing) archival collections, DCA staff make choices about what language to use when describing collections (both personal papers and institutional records) and the people and organizations who created or are represented in them. DCA 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. To enable searching of archival material by subject, DCA often uses standardized vocabulary lists such as Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to systematize searching in our catalog.

Current and ongoing descriptive practices at DCA:

We recognize that some of our materials are created by and/or represent marginalized groups of people. It is our responsibility not only to describe those people and organizations accurately and respectfully, but to do so in a way that is not harmful or offensive. As part of this work, DCA 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.

Likewise, we are aware that some LCSH terms are outdated and harmful, and we support various efforts underway throughout the library and archives professions to update and change these terms. We also support the development, maintenance, and use of standardized vocabularies outside of LCSH.

Description guidelines:

When describing archival materials, which may include both physical and digital material DCA 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, DCA 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.
  • Researching how communities describe themselves and their own histories, connecting with other institutions that have grappled with similar collections or issues, and/or discussing the issue directly with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials.
  • Privileging individuals’ self-identification in regards to name, gender, 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 DCA’s attention, and communicating transparently about remediation work (see “How to address description concerns at DCA,” below).

Legacy description at DCA:

Despite our current description policy, many of our finding aids, and item-level descriptions of objects in the Tufts Digital Library, 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. DCA is dedicated to revisiting and updating descriptive language, but with thousands of finding aids and other descriptive records, this process is iterative and will take time.

How to address description concerns at DCA:

Users:  DCA encourages users to bring questions and concerns about description to the department’s attention via email (archives@tufts.edu), phone (617-627-3737), or our feedback form. All concerns will be assessed by DCA staff. Issues that can be addressed quickly and without systematic review or intervention will be resolved as quickly as possible. When issues require more extensive and systemic intervention, DCA will communicate clearly and transparently about timelines. In all cases DCA will take steps for clear and transparent communication about the resolution process.

Staff: DCA staff at all levels are encouraged to bring concerns about archival description to the department’s attention. Archives Research Assistants and Archives Assistants should bring concerns to their supervisor. Other DCA staff members should bring concerns to the Collection Management Archivist or to the Director of DCA. Concerns may be brought verbally or by email.

Last Updated: June 2020

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. Please see our Additional Sources and Further Reading for more resources related to this topic.