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SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging

If you encounter language in SCRC finding aids, catalog records, digitized collections, blog posts, exhibitions, or elsewhere that you find offensive or harmful, or if you have questions about the statement below or about our work, we welcome your feedback. Please email us at scrc@temple.edu or call the SCRC reference desk at 215-204-5750.

When processing (arranging, organizing, and describing) archival collections, and cataloging rare books, SCRC staff must make choices about what language to use when describing not just the books, papers, and records, but the people and organizations who created or who are represented in them. We recognize that many of our materials are created by and/or represent marginalized groups of people, and we believe it is our responsibility not only to describe those people and organizations accurately and respectfully, but to do so in a way that will not be harmful or offensive.

However, many of our finding aids (descriptions and inventories of collections) and library catalog records, which were created years or decades ago, may well include harmful language. SCRC is dedicated to revising and updating our descriptive language, but with hundreds of finding aids and thousands of library catalog records, this is ongoing and will take time.

Additionally, when processing new collections we will occasionally re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the collection, either because it provides important context about the materials or because it is a way to make the collections available for research use more quickly. In book cataloging, it is a common practice for efficiency to re-use catalog records created by other libraries.

For both archival collections and books, we follow the standard practice of using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for better searching in our library catalog. We are aware that some LCSH terms are outdated and harmful, and we are supporting the various efforts underway throughout the library and archives profession to update and change these terms.

For all these reasons, potentially harmful language may appear. SCRC staff are dedicated to balancing efficient and timely processing and cataloging, as well as preservation of original context, with an awareness of the importance of language and its effect on users of our materials and those represented within them. We recognize that we may not always make the right decision and welcome feedback from all sources so that we can learn and adjust our practices.

When processing new archival collections, SCRC archivists follow guidelines to reduce the appearance of language that may be hurtful or harmful to some. These guidelines include the following actions:

  • Actively weighing whether the efficiency or preservation of context from re-using or not remediating problematic and potentially offensive description is worth the affect it may have on users encountering that description.
  • Clearly indicating (through use of quotation marks, notes, or other explanation) what language comes from an external source or is legacy/older description, and which was written by SCRC staff.
  • Researching how the community describes itself and its own histories, finding other institutions that have grappled with similar collections, and/or discussing the issue directly with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials.

SCRC 2018.04

Effective Date

JUNE 26, 2019