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Stanford Special Collections & University Archives share statement on potentially harmful language in cataloging and archival description

September 9, 2020
Ann K.D. Myers

Stanford Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives has published a Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Cataloging and Archival Description. The statement was developed by staff across the department over the past two months, with additional input from staff in Stanford Libraries’ Metadata Development Unit. 

Descriptive standards have evolved over time, as has the terminology used to describe different groups of people. Our statement includes an acknowledgement that users may encounter offensive or harmful language in catalog records, archival finding aids, and other descriptions for materials stewarded by the department, and also highlights actions the department is committed to taking to prevent harm through our descriptive practices. These actions include researching the preferred terms of the communities represented in our collections, and dedicating time to update and address potentially harmful language in our descriptions. 

The statement was developed in part as a response to the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who have died as a result of police brutality, anti-Black racism, and institutionalized white supremacy. It was developed in the context of both the global Black Lives Matter movement and specific conversations happening across the University and within the Libraries during dedicated online meetings and in spaces such as the #bravespacetoo and #ideal-library channels in the Stanford Libraries workspace on Slack. The statement itself mirrors other work taking place throughout the Libraries to better align our policies and practices with our values, including by acknowledging and taking concrete steps to address current and past harm to the Black community enacted by cultural institutions such as academic libraries.

The statement builds on similar statements issued over the past year by repositories at several other universities, including Princeton, Temple, and Emory, and includes links to these statements, as well as additional resources that assisted the department in articulating their commitment. It also reflects larger discussions taking place within and across professional associations such as the American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (ALA RBMS), and the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

At the same time, the statement was inspired by many examples in our own collections, including catalog records that provided inadequate context for Nazi propaganda items, finding aids referencing Stanford affiliates associated with the U.S. eugenics movement, historical documents undergoing transcription that make use of offensive language such as the n-word, and challenges faced when the established subject headings for particular groups or identities are known to be outdated and/or harmful.

Staff recognize that efforts to create respectful and inclusive descriptions must be ongoing. 

If you encounter language in our catalog records, finding aids, digital object metadata, exhibits, blog posts, social media, or elsewhere that you find offensive or harmful, we welcome your feedback, questions, or concerns. Please use the Feedback link in the upper right corner of the Stanford Libraries webpage you are viewing, or email us directly at spec-description@lists.stanford.edu, a new email list that will be monitored by members of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, and shared with other departments and branch libraries in cases where another unit is responsible for the material described.  

We also welcome feedback from the community on the statement itself, which should also be directed to spec-description@lists.stanford.edu. A new Stanford Libraries workspace Slack channel, #anti-racist-description, has also been created to support continued discussion on these topics across the Libraries.

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