Stanford Special Collections and University Archives Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Cataloging and Archival Description

We acknowledge that description is not neutral, nor are we. We aim to describe our materials in an informative and accurate manner that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in the collections we manage. However, Stanford Special Collections and University Archives staff created many of our catalog records and finding aids years or even decades ago, and what constitutes appropriate description varies with context, time, and the positionality of the description creator. In addition, because it is common practice to re-use language provided by creators, former owners, and vendors, and to re-use catalog records from other libraries, users may encounter offensive or harmful language in our descriptions.

We are implementing practices to address offensive or harmful language as part of routine description work, and we also encourage users to provide feedback to help us address these concerns. We recognize that terminology evolves over time and that efforts to create respectful and inclusive descriptions must be ongoing.

We strive to prevent harm through our descriptive practices. We work to uphold this value in the following ways:

  • We aspire to be representative of and welcoming to the groups and individuals that we are describing.
    • We seek to disrupt systems of oppression, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, ageism, and all forms of social discrimination, through our terminology and framing of people and events. We approach the material we describe with empathy, and focus our descriptions on the subjects of the material.
    • We research how the communities represented in our collections describe themselves and their own histories, consult with other institutions with similar collections, and when possible, contact the people or organizations represented in the materials directly.
  • We acknowledge that we work with such a breadth of material that none of us has complete subject expertise.
    • We consider the specific and unique processing and descriptive needs of our collections and items throughout the process of working with them.
    • We take the time to conduct research and consult with others to fill in gaps in our knowledge.
    • We work with curators, scholars, creators, donors, and communities in our efforts to create culturally sensitive descriptions.
  • We recognize that descriptive standards are not neutral, nor are we.
    • We consult with others to consider multiple viewpoints. We acknowledge our personal biases and unique backgrounds, and consider how our own perspectives affect our descriptive practice.
    • We acknowledge that we use standardized subject terms, including Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), to enhance access to materials. These terms are not neutral, and some are outdated and harmful. We work to provide alternatives to harmful terms whenever possible.
  • We carefully consider potentially offensive or harmful language in our own descriptions, as well as in the materials we are describing.
    • We do not censor the materials in our care, but when they touch on potentially harmful subjects or use potentially harmful language, we work to provide historical context.
    • We aim to clarify when language is provided from another source, including description or folder titles provided by the donor, creator, collector, vendor, or another source, via use of quotation marks around the language, and/or providing additional context.
  • We recognize that this process is ongoing, and we dedicate time to update and address potentially harmful language in our descriptions.

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.


Adler, Melissa. “Classification along the color line: excavating racism in the stacks.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies: 1, no. 1 (2017).

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. “Anti-Racist Description Resources.” Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia. (October 2019).

Caswell, Michelle. “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy: 87, no. 3 (July 2017).

Drexel University. “Statement on Harmful Content in Archival Collections”.

Olson, Hope A. The power to name: locating the limits of subject representation in libraries. (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).

Princeton University. “Statement on Language in Archival Description.”

Rare Books and Manuscripts Section/Association of College and Research Libraries. “ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians.”

Rinn, Meghan R. "Nineteenth-Century Depictions of Disabilities and Modern Metadata: A Consideration of Material in the P.T. Barnum Digital Collection," Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 5 , Article 1 (2018).

Society of American Archivists. “SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics.”

Society of American Archivists. “Statement of Principles.” Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS).

Temple University. “SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging.”