Harmful Language in Archival Description

A statement from Harvard Library

Updated January 14, 2021

Harvard libraries hold vast archival collections, and strive to make them discoverable and accessible to users throughout the world. In doing so, archivists provide context for collections and description of their contents in catalog records and finding aids. We know that archival description, and the entire archival endeavor, from appraisal to access, is not neutral. Nor are we, libraries and library staff, as stewards. Creation of archival description is a biased act, whether intentional or not. 

Harvard Library finding aids and other archival description may include language that is harmful or offensive. We are committed to investigating and remediating past and current oppressive practices in archival description and have created guiding principles for inclusive and conscious description across Harvard. Individual libraries can use these to guide local descriptive practice and inform remediation work.

Some of our records may contain language created decades ago. It is common practice within the field to re-use description from the creator of the materials. While in some instances this allows communities and individuals to represent their materials in their own words, unexamined use of this practice may mean that racist or other offensive terminologies appear in our description. We also use national standardized terms in our work that can be outdated and harmful.

We acknowledge that language and identities are fluid, changing over time, and thus we know this is a continuous process, both in our own learning and the outputs of that learning. Your feedback is an important part of this process. 

We encourage and welcome community feedback. If you encounter harmful language in our finding aids, catalogs, or digital libraries, please let us know. Contact the library holding the materials, or send a general response using Ask a Librarian, which will get directed to the repository responsible for the collection.