Harmful Language in Library Collections

A statement from Harvard Library

Harmful Language in Archival Description

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 We also use national standardized terms in our work that can be outdated and harmful.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.


Harmful Language in Bibliographic Description

Updated November 17, 2022

Harvard Library is committed to equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging, and antiracism. The role of catalogers and metadata specialists in this work is to describe and contextualize the diversity in our collections in HOLLIS catalogs. However, records in these catalogs may contain language that is overtly or implicitly harmful, outdated, or biased, or may by omission fail to represent important perspectives. Furthermore, we acknowledge that the act of collecting materials is not neutral, and the work of describing library materials is influenced by inherent personal, institutional, and societal biases.

Our library catalog, like the collections themselves, has been constructed over a long period and inevitably reflects viewpoints that invite continued scrutiny. Description of library resources is to a large extent a shared effort we undertake in cooperation with many partner institutions. Some catalog information (for example, subject headings, author names) is part of a global, interconnected dictionary used to create a consistent experience for researchers. These systems can lag behind current and preferred usage, meaning that outdated or offensive terminologies may continue to appear in our catalogs until changes can be propagated across the whole system. For some resources, harmful language or bias may be introduced by catalogers supplying titles and descriptions. In other cases, resources themselves present racist, offensive or otherwise harmful viewpoints in titles or descriptions that are routinely transcribed by catalogers. 

In recognition of our ethical responsibility and to honor our duty to the values of respect and inclusion, we are committed to working with our colleagues both at Harvard and in the wider library community to address harmful terms and descriptions in our catalog.  We acknowledge that language and identities are fluid, changing over time, and that our work requires continual revision, both in our own awareness and in how we apply this understanding to our practices. Your feedback is an important part of this process.  If you would like to suggest a change to harmful language encountered in our catalog, please submit an inquiry through HOLLIS Feedback