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Special Collections and Archives Research Center Anti-Racist Actions

We acknowledge that materials in SCARC collections and the language that describes them may be harmful. We are actively working to address our descriptive practices; this guide provides more information regarding our anti-racist actions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is harmful material in your collections?

SCARC holds materials from many cultures and time periods. Such material does not reflect SCARC’s viewpoint but rather the social attitudes and circumstances of the period or place in which it was created or collected.

Why are harmful terms used in some descriptions of the material? When do you use or retain harmful or offensive language in descriptions?

  • Librarians and archivists often re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the material, in order to show its original context. This context is important, but it can also reflect the creators’ or former owners’ biases and prejudices. It is important for us to acknowledge the racism and bigotry present in our collections, even as we acknowledge that encountering racist or derogatory language can be difficult and painful.
     
  • Past librarians and archivists have also chosen the descriptive language for materials. Some of these descriptions were written many years ago, using language that was accepted at the time. (See actions/remediation statement below.) 
     
  • Librarians and archivists have often used a standardized set of terms, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, to describe and enhance access to materials. We acknowledge that some of these standard terms are outdated, offensive, or insensitive.

What is SCARC doing to address this problem and better help users understand this content? 

  • We are in the process of identifying language in collection and item descriptions in order to update, remove, or give context to any language that is euphemistic, racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, or otherwise harmful.
     
  • We are updating collection and item descriptions, including developing a Statement on Description for all collections with harmful materials and correcting and improving past archival descriptions created by archivists. 
     
  • When we retain harmful language in descriptions that were provided by creators or former owners of the material, we aspire to do so with context and reasoning provided. In some cases, after serious and collaborative deliberation, we have retained harmful language and include information in the finding aid’s “Statement on Description” field to identify the language retained and why, and indicate whether or not we have reused the descriptive language provided by the collection creator or donor, or if we have provided the language ourselves.

For more information, see our “Actions Underway” page.

What is SCARC’s stance on harmful materials and language?

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 and steward with empathy, and focus our descriptions on the subjects of the material in order to enhance research access.

How would I know if this type of material is included in a collection?

When applicable, collection finding aids will include a “Statement on Description” field to include a link to this guide and information specific to the collection’s descriptive language, as well as imagery, and whether or not archivists have reused descriptions provided by a donor or have provided the language themselves. These finding aid updates are in process, and will be on-going.