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Guide to Using Special Collections at Yale University: Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description

Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description

Yale University aims to create archival description -- including finding aids, catalog records, and other metadata -- that is inclusive, respectful, and does not cause harm to those who interact with our collections. This includes those who create, use, and are represented in the collections we steward. We acknowledge that our existing description may contain language that is racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, or that uses other offensive terms that may cause harm. This language may result from archival description that has been created over the years by creators of collection material, previous stewards, or by Yale staff since acquisition.

Recognizing the need to address outdated and harmful archival description, the Archival and Manuscript Description Committee charged the Reparative Archival Description (RAD) task force with providing guidelines to remediate existing archival description and create anti-oppressive archival description in the future. This work includes ongoing research and integration of community-generated preferred terminology guides into our local descriptive practices in order to create archival description that uses language that communities use to describe themselves. We also recognize that in some instances, original, creator- or steward-provided description holds inherent research value, and we work to contextualize that information through the use of descriptive notes that address the need to leave the description in place. 

Collection descriptions also incorporate controlled vocabularies and thesauri, including the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Some of the headings in these vocabularies and thesauri are outdated and harmful. Yale staff do not have direct control over the language used in those vocabularies and thesauri but can sometimes work with their creating bodies on proposing revisions. Yale staff also occasionally choose to use local subject headings that are more closely aligned with Yale Library decisions about preferred language. 

We believe that reparative archival description is iterative work, and we expect that descriptive language preferences and needs will change over time. New and ongoing work in this area is indicated in our finding aids and catalog records through descriptive notes. We welcome feedback from users regarding our archival description. You may make a suggestion in Archives at Yale by using the Suggest a Correction button, or by contacting the repository listed in the finding aid, catalog record, or digital library record. Yale staff will review your suggestion and will work towards remediating harmful language in the description while balancing the need to preserve original context. Please contact the Archival and Manuscript Description Committee with suggestions, feedback, and questions about our work and our archival description. 

While there are no current national archival standards that outline guidance for remediating harmful language in archival description, the Reparative Archival Description Task Force was informed by Describing Archives: A Content Standard Statement of Principles; the Anti-Racist Description Resources by Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia; the Temple University Libraries SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging; and Princeton University Library Statement on Language in Archival Description.

The Reparative Archival Description Task Force of the Archival and Manuscript Description Committee, endorsed by the Yale University Library Special Collections Steering Committee, November 2, 2020.