Inclusive Description Working Group

The Inclusive Description Working Group was formed in May 2019, and we are one of several working groups within the Archival Description and Processing Team (ADAPT) at Princeton University Library Special Collections. The group currently includes seven archivists in special collections who volunteered with an interest in changing descriptive practices, and include: Kelly Bolding (chair), Valencia Johnson, Faith Charlton, Phoebe Nobles, Chloe Pfendler, Kalliopi Balatsouka, and Armando Suárez.

The inspiration for the creation of this group began in 2016, with a “description audit project,” led by the Manuscripts Division of Special Collections at Princeton University Library, which aimed to identify problematic description and hidden voices in existing finding aids, and then, in 2017, with the formation of the Anti-Racist Description Working Group, part of the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, some of whose members are part of our processing team. Other inspirations included Michelle Caswell’s article, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” and Temple University’s statement on potentially harmful language (see additional resources for more information).

From Michelle Caswell’s work, listing privileges and related actions for “Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives” (poster designed by Gracen Brilmyer).

The group’s primary goal is to tackle the complex issue of cultural sensitivity in archival description, and to critically rethink our role as archivists in order to create description that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in the archival collections we manage. With this in mind, we created a set of internal processing guidelines and considerations that will help us and our colleagues describe and process collections with a heightened awareness and empathy.

Some general principles listed in the guidelines are: prioritizing language that individuals and communities would use to describe themselves; balancing the preservation of original context with awareness of the problematic language that can come with it; discontinuing the perpetuation of inequalities in finding aids, such as by avoiding writing biographical notes that elevate the accomplishments of white men and suppress the voices of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups; prioritizing writing or using creator or dealer- supplied description in the language of the creator, materials, and users of a particular collection; and being transparent and accountable about our actions, such as preserving evidence of changes and providing mechanisms for users to report problematic description.

One of our accomplishments this year was the publication of a public-facing statement, called “Statement on Language in Archival Description,” that would let our users and researchers know what we hope to do, what we may or may not be able to do, and why. We are now hoping to add the statement to the home page of our finding aids site, in order for users to find it more easily as they browse through the collections.

In order to address crucial gaps and offensive language in Princeton’s finding aids, the group generated a list of case studies, which document ethically-minded approaches in specific contexts. It is important to note that we do not see the changes we have made as perfect or permanent solutions, but as a place to start, and we plan to keep adding to these case studies as a supplement to our internal processing guidelines. Below are some examples from the case studies:

The Francis C. Brown Collection on Slavery in America collection consists largely of plantation and slavery records assembled by a particular collector who bought the materials from various dealers, and contained item-level descriptions of materials that were transcribed from dealer descriptions written in the mid 20th century. These descriptions often referred to people as “negroes,” “slaves,” or “blacks” and included the names of enslavers but not of the enslaved. The finding aid was updated with the description throughout to refer to people as “enslaved,” as well as to include the names of enslaved people when the names of others mentioned in documents were already included.

Public services staff brought this one to our attention. A folder in the Office of the President Records in the University Archives was labeled with a male professor’s name, “Drewry, Henry N,” but it contained at least as much information about Cecilia Hodges Drewry, a female professor who was married to Drewry. The archivist added the woman’s name, in brackets, to the man’s name, to make her records discoverable while trying to leave clear how the office originally named the file.

The Selected Correspondence of Margaret Randall includes correspondence relevant to gay and lesbian issues, and Randall is out and married to a woman, but the finding aid did not previously identify Randall as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or include terms to help users find these materials. The archivist added a sentence to Randall’s biographical note mentioning her wife, as well as adding subject terms and keywords in the scope and content note and in the list of subject terms.

In a collection of Western Americana Miscellaneous Manuscripts, the archivist added description to position the creators’ perspective, “The collection consists of miscellaneous source material…pertaining to the history of the American West and Southwest in the 19th century, largely from the perspective of white settlers.”

There are many others, but the last example I will mention is from the Ricardo Piglia Papers. Here the processing archivist used the languages of the original material in the finding aid. The collection- and series- level descriptions do appear in English, but titles and more detailed file- and item- level scope and content notes are written in Spanish.

As we move forward, we are pursuing various goals to be undertaken during this year, including conducting automated audits of EAD files, using XQuery, (1) in order to locate potential problems with description in our finding aids; assessing local subject headings usage and gaps; designing and implementing strategies for generating additional staff and public feedback on descriptive practices; as well as begin to seriously discuss which language to use when writing finding aids for archival collections in which most of the materials are not in English.

We recognize that our efforts to create respectful and inclusive description must be an ongoing process, and it’s just one of the ways that the archival field will evolve to be more inclusive, respectful, and culturally sensitive. If the profession wishes to seriously promote and value the ideals of diversity and inclusion that it often seeks to support and encourage, then we all collectively need to confront the biases in archival description and reconsider the language we use when describing materials.

  • (1) XQuery is a scripting language for querying large sets of XML data. This method was previously used to search the data in our EAD files as part of a project to survey for born-digital materials.

Additional Resources

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

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

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

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