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). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/692299

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. https://archivesforblacklives.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/ardr_final.pdf 

Michelle Caswell, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 87, no. 3, July 2017. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/692299

Society of American Archivists. “Statement of Principles.” Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). https://github.com/saa-ts-dacs/dacs/blob/master/04_statement_of_principles.md

Temple University Libraries. “SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging.” https://library.temple.edu/policies/14

Seeing the forest for the trees

I started my position as the processing archivist for Latin American Manuscripts Collections in Special Collections about a year ago, and so far, I think it has been quite productive, but not without its challenges. Thankfully, I have the privilege of working with a magnificent, collaborative, and forward-thinking group of colleagues. One of our primary goals as stewards of unique archival collections should be to make as much of this material open and accessible to the user and research community as quickly as possible. Therefore, developing sustainable, efficient, and extensible processing practices requires rethinking traditional archival approaches and taking a more forward-thinking and integrated approach.

Unfortunately, large backlogs are quite common in our profession, as it was the case here when I arrived with regards to the Latin American manuscript collections. Backlogs in archival repositories can be traced to lack of staffing resources, as well as traditional archival processing techniques that have primarily focused on extremely detailed item to folder-level archival processing approaches, resulting in only a handful of collections being processed each year. This level of work, combined with an ever-increasing number of acquisitions, has led to an ever-growing number of unprocessed collections that are hidden from the public. One of the primary reasons why I was hired for this position had to do with my past experience dealing with large backlogs. In my two previous positions, I was able to considerably reduce the backlogs at those institutions in a relatively short amount of time, primarily through the application of efficient processing techniques to cut down on the time spent on each collection.

An article entitled, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” (1) written in 2005 by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, had a profound influence in the archival profession. And aside from the overall misunderstandings behind the principles of “More Product, Less Process,” commonly referred to as MPLP, the fundamental takeaway from this approach is that perfect should not be the enemy of good, and that expediting the access to archival materials should be the main goal of our efforts. The Archival Description and Processing Team (ADAPT) in Special Collections has been working on developing guidelines for processing priorities and levels with this approach in mind, which will also support and enhance user access to materials as part of the recently developed strategic mission for Firestone Library. (2)

It is important to note that applying efficient processing techniques does not diminish the quality of archival processing, which should not be measured by the level of detail that is applied, but instead should be evaluated by how effectively a processed collection serves its users, and how wisely an archivist spent the limited resources of the particular repository. Moreover, one has to realize that a finding aid is a living document, as well as a descriptive surrogate for the materials themselves. We can’t do it all and we’ll never be able to find it all, and if warranted, additions/edits can be done after it has, first and foremost, been made accessible to the public. There have been various studies carried out since the publication of the article by Greene and Meissner, such as the survey of American archivists conducted in 2009, (3) focusing on the implementation of MPLP across archival repositories, which have clearly indicated the positive effect in reducing processing backlogs and improving research access.

As a result of implementing these efficient processing practices, I have been able to process several notable collections which are now available to the public. Some of these collections provide a clear contrast on how the organization (or lack thereof) of archival materials differs upon their arrival in our repositories. On one hand, some of the collections are highly organized upon their arrival, such as being placed in distinctive file groups and arranged chronologically and/or alphabetically, with folders clearly labeled, while others arrive in complete disarray, consisting of various types of materials scattered throughout, mostly unfoldered and unlabeled, and without any type of discernable organization.

One of these collections is the Carlos Fuentes Papers. Fuentes (1928-2012) was a Mexican author, editor, and diplomat, who produced an extensive body of work throughout his life. The papers were acquired back in 2013, after Fuentes’ death, and they represented an addition to an already processed collection. It consists of approximately 200 boxes, and materials include notebooks; numerous drafts of novels, short stories, screenplays, articles and essays, speeches, and translations; subject files; press clippings; audiovisual materials; drawings; and printed material. Since the collection was highly organized, it was arranged, for the most part, as received by the repository. Due to its considerable size, much of the processing time was spent performing data entry, reboxing, refoldering, and labeling. Fortunately, I had the valuable assistance of our summer resident, Alice Griffin, and one of our current student assistants, Alia Wood. And after about six years of being hidden in our stacks, this rich collection is now available to the public. Besides having had the privilege of processing the materials of one of my favorite authors while pursuing my undergraduate studies, I also discovered that Fuentes was a talented caricaturist, as seen below.

Caricature by Carlos Fuentes. Drawings and paintings; Carlos Fuentes Papers, C0790, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

On the opposite spectrum, one of the collections I processed when I first arrived here was one of the most disorganized collections that I had worked on during my professional trajectory as a processing archivist. The papers began to arrive in periodic shipments in December 2018. All in all, a total of 15 large cartons were received. As I began to open the boxes, I immediately realized that the materials were in complete disarray. It consisted of various types of materials scattered throughout without any type of discernable organization (see image below). A few files had been foldered and sometimes labeled, but those were the exception. Additionally, a large number of the materials were undated, untitled, unattributed, and in many cases, drafts and fragments mixed together, which were impossible to separate and identify.

Box with various types of materials scattered throughout .

Therefore, given the disorganized state of the material upon receipt, a functional processing decision had to be made that required the application of current archival processes and best practices to be as efficient as possible with our limited resources and to expedite getting the collection into the hands of users. After performing an overall collection assessment, an arrangement was devised that reflected the sphere(s) of functions and/or activities deemed most appropriate to represent the overall context of the collection. Materials were arranged in file groups by type of materials, consisting of: Notebooks; Diaries and Journals; Writings; Correspondence; Printed Materials; and Other Materials. Furthermore, the writings were subdivided into the following file groupings: Poetry; Short Stories and Novels; Articles and Essays; Scripts; Translations; Other writings; and Writings by Others.

Another issue was how to proceed with the arrangement of the correspondence (see image below). There were about four large cartons containing correspondence, and after looking at other finding aids in the Latin American literary collections, I saw that arrangement in the past had been primarily done using the traditional processing approach of arranging them alphabetically. That particular arrangement might be feasible if the correspondence had arrived in somewhat discernable groupings, but in this particular situation, alphabetically arranging the correspondence would have taken a significant amount of time and effort. One of the most important things we do as archivists is processing, but it is also one of the most expensive, therefore, it is essential to take into consideration the amount of time and effort that we perform from the outset. If in the future, evidence warrants the re-processing of certain portions of the collection, we can always go back and revisit, but the time spent from the onset can never be regained.

I therefore decided that the correspondence was best arranged chronologically (by decades), which still took a considerable amount of time, almost a month. Only the correspondence that was received in identifiable groupings or was easily identified was separated and arranged by correspondent. Additionally, while separating the correspondence by decades, careful attention was undertaken in order to establish access points for prevalent and particular names found throughout.

Box with correspondence.

Another important consideration in the archival profession is the principle of respect des fonds, which is the basis of archival arrangement and description, and refers to the combined principles of provenance and original order. The latter, as defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), “means that the order of the records that was established by the creator should be maintained by physical and/or intellectual means whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between the documents and the evidential value inherent in their order.”(4) Taking this principle into consideration, how much intervention should an archivist perform during processing? As an archivist, one has to be cognizant of how the records were created. The inherent nature of personal papers does not only simply document facts, but also the character, and other aspects of an individual’s inner life. We should not think that all archival materials will be used to simply indicate facts, dates, activities, and functional activities to researchers and historians, but might also shed light on the character of the creator.

Fundamentally, archives are used and archivists are not only guardians of information, we also have to be effective at making that information available for the public. We have to essentially shift our perception of what “processed” looks like and means, in order not to let perfection be the enemy of “good enough,” which has greatly hindered access to the resources that we are committed to. As processing archivists, it is quite gratifying to see the final results of our work being accessible to the public. By making decisions based on the mission, audience, and current resources of the institution, we can better serve our patrons and thus reduce our backlogs and provide access to our valuable collections in a timely manner for the benefit of the people.

Description Dilemma: Processing Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave’s Collection on Alina d’Eldir

By Alice Griffin

Piece of paper with script: “La Sultane Ch. Mercier D’Eldir, femme auteur,” undated.

How does one describe a collection with multiple and unknown creators and a subject with an inconsistent biography?

As part of my summer Archival Fellowship for Manuscripts Division Collections, I processed a collection of papers and correspondence relating to Alina d’Eldir (?-1851), author of Méditations en prose, par une dame indienne (1828), which was described as “le premier ouvrage qui était composé en français, et publié à Paris, par une princesse de l’Hindoustan” (the first work to be written in French, and published in Paris, by an Indian princess). This collection documents  d’Eldir’s advocacy for magnetism as a cure for illness and her role as the founder of the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, a religious organization.  

When doing some research on this collection, I found that biographies of d’Eldir present conflicting information and are a bit fuzzy on the details. However, there is a general consensus that she was taken from India when she was young and converted to Christianity. Sources also say she was treated like an adopted daughter by Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife. From the mid-1820s on, she provided magnetism treatments from her residence in Paris. While several sources do report these elements of her life, I don’t mean to provide this information as fact, but more as an illustration of what has been written about her. It seems like there are very few contemporary works on her; the most recent publication I have found about d’Eldir was an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, published in 1894.

Portrait of Alina d’Eldir with some of the unknown handwriting in the collection, undated.

This is a small collection (less than 0.2 linear feet), but do not be fooled! The size of a collection does not necessarily match the complexity of description and processing efforts. Part of the challenge here was sorting through who the creator(s) versus the subject of this collection was. Although the description that arrived with the collection highlighted d’Eldir as the focal point of the collection, it did indicate that Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave (1762-1846) was the main creator and collector of the group of documents. Villenave was involved in the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, and edited a book about magnetism and Alina d’Eldir (La vérité du magnétisme, prouvée par les faits, 1829). The collection includes documents related to Villenave’s work with d’Eldir: correspondence from Alina d’Eldir (written on her behalf by her husband, and secretary, Charles Mercier) to Villenave, certificates from the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle, and Villenave’s handwritten copies of testimonials describing d’Eldir’s magnetism treatments. However, other documents in the collection (other copies of testimonials, a portrait of d’Eldir) feature different handwriting. In addition, a typewritten bibliography about d’Eldir and her contemporaries includes a book published in 1912, well after the deaths of Villenave and d’Eldir. Two indications of other previous owners include a scrap of paper with the name Léon Féer (possibly Léon Féer, 1830-1902, the French linguist) and a book plate with the name Hans Fellner (possibly Hans Fellner, 1925-1996, the bookseller).

The dealer’s description also created some confusion about the creator versus subject of the collection because of how it concentrates on d’Eldir’s biography. This makes sense, of course, d’Eldir is an influential figure and the focus of the collection, but her voice and work are presented secondhand through materials created by others.

With all of this in mind, my supervisors on the Manuscripts Processing Team and I had several discussions about whether we should include a creator at all. If we put Villenave as the creator, would that not take into account the other creators involved in the collection? And then would that overshadow d’Eldir as the center of the collection? In the end, we decided to include Alina d’Eldir’s name as a subject in the controlled access headings and put Villenave as a creator. This makes it clear that Villenave is the main creator, while also indicating how the materials are about Alina d’Eldir rather than created by her. We also decided that transparency was the best approach to describing how much (or how little) is known about the collection’s history. We provided this information, including more recent creators/collectors of the papers, via the Custodial History note. Although the information I was able to provide was somewhat limited, it should prove useful to researchers, public services, and future processing archivists. 

D’Eldir as a subject, as opposed to a creator, does not mean that the collection is less valuable, but I do think it means I should be mindful in my description. I didn’t want to contribute to under-describing d’Eldir, nor did I want to mischaracterize her; and further I didn’t want to perpetuate the descriptions of d’Eldir that exoticize her. When describing d’Eldir in the finding aid, I decided to stick with simple biographical statements, which were supported by materials in the collection (e.g. her position in the Ordre Asiatique de Morale Universelle and her connection to magnetism). In the interest of transparency, I used the Works Cited note to list the sources I consulted when writing Description notes. 

As an archivist, it is important to provide description that is useful and as accurate as possible. At the same time, however, exhaustive, infallible description isn’t how researchers generally navigate to a collection. I think this is where keywords, subject headings, and name authorities come in. With thoughtful, accurate subject headings, I feel confident that researchers will find this collection. And those researchers may be able to reveal further details about the collection that we will want to add to the finding aid in the future. 

Ultimately, the beauty of processing is that it is iterative; my description is not set in stone and nor should it be. Future archivists can edit and expand as researcher needs and best practices dictate.

Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse Villenave’s Collection on Alina d’Eldir, circa 1829-1950s, is currently discoverable via the Princeton University Library Finding Aids site, and open for research. For more information on how to visit and conduct research at  Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, please consult the Visit Us page on our website.

Letter to Villenave from Charles Mercier d’Eldir on behalf of Alina d’Eldir, 1839.