Spanish-Language Finding Aids at Princeton University Library

Image above shows photos of various authors represented throughout the Princeton Latin American collections, including Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, José Bianco, Elena Garro, Idea Vilariño, Ricardo Piglia, Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, Reinaldo Arenas, Reina María Rodríguez, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Juan Gelman and José Emilio Pacheco.

There are numerous ongoing initiatives and conversations in the archival profession revolving around issues of racial and social justice, and language justice is one of the key components of both. The term “language justice” as defined in the Language Justice Toolkit, “… is about building and sustaining multilingual spaces in our organizations and social movements so that everyone’s voice can be heard both as an individual and as part of a diversity of communities and cultures. Valuing language justice means recognizing the social and political dimensions of language and language access, while working to dismantle language barriers, equalize power dynamics, and build strong communities for social and racial justice.”[1]

As a result, what language is used in our finding aids to describe collections is inherently tied to movements of decolonization, as well as racial and social justice. Princeton University has extensive holdings of Latin American archives, and Spanish is the predominant language of these materials, yet the description in the majority of the legacy finding aids is written in English. It is probably safe to assume that a considerable number of the likely users of these collections would be native Spanish speakers, and some might not even read English. Therefore, why impede the accessibility and navigation of the contents in finding aids by imposing English as the default language? In a 2010 study investigating the usages and expectations of multilingual resources in Chinese digital libraries conducted by Dan Wu, Nanhui Gu, and Daqing He, users had considerably more difficulties searching for information created in a language that they do not understand. Many users in this situation reported having to rely on online translation tools, but in general, were not satisfied with the accuracy of the translations.[2]

By creating finding aids in Spanish, Spanish-speaking researchers can more easily access and navigate archival collections without having to rely exclusively on translation tools. As part of applying language justice concepts to our descriptive practices, patrons should not have to be able to read or find alternative methods of understanding the dominant English language in order to engage with the collections found in our institutions, especially those that may be of direct relevance to themselves and their communities. As Dorothy Berry writes, “Our descriptive systems are often the first interaction patrons have with our institutions, and when the language and systems feel alienating, patrons will take what they need and leave the rest… The question of who will come visit is rarely asked of the house we have built and whether or not our door has ever been truly open in the first place.”[3]

The growing interest in inclusive description efforts with the intent of being more respectful of the communities and the people that are impacted by our descriptive work should also be directed towards the language we use in our finding aids. It is not only the right thing to do, but will also lead to building trust and engagement with communities that we are supposedly trying to serve. As Xaviera Flores and Elizabeth Dunham note in their article on bilingual finding aids, “Spanish-language finding aids have proven to be valuable tools for building community relationships and further developing the Chicano/a Research Collection. The Collection’s curator and curator emerita both report encountering members of the Mexican American community who feel that Spanish finding aids show an appreciation and respect of the language and culture that is often lacking in their dealings with Anglo society.”[4]

At Princeton University Library, my predecessor, Elvia Arroyo-Ramírez, began creating some bilingual finding aids, wherein collection- and series- level descriptions were written in English, but folder titles and more detailed file-level scope and content notes were written in Spanish, as seen in the finding aid for the Idea Vilariño Papers

Subsequently, a few months after my hiring, the Inclusive Description Working Group [5] was formed in May 2019, composed of a group of archivists committed to tackling the complex issue of cultural sensitivity in archival description, and to critically rethinking 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. One issue that the group began to discuss is which language to use when writing finding aids for archival collections in which most of the materials are not in English. As a result of these discussions, we are now writing finding aids in Spanish for predominantly Spanish-language collections, as seen in the screenshots below for the collections of Jorge Díaz and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez respectively.

Finding aid for the Jorge Díaz Papers, 2021. Princeton University Library.
Finding aid for the Pedro Juan Gutiérrez Papers, 2021. Princeton University Library.

Language is a carrier of culture and communication[6] and forms an integral part of one’s identity. Reading and speaking in one’s native language provides a sense of connection to one’s culture, community, and self. Therefore, as we move forward at Princeton University Library, we will continue to work to ensure that newly-processed, predominantly Spanish-language collections have corresponding finding aids written in Spanish. With our recent migration to ArchivesSpace, we also launched a new finding aid discovery site. As we continue to make improvements to these platforms, we will look for ways to enrich and facilitate the experience of the researchers using our finding aids, such as the inclusion of field labels in Spanish. Moreover, future work will hopefully include the application of technologies that could enable multilingual capabilities in our finding aid platform in order to facilitate navigation for different communities of users researching in our collections. Furthermore, we would at some point like to address legacy finding aids for the Latin American collections in order to rewrite the description in Spanish.

If we are truly committed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in archives and libraries, creating multilingual spaces in our institutions and organizations must form part of those initiatives. As noted in the language justice how-to-guide provided by Antena Aire,[7] “…strategies for bridging the divides of language are essential to any endeavor that truly seeks to be inclusive of people from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different perspectives.”[8] By providing finding aids with description that matches the predominant language of the materials, we are respecting the right that everyone has to communicate in the language in which they feel most comfortable. 


[1] Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE). CCHE Language Justice Toolkit.

[2] Wu, Dan, Nanhui Gu, and Daqing He. “The Usages and Expectations of Multilingual Information Access in Chinese Academic Digital Libraries,” 2010.

[3] Berry, Dorothy. “The House Archives Built.” up//root, June 22, 2021.

[4] Dunham, Elizabeth, and Xaviera Flores. “Breaking the Language Barrier: Describing Chicano Archives with Bilingual Finding Aids.” The American Archivist 77 (2), 2014: 499–509. doi:10.17723/aarc.77.2.p66l555g15g981p6.

[5] Suárez, Armando. “ Inclusive Description Working Group.” This Side of Metadata, February 28, 2020.

[6] Sutherland, Tonia, and Alyssa Purcell. “A Weapon and a Tool: Decolonizing Description and Embracing Redescription as Liberatory Archival Praxis.” The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion 5 (1), 2021. doi:10.33137/ijidi.v5i1.34669.

[7] “Antena Aire (formerly called Antena) was a language justice and language experimentation collaborative by Jen/Eleana Hofer and JD Pluecker, both of whom are writers, artists, literary translators, bookmakers and activist interpreters. From 2010-2020, Antena Aire used on-the-ground practices building equitable communication as a generative strategies for making artistic works.”

[8] “How to Build Language Justice.” Antena Aire.

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.”