Welcome! While this inclusive and reparative language guide is staff-created for use by Schlesinger Library staff, we invite all to access it. The content of the guide will change as we adopt new practices/procedures and we hope that it is a helpful resource to all who are interested.
In 2020-2021, Schlesinger Library’s Manuscripts Department convened discussions around incorporating inclusive, up-to-date, and accurate language in collection descriptions. These discussions were designed to help us become more aware and mindful of language, how we use it to describe archival and print materials, and to gain a better understanding of the effect of our choices on multiple communities.
Supported by relevant background readings and guided by specific topics, the Manuscripts Department held conversations focused on conscious and inclusive description, de-centering whiteness in our collection descriptions, biased terminology in Library of Congress subject headings, and issues of self-identity of donors and end-users. As a group we identified descriptive issues in Schlesinger’s legacy finding aids, including outdated terminology on disability and racial identity, under-described materials related to gender and sexuality, and the invisibility and erasure of race and ethnicity.
The Manuscripts Department’s work served as a catalyst in articulating a thoughtful approach to description; however, the responsibility and work for incorporating truly inclusive and reparative description falls on all departments within the library. In the latter half of 2021, a Schlesinger Library-wide Inclusive and Reparative Language Committee, consisting of curators, catalogers, research service staff, and archivists was formed to direct and shape the Library’s approach for adding inclusive and reparative language to our collection descriptions and public facing documents. The committee members are:
Emilyn Brown, Archivist, co-chair
Joanne Donovan, Lead Archivist for Visual Materials and Recorded Sound Collections
Jenny Gotwals, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator for Gender and Society
Sarah Hutcheon, Research Librarian
Erin LaBove, Cataloger, Published and Printed Materials
Laura Peimer, Archivist, co-chair
Kenvi Phillips and Teddy Schneider also contributed to the development of this guide
This collaborative group has compiled this guide to serve as a resource for a new inclusive approach to description and as a guide for any remediation efforts towards legacy description.
Overview: Cataloging and Processing, Research Services, Curatorial
Below is a brief summary of how various departments engage with descriptive work and how their workflows incorporate or rely on description.
Cataloging and Processing
Schlesinger Library's collections include personal papers, organizational records, print and published material, born digital items, photographs, and a broad range of audiovisual materials, including audio cassettes and videotapes.
For many years the descriptive practices of the Manuscripts Department has been mainly guided by our processing manual. This manual, which was created and has been maintained by various staff members to support the Library’s mission, is mostly technical in nature and does not explore language and terminology in depth.
Those who use our collections may encounter descriptive content that includes harmful or outdated language. This terminology can reflect the biases of the creator, donor or dealer, and in some cases, the archivist who may have repeated harmful, offensive, or outdated terms used by the creator. Personal biases and misguided notions of neutrality have also played a role in creating and perpetuating harmful terminology. According to the Joint Processing Guidelines at Harvard University:
Foundational archival theory emphasized a neutral role for the archivist, suggesting caretakers of collections did not actively participate in shaping those materials or their use in creating histories. Scholarship and archival practice over the last two or three decades have rejected this idea and explored the ways archival intervention shapes collections and their resulting use.[i]
Like most libraries, the use of standardized terms for bibliographic records at Schlesinger are critical for discovery and access to our archival collections and published materials. Yet, professional literature dating back to the 1960s, describes how libraries across the United States and overseas have made repeated attempts to replace harmful and outdated language in Library of Congress subject headings. Over the years, many Library of Congress subject headings promoted exclusionary, patriarchal views that centered whiteness and denigrated individuals, groups, causes and issues in many areas of focus which are contained in this guide. In recent years, the national and international efforts of librarians have led to a more positive shift in Library of Congress subject headings, but this continues to be a work in progress.
The assistance that Research Services staff provides is based on the catalog records and finding aids created by colleagues in the Manuscripts and Printed and Published Materials departments. The language used in the catalog records and finding aids has a direct impact on users in multiple ways.
Through direct interaction with library staff, a user could share concerns over descriptive practices/language; yet the opportunity to express their concerns is limited. This limitation is recognized not only by Schlesinger Library staff but by colleagues throughout the Harvard Library. Plans are currently in development to add more functionality to library systems (HOLLIS, HOLLIS for Archival Discovery) to provide users with easier feedback mechanisms. This would allow for a more direct/coordinated intake of information and a response.
Additionally, the language used in finding aids and catalog records is deeply incorporated in the library's research guides; catalog search instructions, Research, Teaching and Learning activities as well as the library’s online presence in the HRI website and social media. Colleagues' work to incorporate inclusive language will directly enhance access to and discovery of the library’s materials and the work to repair language will be made transparent.
Another area where Research Services staff see an opportunity to be more inclusive in language is on user registration forms and on online webforms. Fields have been introduced on the forms for users to indicate pronouns.
At the Schlesinger, curators are the main contact points for potential and existing donors. When talking with potential donors, curators describe the Library’s mission and values, as well as basic Library practices and procedures. Discussing descriptive practices is one part of building a donor’s understanding and trust around what collection stewardship at the Schlesinger encompasses.
In some cases, these initial donor conversations can be opportunities to gather information about how a donor self-identifies and would like to be described. Maintaining strong relationships with donors allows curators to continue to communicate on these topics, particularly when a donor’s self-identification may change over time. In addition, when curators do outreach to communities, alumnae, internal and external press, and Harvard faculty and students, the ability to ably discuss issues of naming and language is important. Working collaboratively with colleagues on such topics and being fluent in Schlesinger practices is an important part of curatorial work.
- Gathering information
Curators are in a unique position to initiate discussion about self-identity in the initial phase of building donor relations. This is especially important and informative when soliciting collections where race and ethnicity and/or sexuality and gender identity are central. Because of the Schlesinger Library’s stated commitment to expanding collections that document women of color, how we value and describe race and ethnicity should be transparent and part of the conversation with potential donors. Curators should consider the best way to formalize these conversations, with the recognition that this may change. In summer 2021, curators felt that having conversations in person was a preferred path to adding formal questions about racial and ethnic identity and sexual and gender identity to our donor questionnaire. This may change in the future as curatorial staff grows and creates new practices.
- Communicating description practices to donors
Not every conversation with a donor must include an explanation of controlled vocabulary, but it may be helpful to have these conversations, and to articulate our practices, e.g., “Mexican American women” is the official LC term, but we can use “Chicana” in our text descriptions (which will be discovered in a Hollis search). We want to be flexible enough to describe instances where donors reject the idea of “labels,” and we know that in many cases self-identity cannot be determined due to donor’s death or unavailability.
- Documenting and communicating internally
Current practice at Schlesinger is for curators to communicate information about preferred race and ethnicity (and other) descriptive terms for collection creators at the point of accession. Curators and archivists can discuss again when they meet to discuss more detailed processing of a collection.
For an existing collection (that was accessioned years ago), curators can also determine if a conversation with the donor or their heirs might be helpful to determine more about what terms to use to describe race and ethnicity.
If a collection is purchased from a dealer, and no contact with the creator can be initiated, curators should also offer suggestions to archivists based on their knowledge of related subjects and can help advise archivists on how to research race and ethnicity, for example, by using primary sources within the collection, public records that include annual census records, judicial records, etc. or secondary sources, such as biographies or articles. In some cases, a dealer may represent a creator’s race or ethnicity in a certain way that we cannot independently confirm, and curators and archivists can discuss together how to proceed.
Curators can examine past files to better understand what (if any) conversations with donors were had that might assist with reparative description. This might include information about how a donor referred to her race or ethnicity, or perhaps any internal notes about descriptive choices made in the past.
What You Will Find Here
The recommendations in the inclusive and reparative language guide align with Harvard’s core values statement and its EDIBA (equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging and anti-racism) initiatives. It reflects the ongoing guidance of the Shared Descriptive Practices Working Group at Harvard, our peers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University Archives, Countway Library, and repositories beyond Harvard, namely the University of North Carolina, Duke and Princeton Universities. Additionally, resources produced outside of Harvard have been particularly helpful in shaping this guide. For example, the recommendations from Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP) have proven especially useful. While this guide is divided into specific areas of focus, such as sections on LGBTQ+; Race and Ethnicity; Disability; Age and Ageism; etc., there are some general recommendations that can be made across all these issues. These general guidelines include:
--avoiding the use of the passive voice in description;
--avoiding valorizing collection creators;
--defaulting to terminology preferred by the creator, if known;
--researching current and appropriate terminology for different areas of identity;
--focusing on the humanity of the individual by employing people-first language;
--using direct language to describe violence, power relationships, racism, colonialism and other histories of oppression;
--explaining descriptive choices, when necessary, and documenting choices made.
Within the guide you will see many of these recommendations noted within the sections, along with a more detailed articulation of the issues involved, finding aid and catalog record examples from the Schlesinger Library that often reflect problematic description but also include examples of reparative work, and links to additional resources.
This guide marks the Schlesinger Library's initial phase of identifying areas which require more inclusive description. It is an evolving document that will require ongoing iterative work shaped by feedback from staff, end-users, community members, and record creators.
 Knowlton, Steven A. Three Decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A Study of Changes
in the Library of Congress Subject Headings
 Style Guide, University of North Carolina; Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP)
[i] Conscious and Inclusive Description, Joint Processing Guidelines at Harvard University