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Critical Cataloging and Archival Description

UW Libraries statement on harmful language in catalog records and archival finding aids
If you encounter language in UW Libraries catalog records, archival finding aids, or digital collections that you find offensive or harmful, or if you have questions about the statement below or our work, we welcome your feedback via this form or uwlib-critcat@uw.edu. We are committed to reviewing and updating harmful language in catalog records and archival finding aids as appropriate and feasible.

Introduction

Catalogers, metadata specialists, and archivists at the UW support the UW Libraries’ commitment to anti-racist work in sustaining diversity, creating an inclusive experience for our users, and confronting institutional bias and structural racism. We adhere to ideals embodied in our professional statements of values, ethics, and best practices, including the American Library Association’s Core Values of Librarianship and the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics. We acknowledge that our profession and workplace exist within the context of structural inequities and systems of oppression that can introduce conscious or unconscious biases into our individual work. We also acknowledge that our repositories and collections, our professional practices as librarians and archivists, and ourselves as individual practitioners are not “neutral”, despite long-standing perceptions otherwise.

Cataloging and archival description are key components of our work, providing essential information that enables our users to discover and access our information resources. However, as we describe and categorize materials, we inevitably communicate biases and judgments through our interpretations. For this reason, we are committed to taking a critical approach when making decisions about the language used to describe library resources in catalog records, archival finding aids, and digital collections metadata, especially for resources related to and/or created by marginalized communities, including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color); LGBTQIA; women; and working-class communities. As many of our catalog records and finding aids were created years or even decades ago, we are also committed to reviewing and updating these legacy descriptive resources when feasible to address outdated, harmful, and/or offensive language.

 

Cataloging Practice and Systems

The UW Libraries is privileged to be affiliated with global library networks and cataloging alliances which allow us to reuse and create high quality records that describe library resources. Unfortunately, due to complex system architecture, UW Libraries sometimes has limited abilities to make descriptive changes to our records:

  • The UW Libraries uses the OCLC WorldCat database as its bibliographic system of record. This means we use existing WorldCat catalog records to describe our library resources when possible, and also contribute original records directly into WorldCat as needed. OCLC WorldCat is a dynamic database where records may be changed at any time by any OCLC member library or by OCLC quality assurance processes.
  • As a member of the Orbis Cascade Alliance, the UW Libraries participates in consortial network-level cataloging in a shared implementation of our Alma library services platform to facilitate collaborative collection development and resource sharing. For resources that the Libraries holds, the most recent version of the OCLC WorldCat record will appear in Alma and show up in UW Search (the public-facing library catalog), even if we have not made changes to that record.
  • In addition, the Libraries utilizes knowledge bases containing bibliographic records contributed by publishers, vendors, or other libraries, most of which cannot be changed at the local level (this most often applies to electronic resources).

Consequently, records that appear in UW Search are collaboratively created and updated by many entities (UW Libraries, other libraries, publishers, vendors, etc.) over time and reflect the most current versions in their respective source databases. Thus, it can be challenging and sometimes impossible to change some descriptive metadata.

 

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)

For both library resources and archival collections, the Libraries follows the standard academic library practice of assigning Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for consistent, interoperable, and scalable searching by subjects in UW Search. The existence of biased, outdated, and problematic terminology in LCSH and other controlled vocabularies has been noted from within and outside the library and archives profession since at least the 1970s. However, the process to change a Library of Congress Subject Heading is complex, lengthy, not always successful, and can at times be politicized by external parties. The UW Libraries is actively involved in and supports the efforts underway throughout the profession to update and change LCSH terms to be more inclusive. We also support the creation and use of alternative controlled vocabularies, and partnering with communities to revise and enhance description of their resources and collections according to their preferences, knowledge, and practices.

 

Describing Archival Collections

When arranging and describing archival collections (primary source records created and/or collected by individuals, families, and organizations), archivists often retain the original description given by the collection’s creator in our finding aids because it is important for understanding the historical context in which the records were created. However, this means that this language may contain contemporary terminology that is now understood to be racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, misogynistic, ableist, or gender normative. The preferred terminology social groups use to refer to themselves has also shifted over time, so the descriptive terms used in our finding aids may conflict with current terminology used by communities. As well, no social group is a monolith, and some terms may be contested internally within communities themselves. When the decision is made to retain the historical context of original description containing harmful language, we strive to make this decision transparent by noting the origins of this description in the archival finding aid for that collection, such as adding supplemental updated terminology in editorial brackets within folder titles of collection inventories. We also critically consider whether preserving this description is truly necessary for understanding the collection.

 

Remediating Harmful Language in Cataloging and Archival Description

The UW Libraries is dedicated to remediating harmful and biased language in cataloging and archival description where appropriate and feasible. However, with our catalog records and finding aids numbering in the millions, retrospective review and remediation is technically difficult and time consuming, and in some cases simply not possible. The distributed networks that allow libraries and archives to benefit from collaborative resource description can be a barrier to remediating harmful descriptive language. In addition, as described above, the technical limitations of our complex system architecture can at times prevent remediation of harmful language in catalog records and finding aids at UW.

Revision of harmful or problematic terms is also a continuous and evolving process. As language continues to evolve, we will need to make additional revisions in the future. We will strive to address errors of problematic language on an ongoing basis, and welcome feedback from staff and users so that we can continue to learn and adjust our practices accordingly.

If you encounter language in UW Libraries catalog records, archival finding aids, or digital collections that you find offensive or harmful, or if you have questions about this statement or our work, we welcome your feedback via this form or uwlib-critcat@uw.edu.

 

Resources and Further Reading