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Archival Processing: DEI Description Guidelines

A guide to processing archival collections

Introduction - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Description Guidelines

“Social contexts, individual and institutional biases, and structures of power influence how records are created, maintained, represented, and interpreted. Archival description plays a role in the representation of records – it shapes whether and how collections are discovered, navigated, and understood. Archivists decide, for example, which names and subjects will be included or omitted in description, and what language is used to represent and contextualize those subjects” (Lellman).

These guidelines were first written in 2020 by Matt Kruse (Processing Archivist), Nelissa Caraballo-Ramos (Bilingual Processing Archivist), and Steve Hersh (GRR Public and Support Services Assistant) with input and collaborative support from other UF library staff. This document was originally conceived as part of an effort to re-examine the description of our legacy finding aids in an effort to make them more inclusive and accessible to researchers, while still maintaining their original historical context and integrity. As part of this project it was determined that we should also look to improve the description of future finding aids by developing a set of written guidelines to inform and train future archives staff and student workers when describing collections.

The guidelines outlined in this document are based on scholarly research and guidelines created by other archival institutions. We have listed citations pointing to works cited and additional resources below. We especially owe thanks to Charlotte G. Lellman’s Policies and Procedures Manual guidelines for the Harvard Center for the History of Medicine on inclusive description, which have formed the basis for much our document’s content and structure.

We recognize that language is constantly evolving and represents worldviews, ideologies and perspectives of a particular time. As such, these guidelines are a living document and seeks to create language that is inclusive, respectful and culturally aware of the individuals, groups and communities that are represented in our collections.

Identity & Naming

  • When describing a person who is part of an underrepresented group based on race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship, disability, or other identity use People-first language (PFL) (A4BLIP, Lellman). This means avoiding using labels or adjectives to define someone. The intention being that someone is seen first as a person and only secondarily as a person with a trait.
    • Example:
    • “A black man named John Smith” becomes “John Smith, a Black man”

  • When using terms to identify a person’s identity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity marker, make an effort to conduct some research and use the terms preferred by the person or group being described, if you are not sure on individual preference, use the most common relevant terms (See link to terms spreadsheet).
    • Example:
    • Use “Black” or “African American” instead of “negro” or “colored”

  • Capitalize the word “Black”. The capitalization of “Black” gives visibility to people of African origins with shared experiences and histories in the United States and around the world. (Coleman) 
    • Example:
    • “A group of black students held a meeting to discuss the logistics of a conference” becomes “A group of Black students held a meeting to discuss the logistics of a conference”

  • When using terms to describe Native American and Indigenous communities try to include the specific name the nation/tribe/community use to identify themselves wherever possible. (Geraci, Hanover and Shein) Also, be sure to capitalize the words “Native American” and “Indigenous.”
    • Example:
    • “Indians of Florida” becomes “Seminole Tribe of Florida”, “Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida”

  • Do not use titles like Mr./Mrs./Ms., unless it clarifies the identity of someone whose first name is unknown. Instead utilize their full first and last name (Lellman).
    • Example:
    • “Mrs. Spencer” becomes “Jane S. Spencer”

  • Utilize gender-neutral language that avoids bias towards a particular sex or social gender such as with roles or professions that have historically been attributed to certain genders like firemen or policemen. Also avoid the use of specific pronouns like he, him, her, and his to refer to people of unknown or indeterminate gender (Larade and Pelletier).
    • Example:
    • “firemen” becomes “firefighters” and “policemen” becomes “police officers”
    • “he or she” and “s/he” becomes “they”

  • When using FAST Subject Headings consider if the relevant subject heading is harmful or pejorative. Consider using a locally-devised heading instead. Remember to explain your choice in the processing note (A4BLIP, Albright).
    • Examples:
    • The term “Undocumented immigrants” may be preferable to the existing FAST term “Illegal aliens”

  • In cases where you are utilizing existing collection language that may not be generally preferred by members of an identity group today (such as language directly provided by the creator or written on folders) be sure to document your efforts. Do NOT simply delete or replace words as this could destroy valuable historical information and context for a researcher. Instead, make an effort to add the current equivalent term in brackets (A4BLIP, Lellman).

    • Example:
    • Colored [African American], 1940 (Spessard L. Holland Papers, processed by John R. Nemmers)

  • In cases where problematic language is present in formal/given proper titles/names such as report titles, article titles, plays, movies, books, magazine names, names of symposia, organizations, etc. do NOT alter the language. Instead add bracketed comments/replacement language afterwards or as part of the context in the collection level/series notes.
    • Example:
    • “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)”

  • Be sure to document your actions by providing an explanatory note in the scope note and/or processing note to clarify any changes you have made and to provide additional context for language that you retained. The sample statement below may be used and/or modified as appropriate:

    • Recognizing that historical terms do not always completely or directly map to contemporary terms, that historical terms can be offensive or inaccurately describe a person or group, and that the presence of both historical and contemporary terms may be useful for researcher discovery, the archivist has attempted to employ historical terms as they appear in the context of the collection in the description, along with contemporary terms in brackets. Copies of the finding aid with the original language have been retained for historical record. (Lellman)

Recognition, Language, & Power

  • Refrain from using overly aggrandizing and flowery language, especially based on a creator’s family relationships or reputation. Ask yourself if your language is there to provide context for better understanding a collection or solely to justify the creator’s stature and the value of the collection to the university. Recognizing that neutrality in archival description is a myth, at the same time, strive to avoid value judgments and leave interpretation to the researcher. This does not mean you cannot convey the impact of someone’s work, as this is important for contextualizing the records, but it should be done by factually illustrating the work they have done rather than the archivist’s interpretation. Rely instead on listing major honors and awards received or citing directly from biographical sources to convey impact or significance (A4BLIP, Lellman).
    • Example:
    • “Charles Babbage, referred to as the ‘father of the computer’ (citation)”

  • Describe the subjects of the records as well as the creators. For instance, when working with enslavement records be sure to include the full names for those enslaved as well as the enslavers whenever possible. (A4BLIP, Foreman)

  • Describe “hidden” creators, such as spouses, secretaries, or students where possible (A4BLIP, Lellman).

  • Refrain from using terms such as “developing countries”, “first, second and third world countries” to describe countries as they normalize white Eurocentric worldviews. (Masta)

Audience & Accessibility

  • Refrain from the use of specialized jargon and instead use clear and direct language so as not to exclude people outside scientific/academic communities and novice researchers. (A4BLIP, Lellman)
    • Examples:
    • The collection contains professional and personal correspondence […] chronicling his research on insulin therapy and chemical disorders, including lysergic acid diethylamide commonly known as LSD. (Max Rinkel papers, processor unknown) (Example from Lellman)

  • Use simple and straightforward formatting, for instance, a bulleted list in cases where it is easier to read than a block of text (Lellman).

Works Cited

Anti-Racist Description Resources---. Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working group, Oct. 2019, (Cited above as “A4BLIP”)

Lellman, Charlotte G. “Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description.” Center for the History of Medicine: Policies & Procedures Manual. Harvard University, July 6, 2020, Accessed August 3, 2020. (Cited above as “Lellman”)

Masta, Stephanie. “Disrupting Colonial Narratives in the Curriculum.” Multicultural Perspectives, vol. 18, no. 4, 2016, pp. 185–191. (Cited above as “Masta)

Geraci, N., Hanover L., and Shein, C. “Practicing Inclusive Archival Description”. Society of California Archivists Annual General Meeting Long Beach, California. April 24-27, 2019, Accessed August 7, 2020. (Cited above as Geraci, Hanover and Shein)

Larade, Sharon, and Johanne Pelletier. “Mediating in a Neutral Environment: Gender-Inclusive or Neutral Language in Archival Descriptions” Archivaria, 35 (1992): 99-109, (Cited above as Larade and Pelletier)

Albright, Charlotte. “’Change the Subject’: A Hard-Fought Battle Over Words” Dartmouth News, April 22, 2019, Accessed August 3, 2020. (Cited above as “Albright”)

P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” community-sourced document, Accessed August 3, 2020. (Cited above as “Foreman”)

Coleman, Nancy. “Why We’re Capitalizing Black”. The New York Times, July 20, 2020, Accessed March 11,2020. (Cited above as “Coleman”)

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