Language Matters: Redressing Bias in Digital Collection Descriptions | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Language Matters: Redressing Bias in Digital Collection Descriptions

April 21, 2020
Photograph of an Alaska Native man, from the Sheldon Jackson Papers.

In honor of National Library Week (April 19-25), let’s take a look at the behind-the-scenes work PHS librarians and archivists are doing to address the legacy of outdated and offensive language in our collection descriptions.

You may have encountered images in Pearl, our digital library, with titles or descriptions that have taken you aback. (For examples, click here or here.) Why does PHS use such language to describe our digital objects? The answer is that, until recently, we used an item’s original title or caption--typically provided by the image’s creator or one of his/her contemporaries--in Pearl records. Retaining original, or what we sometimes call “legacy,” language is a principle of archival description: the words and phrases used in captions and titles, on folder labels or boxes, etc. reflect the people and organizations that created the material, and as such, offer insight into them and the world in which they lived.

Last year, however, several staff members attended a talk by Dr. Suse Anderson, then the Visiting Technologist at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, on the "Cultural Implications of Digital Technology." Dr. Anderson discussed the growing awareness among cultural institutions that our descriptive practices can reinforce bias and exclusion. Her comments inspired us to take a comprehensive look at our digital collections and redress offensive legacy language in our collection descriptions, as well as the collections themselves.


The Library of Congress Authorities, where you can browse and search subject headings.

We researched how other archives and libraries had approached the challenge of appropriately and responsibly handling offensive legacy language. Temple University Special Collections and Research Center’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging and Princeton University’s Statement on Language in Archival Description offered excellent policy models that acknowledge the white supremacist bias inherent in the words and images in our collections, and PHS has published our own statement regarding materials in Pearl.

But how do we get down to the work of changing descriptive practices? Do we create new titles and descriptions, thereby scrubbing history of its racist, sexist, or able-ist past in an effort to be responsible in the present? What terms do we use in place of offensive ones? Thankfully, here again, our library and archives community offered much guidance.

We began by searching the 15,000-plus Pearl records to build a list of offensive words and phrases--not a particularly pleasant task. These ranged from an outright offensive term for an Alaskan native to the quieter but still offensive use of "native" to describe any and all indigenous people --a move that erases a person’s particular ethnic or tribal identity.


Website of the Homosaurus.

We then researched what the appropriate and respectful replacement term would be. In some cases, this was relatively straightforward: "African American," for "negro," for instance. But other records proved more challenging. In many cases, a photograph or document doesn’t provide enough additional context to establish a specific ethnic or tribal identity for the people referenced in it. Furthermore, the Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH), the most heavily-adopted system of standardized terms for describing people and topics, are neither as nuanced nor up-to-date as we would like. This is in part a function of the LCSH’s age: the headings were first published in 1898. In the following decades, new subject headings were added, but only when something had been published, or archives collected, on a particular topic. Thus, the bias inherent in publishing and curatorial decisions is reiterated in the absence of subject headings about certain groups. Moreover, changes to existing headings were not permitted until the 1990s. Since then, we have seen “Africo-Americans” become "African Americans," "Handicapped" become "People with physical disabilities," and "Illegal aliens" become "Undocumented immigrants." But proposing and implementing changes to LCSH is a slow process, and shifts in cultural attitudes typically outpace changes to the headings.

Consequently, the library and archive community has developed workarounds for describing groups not well-represented by extant LCSH headings. The Homosaurus, for instance, is a "vocabulary of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) terms" designed to offer more specificity than "broad subject term vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings." Librarians have also developed alternate vocabularies for First people in Canada and Australian contexts. Even when no single, alternate vocabulary exists, as is the case with Native Americans / American Indians, we are animated by a people-first approach, which seeks to use a group’s own name for itself when describing its members.

A description of an image from the Sheldon Jackson Papers, before and after edits to redress offensive language.

At PHS, we are documenting these crosswalks from offensive legacy language to inclusive, equitable terms, and have shared this list in Pearl. We encourage you to check it out, especially as knowledge of older terminology may be useful when you are searching for digital materials. This list will guide our work as we catalog new materials in Pearl: items with insensitive legacy titles or descriptions will have new titles/descriptions supplied, but the original language will be retained in the record for historical perspective. When Library of Congress subject headings are insufficient, we will add additional non-LCSH headings as needed.

As you can imagine, there is a significant amount of editing that needs to be done on existing records. We are making good use of our Covid-19 “quarantime” to chip away at this backlog and welcome your input on this process. If you have knowledge about a particular collection or group, or if you encounter language in our Digital Collections that you find offensive or harmful, please contact us so that we can learn and adjust our practices.