Statement on Harmful Language in Collections | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Statement on Harmful Language in Collections

The Presbyterian Historical Society's overarching mission to collect, preserve, and share a complete and honest story of the American Presbyterian experience guides our descriptive practices. We acknowledge that some of the description and content of the society’s collections contains racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and other offensive language and imagery that is harmful toward marginalized communities. We also acknowledge that we may have erased and misrepresented the lived experiences of marginalized communities through omission and under-description of our collections.

We openly reject these biased views, which do not reflect the views of the Presbyterian Historical Society or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At the same time, we recognize that these viewpoints illustrate some of the social mindsets and perspectives of their time, and that such stories cannot be erased when providing a truthful history. We do not intend to hide any aspects of our collections, and we believe in the importance of fostering access to our resources in a responsible and transparent way. It is our responsibility to make our collections user-friendly and accessible to a diverse audience while serving as conscientious stewards of an often-complicated history. To this end, the staff is working towards mitigating harm by correcting harmful and offensive language in the description of our collections.

Harmful and offensive language may appear in collection description found in our catalogs, databases, archival guides, and digital collections for various reasons, including:

  • Most of our collection description was created decades ago. Preferred terms change over time and outdated terms in many of our records and guides have not yet been updated. 
  • Library of Congress Subject Headings are used across all our records and guides to enhance discovery. Some of these headings are outdated, insensitive, and offensive. Additionally, some concepts related to the experiences of marginalized communities are missing or have not yet been formally adopted. Changes to Library of Congress Subject Headings are slow because requests must go through an extensive review and approval process. Some changes can only be accomplished through legislative action.  
  • Archival collection guides contain narrative sections written by archivists that provide administrative histories and biographical information about the collections’ creators, as well as scope and content information about the material and topics. While guided by professional archival standards, the archivist’s subjectivity, personal biases, and worldviews inevitably affect the way this description is written. In some cases, this is evident through idealized descriptions of white creators and the perpetuation of colonialism and white supremacy.
  • Archival collection guides also contain descriptions supplied by collections’ creators. Creator-supplied description is mostly found within the collection inventory section of collection guides. This section lists the arrangement of folder titles and specific items within archival boxes and containers. Creator-supplied description also exists in the form of captions accompanying photographs and audio-visual material and titles of publications and manuscripts. In some cases, the distinction between staff-written and creator-provided description is unclear. 

To remedy these problems, staff have begun the ongoing process of reviewing our collection guides, bibliographic records, image captions, and subject headings to identify places where we have used harmful language, euphemistic tones, and biased narratives. Where harmful language is identified, we will rewrite existing description, add important contextual information, and supplement existing subject terms with alternative controlled vocabularies and terminology crosswalks. We will also use this experience to revise our current policies to include guidelines for writing explicitly anti-oppressive description that more closely aligns with how the subjects of our collections describe themselves. We acknowledge that in describing our collections we often describe communities that we are not members of ourselves. We recognize our responsibility to describe our collections with care and respect, and that we may sometimes fail in our efforts. For that reason, we are committed to a process of reflection, improvement, and review, recognizing that this work is complex and ongoing.

If you discover harmful or offensive language in our catalogs, databases, digital collections, and collection guides please email us so that we can learn and adjust our practices. We greatly welcome and value your concerns regarding this statement and input for alternative descriptive language. We are committed to handling all requests with professional discretion.  

This statement has been adapted and expanded from that of Emory University Libraries and the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.