Date of last review: September 2021

Date of next review: September 2022

The Digital Collections Services department is responsible for assisting in the curation, access and preservation of digital special collections including archival collections. We are committed to upholding the description of archival materials and special collections in a respectful and accurate manner while maintaining the historical context of the collections we manage. However, the materials we describe are not neutral. Users may encounter offensive, harmful, or otherwise outdated language in archival materials and special collections. Indiana University collects and makes freely available materials from hundreds of collections. Language and its cultural context are always changing, and so are our methods of description. 

While most of our finding aids and special collections are created by staff, some reflect language that the people and organizations who created the material used. It is standard practice to maintain the description used by the creator/donor of archival materials. Language used in the original historical materials can tell us a lot about the materials. With that said, we are committed to updating language that is in our control to edit. We pledge to reflect the values of the IU Libraries Mission Statement and Diversity Strategic Plan in future description. Please use the harmful language report form to report offensive material and/or description found in archival or special collections.

Frequently asked questions:

  • What harmful language and content may be found in Indiana University digital special collections materials? 

    • Indiana University is home to many archival repositories across 7 campuses. These materials include print, manuscripts, auditory, audiovisual, and born-digital collections. Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist, and otherwise discriminatory attitudes can be found in some historical records, including transcripts. 

    • Visual, auditory, and audiovisual material may include harmful language, violence or otherwise disturbing content.

  • Why does Indiana University make potentially harmful content available? 

    • Sometimes we retain archival materials that contain harmful language or content because they have significant historical value. Contact collection managers for more information about their collection policies and practices.

  • How is this material described, and why are some of the terms used in the descriptions harmful? 

    • We use controlled vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), to enhance discoverability while searching our collections. Name authorities are a powerful tool to link similar content and limit variations of single terms. However, words change faster than name authorities are updated. Indiana University does not have direct control over the language used in these naming authorities. However, we support efforts made to update them. We also actively participate in and pursue controlled vocabularies created by the communities that are being described.

    • Additionally, some Indiana University collections were processed decades ago. We recognize that it is important to revisit collections that require updated description. With hundreds of collections, this is a gradual process. We welcome you to help us review collections by reporting any instance of harmful language using the harmful language reporting form

  • How are librarians and archivists working to address this problem and help users better understand such content?

    • Collaborating with community partners to research how communities describe themselves.

    • Supporting efforts to update controlled vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings. 

    • Prioritizing revision of potentially harmful description.

    • Continuing our own education on issues of bias and de-centering whiteness in metadata practices.

  • How can I report harmful content?

    • You can help us address this issue by using our harmful language reporting form

    • Once submitted, we will forward your report to the appropriate collection manager who will assess if actions must be taken according to their collection policy, IU Libraries’ Mission Statement, and Diversity Strategic Plan. Reporting an item does not guarantee that it will be taken down or edited. If you provide an e-mail address in your report, a collection manager may follow up about actions taken.

While there are no current national archival standards for remediating harmful language, we took the lead outlined in the following literature:

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. “Anti-Racist Description Resources.” Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia. October 2019. 

“DPLA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content.” Digital Public Library of America.
https://dp.la/about/harmful-language-statement 

Michelle Caswell, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 87, no. 3, July 2017. 

Society of American Archivists. “Statement of Principles” Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). 

“SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging.” Temple University Libraries, June 26, 2019. https://library.temple.edu/policies/scrc-statement-on-potentially-harmful-language-in-archival-description-and-cataloging