Problematic Language in Archival Description

Statement of Acknowledgement

Western Archives and Special Collections endeavours to make our archival holdings discoverable and accessible to researchers. Archivists provide context for collections and description of their contents in finding aids and catalogue records. Archival records may contain offensive, outdated language in their titles and descriptions, and/or may depict individuals or groups, particularly those who are marginalized, in a negative way. Maintaining these records, and making them available as widely as possible, is important to help understand the historic and continued burdens faced by members of marginalized communities.

Archival description, and the entire archival process, from appraisal to access, are not neutral and are subject to the biases of everyone involved, from the creators of the records to the staff describing them. Some descriptions may contain language created by archivists decades ago or may re-use description from the creator of the materials. Due to this practice, racist or other offensive terminologies may appear in our descriptions.

We acknowledge that language and identities change over time, and thus we know this is a continuous process, both in our own learning and the outputs of that learning. We commit to work on updating archival descriptions to name instances of discrimination, contextualize records, and use descriptive language that is more respectful of the people and events represented. We will preserve previous descriptions for context and research purposes.

We welcome your help and feedback to improve our practices, as we review legacy descriptions and enhance metadata. If you encounter harmful language or inaccurate descriptions in our finding aids, catalogues, exhibitions, or digital collections or if you have questions about our work, please email or complete this form.

This position statement draws on the work of many others, including Western Libraries' Statement of Acknowledgement of Problematic Language in the Library Catalogue, the Toronto Metropolitan University Archives and Special Collections statement on Language in Archival Descriptions, and the Harvard Library statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description.