Melissa J. Nelson : Making Description Remediation Visible
The Archives of Ontario is the largest provincial archive in Canada. However, many of our records were created and collected through extractive colonial processes. Our collections are incomplete — there are omissions, erasures, and silences. This has caused a lot of harm and contributed to mistrust in our institution. Over the last few years, the Archives has shifted its focus to breaking down barriers and building trust. Our goal is to collect, preserve, promote, and provide access to records that document Ontario in all its diversity.
We are working to amplify the voices and stories of communities who have been underrepresented in our practice. Historical records sometimes contain language that is colonial and racist. Past descriptive practices have not always used accurate or community-preferred language, resulting in descriptions that are not easily discoverable. Our Description Remediation Team has been repairing descriptions, and in the process, excavating the presence of marginalized groups in our archives. We include respectful, community-preferred language to minimize harm and improve the findability of these records. I am part of this team, and I provide leadership on the remediation of descriptions for anti-Black archival materials.
I was aware of the violence of the archives — the violence captured within the records and the violence against Black researchers who have to search for hidden archival materials by using derogatory language. Black presence in historical archives is often captured and described by white people. In many cases, the work to locate Black people in the archives necessitates searching for white people first.
I realized there was a need to make this description remediation work visible to support researchers and help direct them to relevant records. I developed our “Records Relating to Black Communities in Ontario Research Guide.” This guide provides respectful keywords that can be used when searching in our collection. It also lists Black records that have been identified in our holdings. The guide is divided into three sections: private records created and collected by Black individuals, Ontario Government records that document community-government interactions, and records related to slavery and freedom. A list of institutions and community archives is also provided to support further research within Ontario.