Anti-Racism and Archival Description Work

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by Krista McCracken

In May as part of the Archives Association of Ontario conference I was able to participate in a workshop on Anti-Oppressive Description and Re-Description Workshop. Facilitated by Aaron Hope, Catherine Falls, Renee Saucier, and Danielle Robichaud, this workshop discussed records which contain racist, sexist or other discriminatory content and potential ways archivists can call out problematic materials in archives.

I’m really grateful for the space this workshop provided to dig into archival challenges and share ongoing work around re-description. In archival practice typically archival materials are only described once. This means that records researchers encounter may have been described decades ago by a staff member. Language changes and how we interact with and interpret records can also change. Archival re-description has become a more common practice.

Likewise, there has been a growing practice of archivists calling out racism in their records and acknowledging the potential harm of historical racist language. This sometimes looks like including content warnings about racial slurs, notes about blackface, or similar contextual notes. It can also look like new descriptive notes or new titles being added to existing records, to fill in contextual information that may have been missing from the original description. For example, records that were labeled as “John Smith and Wife” may have a new description added reading “John Smith and Jane Smith.” 

How archivists interpret materials impacts findability, access, and researcher use of those records. The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group created recommendations for archival professionals called the Anti-Racist Description Resources. I recommend reading the entire document as it offers a lot of specific suggestions around archival practice and anti-racist work. Some of the high level recommendations that have resonated most with me include:

  • Use objective voice in description and avoid using passive voice 
  • Use accurate and strong language such as lynching, rape, murder, and hate mail when they are appropriate. 
  • Describe relationships of power when they are important for understanding the context of records.
  • Describe records in a way that supports communities, not just academics

Some other examples of re-descriptive work in practice include the University of Waterloo Special Collections & Archives Language in Archival Description Changes statement and the Princeton University Library Statement on Language in Archival Description. Both of these statements note how institutions are approaching archival re-description and call out the offensive content in their archives.    

Re-description work is anti-racist work. Re-description work can reshape relationships communities have to archival materials and change the ways that archives are accessed and used. Unsurprisingly, I am strongly in support of doing this work. 

However, I am wondering what my historical colleagues think of this approach to archival practice. Many of the conversations about archival re-description have been happening in archival literature, at archival conferences, and in circles which do not often intersect with historians. This is an important conversation that I think merits discussion beyond archival practice and I would welcome dialogue from users of archives, historians, and others. Have you interacted with records that have been described? Have you come across contextual notes or warnings in your research? How has that impacted your approach to accessing archival material? 

Krista McCracken is the Interim Director at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie. They are an editor at Active History.

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