Potentially Harmful Materials and Descriptions Statement
Description is not neutral, nor are the individuals who create it. We approach collection description with the understanding that accuracy in language and description is at the core of treating the individuals and groups who create, use, and are represented in the collections we manage with dignity and respect. However, users may encounter harmful or offensive language or materials.
When processing (arranging, organizing, and describing) and cataloging and digitizing visual and archival materials and rare books, Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) staff must make choices about what language to use when describing not just the materials, but the people and organizations who created or who are represented in them. We recognize that some of our holdings are created by and/or represent marginalized groups of people, and we believe it is our responsibility not only to describe those people and organizations accurately and respectfully, but to do so in a way that will not be harmful or offensive.
However, many of our library catalog records and other online resources, which were created years or even decades ago, may well include harmful language or images. LCP is dedicated to revising and updating our descriptive language, but with thousands of library catalog records and online resources, this is ongoing and will take time.
Additionally, when processing new collections, we will occasionally re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the collection, either because it provides important context about the materials or because it is a way to make the collections available for research use more quickly. In book cataloging, it is a common practice for efficiency to re-use catalog records created by other libraries.
For cataloging, we follow the standard professional practice of using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and Library of Congress Thesaurus of Graphic Materials (LCTGM) subject headings for better searching in our library catalog. We are aware that some LCSH/LCTGM terms are outdated and harmful, and we are supporting the various efforts underway throughout the library and archives profession to update and change these terms.
When processing new archival collections, LCP staff follow guidelines to reduce the appearance of language that may be hurtful or harmful to some. These guidelines include the following actions:
- Actively weighing whether the efficiency or preservation of context from re-using or not remediating problematic and potentially offensive description is worth the impact it may have on users encountering that description.
- Clearly indicating (through use of quotation marks, notes, or other explanation) what language comes from an external source or is legacy/older description, and which was written by LCP staff.
- Researching how the community describes itself and its own histories, finding other institutions that have grappled with similar collections, and/or discussing the issue directly with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials.
- Favoring terms used by the communities and individuals in our collections and using people-first language. When creating new descriptions and updating old ones, we strive to use terms that communities and individuals used to describe themselves. If that is unclear, we will use people-first language (describing a trait as something a person has rather than who they are, for example, “a person with diabetes” instead of “a diabetic”). However, we acknowledge that this practice is not universally preferred. (For more about people-first language, see here.)
Potentially harmful language, however, may still appear. LCP staff are dedicated to balancing efficient and timely processing and cataloging, as well as preservation of original context, with an awareness of the importance of language and its effect on users of our materials and those represented within them. We recognize that we may not always make the right decision and welcome feedback so that we can learn and adjust our practices.
If you encounter language in Library Company finding aids, catalog records, digitized collections, blog posts, exhibitions, or elsewhere that you find offensive or harmful, or if you have questions about the statement above or about our work, we welcome your feedback. Please complete this feedback form.
This statement was adapted from those of Temple University Libraries, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Drexel University Library. It was last updated on 3-2-2021.