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Equitable Archival Practice at Kennedy Library

*Much of the works in this section are adapted from Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine: Policies and Procedures Manual. They are cited as (Harvard)


Description and identification are central to the work done by archivists processing new materials and editing existing metadata. When identifying people(s) of an underrepresented group or minority or identity, it is best practice to use person-first language (Harvard). As in, describe the person before the thing used to identify them. (The example below comes from my personal work on an archival project, not from the official repository. It is meant to show an example of how I have utilized this language)


For example:

Hiram Davis served as the Dean of Library Services at Cal Poly from 1996-2006. A San Luis Obispo native, Dr. Davis served in a variety of library leadership roles at multiple academic institutions over a span of 30 years. He was the first Black person appointed deputy librarian of Congress.


When developing a description of materials that have human subjects, do not assume the title or gender of the person in the source unless explicitly stated by the donor or source. Refer to the person by their name. Avoid the use of gendered titles such as Mr./Mrs./Ms./Mx (Harvard). Also, if one or more people are included in the source, do not assume their relationship to each other unless it is stated. While it might seem inconsequential, it is important that we respect the materials given to us to preserve and this includes not making assumptions about the realities of other people when it is not explained by them or those close to them.

In the same vein, do not assume the racial or ethnic identity of a person, either in the materials or the donor of the materials, unless explicitly stated. In certain instances, the racial or ethnic identity of the subject or donor will be central to the source and provided. As in, the source might pertain to a person, place, or event that is culturally specific. If this is the case, it makes sense to include this as a form of contextualization. If the language chosen to describe the subject or donor is antiquated, provide a note or parenthetical description of the intention of leaving the language or an updated version of the terminology provided by the original owner. Racial and gendered terminology are ever evolving, and we must work to be conscientious and considerate of the words we have chosen to describe people, places, and things in our archive.


Broader Context

When working on a collection of materials, it is important to understand the broader context of the collection as to provide an accurate description. Because Cal Poly is a historically white institution, the history we have preserved has been written by and for white people, more specifically white men.  For example, when describing materials related to the absence of women on Cal Poly’s campus in the early 20th century, we must provide context as to why they were barred in the first place. Women did not magically disappear from Cal Poly’s campus. It was not their fault they were barred from campus, but the misogynistic attitudes of the people in power at that time that did not allow them to attend.

These suggestions are all hypothetical, as the description process can vary widely between projects and between archives staff. However, it is important to be diligent in our language and description practices in order to be more equitable and inclusive.


 Conscious Editing of Archival Description at UNC-Chapel Hill by Jackie Dean