This article is part of our Library Stories of Equity in Action series. These posts share how UMKC Libraries employees, departments, and teams are working toward change within our organization. See more of the Library Stories of Equity in Action series under News & Events on our Equity Initiatives page.
A library, archive, museum, or other special collection has a reach that spans decades and often centuries of time in the materials it collects, curates, and preserves for researchers. As time moves forward so do societal understandings and attitudes. What was done in the past is now shown to contain harmful depictions, language, and attitudes toward people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ folx and other peoples regarded as “other” by the white content creators. Even the way those materials were previously described and cataloged can reflect biases from past attitudes.
We are engaging in the difficult but necessary work of recognizing white privilege and biases in our institution and profession and how this shows in our day-to-day work and activities. We came to understand that many groups (based on race, sex, gender identity, ethnic origins, LGBTQIA+ status, etc.) have been and still are marginalized, trivialized, ignored, and excluded. They have been subject to bias, discrimination, and violence that are reflected in the content of collection materials themselves and in the language we as librarians and archivists have used to describe them. Harmful language is any language that includes and continues such discriminatory views, actions, words, attitudes, etc. It may be present in the source material itself or be present as a result of descriptive practices from librarians and archivists such as discriminatory subject headings, collection descriptions with outdated language or terms, etc. We realized that many items in our collections contain harmful language and images in the content itself. Some examples include:
- Sheet music featuring cover art with quite racist depictions of African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and Irish immigrants
- Radio transcription discs of WWII era news broadcasts often contain ethnic slurs against the Germans and Japanese peoples
- Photos of minstrel shows and performers in blackface
- Attitudes and language found in primary sources such as diaries, journals, and letters
We wanted to publicly acknowledge our awareness of such material in our collections and also to show that we had an ongoing process in place for changing what could be changed where possible and also to warn people using our collections ahead of time that they may encounter such language or images. We decided that the best way to do this was for us to create a Harmful Content Statement to present to people using our collections. The statement came from our growing understanding of the power of words, inclusion, exclusion, etc. in our day-to-day practices.
In late 2020 we formed a team comprised of staff members responsible for describing, cataloging, and presenting our collections. Our task was to create a Harmful Content Statement, determine where it would be placed for the public to see, establish a means for people to report harmful content they encountered to the team, and finally design a process for responding and acting on those reports.
As librarians, of course we began our work by researching what other libraries had done. We really liked the statement published by the Digital Public Library of America. So with their permission, we based our statement on what they had done, making changes that seemed more appropriate to our library. We also looked at other institutions’ statements. We decided to create two texts. The first is the full statement. The second is a shorter statement designed to be placed on web pages library users might visit, and would direct people to the full statement as well as provide a reporting link.
Our opening paragraph was our attempt at defining, broadly, what is meant by “harmful content”. We recognize that what might be deemed harmful language or content can change over time, so we tried to use language in our statement that allows for these changes without the need to update it.
In 2021, we completed the statement and added it to our website and other public-facing platforms. We hope that our Harmful Content Statement will make our users aware of problematic content in our collections and show that we acknowledge the damaging language and other content, that we are not an indifferent, uncaring institution, but a partner with the wider community in creating a more just research space.
The full statement may be read on our website here: Harmful Content in Library and Archives Collections. An example of the short statement can be found on the Special Collections and Archives Finding Aids.
By: Garth Tardy, Metadata Librarian, Cataloging and Metadata Management, Special Collections & Archives Division