Harmful Content in Library and Archives Collections

The UMKC Libraries includes materials by and about people of many races, ethnicities, national origins, religious beliefs, sexualities, gender identities, and disabilities. Historically, members of these groups have been subject to bias, discrimination, and violence that is reflected in the content of collection materials themselves and in the language we as librarians and archivists have used to describe them. UMKC Libraries are actively working to assess and correct the latter throughout our catalog records, finding aids, and other sources of information. The ways we use language and our understanding of the harms it has caused continues to change, so this will necessarily be an ongoing and iterative process.

Where does this content come from and why is it in the collections?

The UMKC Libraries, Special Collections and Archives strive to collect and preserve materials representing a complete historical record through purchases and donations. In addition to materials owned by UMKC, we make materials available from thousands of libraries, special collections and archives around the world. The collections, built over decades, reflect the biases of the times, as well as the biases of the donors at the time they were acquired. These materials may also include records created by, or depicting, marginalized groups of people.

How is this material described, and why are some of the terms used in the description potentially harmful?

To enable searching of material by subject, UMKC often uses standardized vocabulary lists such as Library of Congress Subject Headings to systematize searches in our catalogs. Some of these terms are outdated and could be harmful or insensitive. Some descriptions lack authorized terms to accurately capture the experiences of marginalized people and communities, or people from non-Western countries. In addition, Librarians and archivists often re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the material. This can provide important context, but can also reflect biases and prejudices, using language that was accepted at the time but fail to address the complexities of globalization, colonization, and alienated populations. In certain cases the language, content and/or images that accompany the items and the items themselves may include offensive content, language and descriptions that were considered acceptable at the time, reveal the societal or personal bias of the times, or may have been accepted at the time of accession as the language of the donor or owner.

How are librarians and archivists working to address this problem and help users better understand this content?

The Libraries now try to balance the use of historical terms which provide context, but which are also accurate and respectful. This is an ongoing process of:

  • Working directly with misrepresented and underrepresented communities to improve the ways they are represented.
  • Informing users about the presence and origin of harmful content.
  • Revising descriptions and standardized sets of descriptive terms, such as Library of Congress Subject Headings, supplementing description with humanizing and identity or person-first terms, or creating new standardized terms to describe materials.
  • Researching the problem, listening to users, experimenting with solutions, and sharing our findings with each other.

We retain harmful or offensive content and language for historical accuracy or to document the issues, social context, and attitudes of the material’s creators. Some situations where this might occur include publication titles, names of organizations which contain outdated terms, and an individual’s use of self-identifying terms that are no longer favored by people within that group.

Contacting the library about harmful content

We seek to understand and improve the experiences of people who access and interact with harmful content within our collections, web pages or records that describe materials in our collections. You can help us with this process by emailing the library to:

  • Report harmful content in our collections or collection descriptions
  • Ask questions about why we make harmful content accessible or use harmful language in our collection descriptions
  • Describe your experience in using harmful content in our collections or collection descriptions

This statement has been prepared, with kind permission, using the model published by the Digital Public Library of America.

For questions about this policy, call (816) 235-1531 or email umkcula@umkc.edu.

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Case dimensions: 5’ long x 30” wide x 9” high sitting atop 3’ legs

Glass exhibit table


The First Floor Gallery is located just inside the main entrance of the Miller Nichols Library.

Wall with exhibit content

Conference Room 325

Located on the Third Floor of Miller Nichols Library. For access, enter the library at the north ground floor entrance or the west first floor entrance. Then take the stairs or the elevator to the third floor..

Map of third floor of Miller Nichols Library