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Statement on Harmful Content in Archival Collections

If you encounter any harmful or offensive language or content in Drexel University archival collections on this website, in our finding aids, or in our digitized collections in iDEA, please contact us at archives@drexel.edu. Please also contact us if you have any questions or suggestions about this statement. It is a work in progress, and we welcome feedback.

Drexel University archivists are taking the following steps to address offensive language and content in our archival collections:

  1. Updating old collection descriptions. Drexel University Archives staff strive to use respectful and accurate language to describe all our historical materials. However, we acknowledge that language, conventions, and archival best practices are always changing, and that language that was considered acceptable by archivists in the past is sometimes no longer adequate or appropriate. When we discover unacceptable language in collection descriptions, we will update them to remove any language that could harm researchers or that is offensive to the people being described.
  2. Flagging historical materials that contain offensive or harmful language or images. Some materials in collections may contain offensive language or imagery. In the interests of historical integrity, we are not removing these images or words from archival materials, but we will provide a note about these contents in the item’s description. This may be a note in the description of a digitized item, or a line in a collection guide that you would read before requesting access to an item in person. We do this so that researchers may decide for themselves if they wish to view an item knowing it has potentially harmful content.
  3. Retaining harmful language in collection descriptions when it is has great historic value. Sometimes we retain offensive or harmful terms in collection descriptions for historical accuracy or to document the issues and social context of a specific time and the attitudes and opinions of the people who created the material. Some situations where this might occur are:
    • Organization names that include outdated terms (for example, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
    • An individual identifying themselves by a term that is no longer favored by people within that group
    • Title or language from a published book, article, film, or song.

    We will sometimes retain language from original historical documents in collection descriptions when it provides additional value; although we always try to clearly indicate (through quotation marks) which language is from an historical source and which language comes from Drexel University Archives. 

  4. 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.)

If you have any questions about this statement or about language used elsewhere in our online materials, please contact us at archives@drexel.edu.

Additional resources:

For library and archives professionals interested in doing similar work, we encourage you to read the annotated bibliography found in the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s “Anti-Racist Description Resources,” linked below. This resource focuses on race and racism in archival collection descriptions, but the bibliography covers many related issues of representation in the archives.

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, “Anti-Racist Description Resources” October 2019
The first part of this guide is intended for archivists who want to remove racist and other harmful language from their collection descriptions, but is also helpful for researchers and members of the public who want to learn more about the work archives are doing around this issue. It includes an extensive bibliography that will be of great interest to other archivists and librarians who want to do similar work, although some resources are behind paywalls or require subscriptions.

Dominique Luster, “Archives Have the Power to Boost Marginalized Voices,” TEDxPittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, June 2018
This 8-minute TED talk from archivist Dominique Luster is an excellent overview of why representation in archival collections is important and how archives can interact with and support the communities they represent.

Sam Winn, “The Hubris of Neutrality in Archives,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, Newark, NJ, April 2017

This presentation from an archives conference uses some academic language and archives jargon, but provides a thorough explanation of why archivists should pay close attention to the language they use to describe historical materials.