Potentially Harmful Language and Content

CSUSM University Library Statement on Potentially Harmful Language and Content in our Records and Resources

Libraries and archives are actively engaged in robust professional conversations about how best to handle offensive and/or harmful content, as well as its description in our catalog records. Our approach to such language and content is outlined below.

Offensive and Harmful Content in our Holdings

The University Library’s general collections and archival and manuscript holdings may contain resources that its community could find offensive and/or harmful. Historical records can, and often do, contain content that illustrates a harmful, stereotyped, and/or offensive outlook towards people of color, people that identify as LBGTQ, people with disabilities, and people from other marginalized communities.

The University Library does not condone any harmful and offensive content that may be found in our collections, and we have a strong belief in and commitment to furthering social justice causes. Part of this commitment includes stewarding our resources in a way that will be as respectful to our community, especially those who have experienced acts of violence, hate, and aggression. We also believe in providing a comprehensive view of our community and University history, and in facilitating access to resources in our holdings as equally and equitably as possible.

By preserving historical documentation and ensuring equal and equitable access, we can help engender the research fundamental to furthering important national conversations about social justice and hopefully affect some important changes in our community.

Offensive and Harmful Language in our Records

When processing (arranging, organizing, and describing) archival collections, and cataloging books and other resources, University Library staff must make choices about what language to use when describing not just the books, papers, and records, but the people and organizations who created or who are represented in them. We recognize that many of our materials are created by and/or represent marginalized groups of people, and we believe it is our responsibility not only to describe people and organizations accurately and respectfully, but to do so in a way that will not be harmful or offensive.

For both archival collections and books, we follow the standard practice of using nationally developed standards for better searching and retrieval in our library catalog, finding aids, and digital resources. We are aware that some terminology, for example, terms used in Library of Congress Subject Headings, is outdated and harmful, and we are supporting the various efforts underway throughout the library and archives profession to update and change these terms. In 2019, CSU Libraries changed the subject headings “aliens” and “illegal aliens” to “noncitizens” and “undocumented immigrants” to address the pejorative and racist connotations of the older headings, which are now suppressed in the Unified Library Management System (ULMS) shared by the CSU Libraries.

When processing new archival and manuscript collections we will occasionally re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the resources, 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 all these reasons, potentially harmful language may appear. University Library 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 from all sources so that we can learn and adjust our practices.

When processing new archival collections, University Library archivists follow guidelines to reduce the appearance of language that may be 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 effect 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 what language was written by University Library staff.
  • Researching how the community describes itself and its own histories, finding other institutions that have handled similar collections, and/or discussing the issue directly with the people or organizations who created or are described by the materials.

If you encounter harmful or offensive language or content in CSUSM University Library resources, finding aids, catalog records, digitized collections, blog posts, exhibitions, or if you have questions about this statement or about our work, we welcome your feedback at https://biblio.csusm.edu/your-ideas-feedback. Feedback can be provided anonymously.

Further Reading

(Adapted from  Temple University’s “SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging” and  The University of Maryland’s “Offensive content in  our collections.”)

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