Desk Set: Anti-Racist Description Resources

Calling all Librarians!

I’ve been wanting to start a regular thread for Librarians to chat. I know we have quite a few here, and thought we would benefit from a place to gather and talk about Library topics.

In October, an organization called Archives for Black Lives Matter published a report on Anti-Racist Description Resources. I had only become aware of it because a candidate at my institution mentioned it in their presentation. I though this could be a good topic to bring up to start things out. I’m not an Archivist so I don’t have all of the context surrounding this report, but I am a Cataloger and Metadata Librarian, so the importance of resource description is important to me.

A bit of background first: From what I understand, the concept of archival neutrality has recently been under a lot of scrutiny. Previously, archivist (and other resource describers) strove for neutrality in their descriptions. The intent was to ensure that people would come to the resource without preconceived notions. Early examples of the need for this could be found in the practice of locking Russian government publications into closed stacks and labeling them ‘propaganda’. This was during the Red Scare, and there was an intense debate by librarians at the time about how that description clouded a user’s perception of the material. This was the beginning of librarians and librarian organizations beginning to advocate for free speech and speaking against book banning and challenges.

However, archival scholars have recently noted that this neutrality is problematic, not just because it’s a goal that is impossible to achieve, but also it necessarily preserves the status quo, a position that can be problematic for oppressed communities. The solution is to, sort of, lean in and advocate for language that promotes inclusivity.

As the report states:

Unlearn the “neutral” voice of traditional archival description. Rather than striving for an “objective” voice, which reinforces existing power structures, base description in the question (as posed by Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor): “Is the descriptive language I am using respectful to the larger communities of people
invested in this record?” Decenter “neutrality” and “objectivity” in favor of “respect” and “care.”

This oppression of neutrality has also recently been a concern of Catalog and Metadata librarians as well. However, it’s usually to counter outdated and oppressive language found in subject headings. Here’s a short discussion of that:

The tension between inclusivity and neutrality is a difficult topic for me. It’s hard to unlearn the importance of not shaping the patron’s perceptions of a collection, though I also recognize that the intention of not shaping that perception, itself shapes the perception.

So here’s the fist topic: What do you think of the report? Does it do enough to counteract archival description bias? What have you been doing in your own library to counteract bias (if anything), or is it somewhat baked into library practices?

Also, since this is the first entry in this: Introduce yourselves! What kind of librarian are you? What kind of library do you work at (Academic, Public, Special (including Law), Archives or other Cultural Heritage Institutions?

Finally, please don’t hesitate to suggest further topics. As I said, I’m a Metadata librarian, and I don’t want to flood this space with issues about resource description.