Acknowledging and Repairing Harmful Description in PHS Collections
As a researcher or someone interested in learning more about the past, you may have spent a lot of time exploring online databases for resources related to your topic of interest. During those hours of searching, you might stumble across some terminology that makes you pause. For example, you might discover colonial language related to Christian missionary work that elevates the white Protestant values as superior to other cultures. Or you might encounter a biography of a Native American boarding school that doesn’t depict a truthful or complex story of indigenous students’ experiences. Issues like these are common in archives. However, there’s been a growing awareness among cultural institutions to consider how our description practices can reinforce bias and cause harm to marginalized communities. To address this, many institutions – including here at the Presbyterian Historical Society – are doing reparative description work.
Reparative description is the practice of revisiting, reconsidering, and ultimately adjusting the way we as archives describe or characterize marginalized groups, especially when our description inflicts harm. It is our responsibility to handle their stories in a more intentional way. But reparative work is labor intensive and requires a lot of care and research to ensure that we’re describing our collections with appropriate or community-preferred terminology. As the national archives of the PC(USA), PHS has a lot of collections that need to be evaluated. Our vast collections live online through our multiple discovery systems, including a digital archive, databases, catalogs, and published finding aids—all of which may include outdated language.
To tackle this work, we formed a Reparative Description Committee at PHS consisting of Allison Davis (Digital Collections Specialist), Nick Skaggs (Processing Archivist), and Elaine Shilstut (Cataloging and Metadata Librarian). This committee was tasked with developing policies and workflows for a more inclusive approach to describing collections.
As a team, we decided a first step would be to write a public-facing Statement on Harmful Language in our collections. Because there is now a greater awareness among cultural institutions that neutral language is a myth, many institutions are posting statements that acknowledge the presence of biased, offensive, and outdated language in the description of collection materials. In addition, our statement outlines the steps that we are taking to redress offensive description.
Fortunately, we did not need to create our statement from scratch because in January of 2020, PHS issued a Digital Collection Offensive Language Policy for Pearl, our digital repository. We used that Policy as our starting point, retaining the paragraph that asserted our commitment to correcting harmful description of marginalized communities. However, a key difference is that in our revision we addressed library, archival, and digital collections in a single statement, understanding that patrons don’t necessarily make distinctions between discovery platforms. We also consulted statements issued by other institutions and adapted portions with a citation.
We had many goals in writing our statement. We aimed to acknowledge harm caused by our description, and to acknowledge that we may have contributed to the erasure of complex or truthful histories. We wanted to acknowledge our own biases, as we often describe communities that we are not members of ourselves. We wanted to assert that as an archive, we are committed to maintaining historical accuracy. Therefore, mitigating harm may mean adding important context to our descriptions rather than changing language itself. We wanted to acknowledge that reparative description is very much a work in progress. We need to accept that we will fail in our efforts, but are still committed to doing better, learning from our mistakes, and trying again.
After publishing our statement on our website, our next mission was to identify and select a collection to begin our repair work. Through our targeted searching of our online collection guides, we found a collection that met our criteria for a good “test collection.” We ultimately chose Record Group 37, which contained the records of two corporate entities: National Japanese American Student Council and the PCUSA Board of Christian Education’s Department of Colleges and Theological Seminaries. In the 1940s when the United States government incarcerated and forcibly removed Japanese American citizens and people of Japanese descent into American concentration camps, the National Japanese American Student Council – supported by the PCUSA Board of Christian Education – helped Japanese American students enroll in colleges and universities.
We selected RG 37 as a test case model for reparative description work for a few reasons. It was relatively small, and an older collection processed in the 1960s, meaning that it’s more likely it would rely on outdated language. In addition, the subject matter—Japanese American incarceration during World War II—is a topic that other institutions have tackled in their own reparative description work, so we were able to model our process on similar projects, such as one at Yale University. In addition, we were able to access resources readily available online that spoke to community-preferred terminology, such as the collaboration between Densho and the California State University Japanese American Digitization (CSUJAD) Project.
Despite the advantages of starting with RG 37, doing the repair work was not in reality very quick or straightforward. We had to do a lot of preliminary research, including on the historical period itself. We had to survey the narrative portions of the collection guides, looking for examples of offensive, outdated, paternalistic, and euphemistic language found in the guide, such as reliance on the words “placement” and “relocation” when referring to the forced removal of Japanese Americans into United States incarceration camps/centers. Other unexpected problems arose once we consulted the physical collection. We realized that we would need to rehouse the collection to address some preservation needs. The original description didn’t acknowledge the voices of Japanese Americans, so we would also need to expand the “Collection Overview” section to include more details, like recording that the collection included thank you letters written by Japanese American students.
After more extensive research into the community recommended/currently accepted terminology, the collection guide was revised to address outdated and harmful descriptive language that we flagged during our editing phase. Uses of “relocation centers” and “internment” in description were removed and replaced with “concentration camps” or “incarceration camps.” We also include the term “forced removal” in description, in favor over “relocation.” Additional historical contextual information was also added to acknowledge that the forced removal was issued by the federal government against its own citizens. A local subject heading was added to supplement the Library of Congress Subject Heading "Forced removal and internment, 1942-1945" with "Forced removal and incarceration, 1942-1945". The use of the term “incarceration” in the supplementary heading is intended to better reflect accepted community terminology.
Although we began by focusing on the collection guide of RG 37, this reparative work had implications on other collections and PHS discovery systems. In addition to repairing language in the guide, we would have to address a digital collection in Pearl, which was previously called “Japanese-American internment during World War II.” We also needed to modify two catalog records in our library catalog: one for RG 37 and one for a slide collection depicting Japanese American incarceration (which was digitized and available in Pearl.)
Finally, when we completed repairing our test case and the related collections, we held a project post-mortem where we reflected on what we did. We talked about what worked and what didn’t work. In the end, we drafted a workflow document, recording our steps, with the hope that we can repeat the same steps with a future collection. Looking ahead, the Reparative Description Committee wants to focus on a larger collection—the records of the Tucson Indian Training School in Arizona. We chose this as the next collection to be repaired partly due to the increased attention being paid to the boarding school system for Native American children and its lasting legacy. We are specifically interested in creating description that centers around the experiences of the children who attended the school.
As PHS continues to address harmful description in our collections, we invite and encourage feedback from our users. Ultimately, we acknowledge that this is just step one of a long journey to mitigate the harm that our practices may have had on marginalized communities.
For questions, comments, or feedback about our reparative description, please contact us so that we may learn and adjust our practices.