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University of Washington Libraries

Library Guides

University of Washington Special Collections Anti-Racism Initiatives

We acknowledge that the Special Collections is the repository for some collections, material, finding aids and/or catalog records that may cause harm. We are actively working to address this issue.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do we mean by “harmful” terms or materials?

Harmful terms or materials are language, portrayals, caricatures, stereotypes, or historical depictions or terminologies that were created in a white, male dominant culture and degrade their subjects intentionally or otherwise.   

Why is harmful material in your collections?

Special Collections is a repository for historical materials and is the final home for material that does not always reflect our viewpoint. Rather, this material captures social and cultural attitudes and circumstances of the period or place in which it was created. Special Collections preserves the original context of all material to understand a range of worldviews and ways of thinking, expression, and action. The inclusion of content with bias, prejudice, and racism is necessary for a more complete understanding of history, but we acknowledge that this may still cause harm. Special Collection’s viewpoint is in no way reflected in these instances and we are committed to flagging this material to improve user experience. 

Why are harmful terms used in some descriptions of the material? When do you use or retain harmful or offensive language in descriptions?

Librarians and archivists often retain language provided by creators or collectors of the material to preserve the original voice. This context is important as it reflects the creator’s biases and prejudices. It is imperative that we acknowledge the racism and bigotry in our collections, even as we acknowledge that encountering racist or derogatory language can be difficult and painful. When the decision is made to retain original description containing harmful language, we strive to make this decision transparent and also critically consider whether preserving this description is truly necessary for understanding the collection.

We also have an inherited legacy of problematic description within older finding aids and other descriptive resources created by Libraries staff. Consequently, you may encounter outdated terminology. As language continues to evolve, we will need to make revisions in the future. Please see our actions statement for our plans to address this ongoing issue. 

To describe and enhance access to materials, librarians and archivists often use standardized terms like the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Some of these terms are outdated, offensive, or insensitive and we stand behind initiatives at UW Libraries and the broader profession to regularly update and change this language as feasible. We also support the creation and use of alternative controlled vocabularies, and partnering with communities to revise and enhance description of their resources and collections according to their preferences, knowledge, and practices. 

How would I know if harmful material is included in the collection?

With total holdings that include 71,000 boxes of archival manuscript materials both onsite and offsite, with many more books and other printed materials, visual, film, audio, and digital content, Special Collections is currently unable to critically review all of its content. Going forward, Special Collections strives to update and remediate archival finding aids and digital collections metadata. We are implementing the addition of a warning note in archival finding aids, catalog records, and digital collection descriptions. 

Where would harmful language or material occur?

  • Organization names that include outdated terms
  • An individual self identifying by a term that is no longer favored by people within that group
  • Title or language from a published book, article, film, or song
  • Terms considered derogatory by some have been reclaimed by others, and the creator of the collection uses such a term to self-identify
  • Terms regularly used by a community to self-describe historically have fallen out of use or out of favor
  • Historical terms, regularly used by an individual or community to describe another individual or community, which have fallen out of use or out of favor 
  • In descriptive notes, terms in use provide important contextual information to help understand the conditions under which it was created
  • We have used description created by the donor or transcribed information directly from the documents 
  • We have used national standards such as Library of Congress Subject Headings to enable standardized searching and access across our holdings. Some of these headings are outdated and offensive

What are we doing to address harmful language in material description? 

Please refer to the Critical Cataloging and Archival Description Statement webpage for more information regarding finding aids and catalog record language. You can also submit feedback via this form or by emailing uwlib-critcat@uw.edu.

What is Special Collection’s stance on harmful materials and language?

We seek to disrupt systems of oppression and all forms of social discrimination through our terminology and framing of people and events. We approach the material we describe and steward with empathy, and will focus our descriptions on the subjects of the material and the humanity of the individuals described in order to enhance research access. 

How often is policy and this guide revised?

We are committed to annually revising our statement, actions, and guide in order to respond to our community feedback. This guide was last updated September 2021.

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