Potentially Problematic Cataloging and Archival Description

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Why Description Can Be Problematic

We acknowledge that description, created by humans, cannot be neutral. Spencer staff must make myriad decisions when processing archival collections and cataloging rare books and manuscripts. These include choices about what language to use when describing the materials themselves as well as the people and group(s) who created or who are represented in them. For a variety of reasons, many of our finding aids and library catalog records may include harmful language.

For Spencer Research Library collections, we follow the common practice of using language provided by creators, former owners, and vendors. Language that comes from the original material can provide important contextual information about the people who created an archival collection and can help users better access the collection or understand the conditions under which it was created. As a result, original terminology and imagery may be used in finding aids, digital descriptions, and catalog records, even when it includes insensitive wording, overt expressions of bigotry or bias, or outdated references and stereotypes.

Examples of how Spencer Library staff create descriptions include the following:

  • We frequently use existing captions or labels on historic photographs to describe those items.
  • Following standard practice, we utilize language that was used by the people and organizations that created the material, for example reusing – not changing – folder titles when present.
  • We reproduce terms that are official titles of items or organizations.
  • We scan, transcribe, and present items in our digital collections unaltered as part of the historical record.
  • When cataloging published materials, we follow the common practices of re-using catalog records from other libraries and adhering to standardized rules in transcribing titles, authors, and other information.
  • For all types of collections, we follow the standard practice of using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to enable standardized searching and access across our holdings. We are aware that some LCSH terms are outdated and harmful.

Generations of Spencer staff members have created finding aids, catalog records, and other descriptions. These documents are still in use. Terminology and standards of appropriate description differ between individuals and have changed over the library’s fifty-year history as the archives profession, allied professions, and society at large have evolved.

    What We Are Doing

    Spencer Research Library staff recognize that many of our collection materials result from, are created by, or represent groups of people who are historically marginalized and underrepresented in archives and libraries. We believe it is our responsibility to describe our collections and their creators in an informative and accurate manner that is respectful to the individuals and communities who created, are represented in, and use the materials we manage. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that we are often describing communities of which we are not a part.

    Spencer staff are currently implementing practices to address offensive or harmful language as part of routine description work. We are dedicated to revising and updating our descriptive language, but with thousands of finding aids and catalog records, this will take time. Spencer staff are committed 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.

    In addition, we recognize that maintaining updated and accurate description is an ongoing process. We may not always make the right decisions, but we are committed to a process of constant reflection and improvement.

    We welcome feedback from all sources so that we can learn and adjust our practices. If you encounter problematic/harmful/offensive language in Spencer catalog records, digitized collections, finding aids, exhibitions, or elsewhere, or if you have questions about this statement or our work, please notify Reading Room staff or email us at ksrlref@ku.edu.

    Thank you for helping us grow in our commitment to describing our research collections accurately and inclusively.


    This statement was enriched by references to similar statements from other institutions, and we appreciate the work of colleagues in this area. Language in the Spencer statement above was pulled from the following sources:

    See also the "List of Statements on Bias in Library and Archives Description" compiled by the Cataloging Lab.

    Problematic Description Contact

    Spencer Research Library

    Public Services



    Additional Information

    Unfamiliar with some of the library and archives terms on this page? See our glossary for definitions and examples.