ICYMI: Introducing the A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. The following is from Annalise Berdini, Digital Archivist at Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library and member of A4BLiP. 

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP) is a loose association of archivists, librarians, and allied professionals in the Philadelphia region responding to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. The A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources project began as an initiative formed by various A4BLiP members in fall of 2017, specifically after a presentation they collaborated on at the 2017 SAA Liberated Archive forum with Teressa Raiford. Teressa is a Portland-based activist and founder of the organization Don’t Shoot PDX. Following the presentation, Teressa asked the group for recommendations for how she might approach a catalog audit. She wanted to initiate a project at Oregon State Library after learning about a racist subject catalog card there that a staff member had posted on Twitter. (The card read, “Negroes see also Crime and criminals. Portland.”)  

After some discussion, A4BLiP members realized that this was an area that lacked guidance for those doing archival description; many could recount instances of seeing description applied in ways that were racist, but none of us knew of any specific recommendations for how to address this in a programmatic way. As a way to both provide a framework for our own audits of racist description and to hopefully provide guidance that would be useful to other (white) archivists, we decided to create a set of recommendations collated from existing resources that we gathered for an extensive literature review, and enhanced by some of our own experiences. Additionally, the working group felt strongly that due to the fact that most of us were white women, we needed to ask for help from Black archivists to ensure that our recommendations did not cause harm and that we were, in fact, helping other archivists create more inclusive description. We created a GoFundMe for the project so that we could pay these reviewers for their time and expertise, and successfully funded enough to recruit nine reviewers, who contributed extensive recommendations and additional resources to the project. We are incredibly grateful for their assistance, which created a much stronger and more thoughtful product. 

The A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources are broken up into three sections: a set of metadata recommendations, an annotated bibliography, and an extensive bibliography. The extensive bibliography was gathered first, reviewed in detail by members of the working group, and informed the other two sections.

The metadata recommendations are comprised of practical examples for anti-racist description that we hope can be put into practice across a wide array of institutions. The section is broken up into seven areas of focus, including Voice and Style, Community Collaboration and Expanding Audiences, Auditing Legacy Description and Reparative Processing, Handling Racist Folder Titles and Creator-Supplied Description, Describing Slavery Records, Subjects and Classification, and Transparency. Our recommendations in each of these sections were informed by our literature review as well as examples from our own experiences and the experiences and recommendations of our reviewers. Some recommendations should be fairly easy to apply day-to-day, like removing flowery and valorizing language in biographical notes or using accurate strong language like ‘rape’ or ‘lynching’ when appropriate. Others are more difficult and will require institutional change, like developing and maintaining ongoing relationships with collection creators in order to learn the language they use to describe themselves —  and to use that language in our description of their records. We hope that these recommendations will give others practical places from which to start their own descriptive review processes. They are by no means exhaustive, but include what we thought to be the most helpful and important recommendations.

The annotated bibliography includes a selection of theory-focused articles from the extensive bibliography that we chose to highlight based on their critique of descriptive practice and theory. Some of the articles, blogs, and presentations included do not necessarily focus on Black experiences or collections in the pursuit of highlighting shared strategies for anti-oppressive description. Our review in preparation for developing this resource reinforced our understanding that there is a wealth of research and dozens of important contributions to rectifying archival erasure and white supremacist description. But we recognize that few of us have as much time as we would like to read all of these works, and so we created the annotated bibliography in the hopes that it would help others quickly find resources that would help them rethink archival description.

For those looking to get started on creating more inclusive description, we recommend checking out the metadata recommendations first, particularly the sections on Voice and Style, Auditing Legacy Description, and Handling Racist Folder Titles and Creator-Supplied Description. These are probably the sections that will be most immediately applicable to most archives — how many of us have seen overly flowery and glowing biography notes of ‘great white men’, or passive language used to describe atrocities or distance humanity? How often do slavery records prioritize the enslavers before the enslaved? This is work that we as archivists can address quickly and which (hopefully) does not require overarching institutional change. 

We acknowledge that our recommendations are a starting point that highlights the work that other archivists have already done, but we hope that by gathering some of these practical recommendations, more of us can begin to undo the harm that our description often causes. The recommendations can be found through the A4BLiP site.

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