Conscious and Inclusive Description

Foundational archival theory emphasized a neutral role for the archivist, suggesting caretakers of collections did not actively participate in shaping those materials or their use in creating histories. Scholarship and archival practice over the last two or three decades has rejected this idea and explored the ways archival intervention shapes collections and their resulting use. A “critical archival studies”[1] stance encourages archivists to analyze our role in creating or perpetuating systems of power and to build practices that resist oppression. Such an approach includes increased transparency in archival practice and participatory (community) methods for creating and managing collections.

This section provides documentation and resources for conscious and inclusive description of our archival resources. While practitioners across Harvard have been engaging with and acting on these ideas around archival description for some time, the June 2020 protests after George Floyd’s murder by police, and the related focus on anti-Black racism in the United States has pushed us as a community to formally add this section and related tools to our existing guidance on archival practices across Harvard.


Guiding Principles for Conscious and Inclusive Description at Harvard


“Description can be harnessed as a powerful tool to address power imbalances between creators and subjects of records, however, it is just one aspect of managing existing records with problematic content.[2]


Approach each collection with cultural sensitivity for the creators and/or subjects of the records[3]. Familiarize yourself with the content and context of a collection by reading relevant literature and/or reaching out to a subject expert.


Do not assume to know a person’s identity with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexuality. As a first principle, when a creator is living, reach out to them for guidance on preferred naming and/or identity. If this is not possible, reach out to subject experts, community groups, or consult the documents produced by the creator themselves for guidance. The same is true for people that are documented within records. If identities are ambiguous, describe activities instead of identities. If possible provide feedback mechanisms for users to communicate with archivists.


Always provide a citation for sources of information. It’s impossible to eliminate our own bias but we can cite our sources of knowledge.


When repurposing description, understand where the information originated and ask if it accurately, appropriately, and respectfully represents marginalized and underrepresented groups.

Avoid use of offensive language and outdated terminology. Creator generated notes or labels that include offensive language should not be transcribed. Consider the harm these terms can cause versus the value they may or may not add if included in a catalog or finding aid database. If necessary to include, contextualize terminology with a note, making it clear where the term came from and why it is being included.

When a title is being transcribed from a published source, it should be clear that the title is not the archivist’s language but a transcription of a published source. This can be done through quotation marks, italics, and/or a narrative, contextualizing note.


When performing finding aid remediation work or reparative description, keep a copy of the legacy description for reference and accountability. Always document and make public revisions to description. Include a name, date, and rationale for change. This information can go in a processing note at the appropriate level.



[1] Caswell, Michelle; Punzalan, Ricardo; Sangwand, T-Kay. "Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction". Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2017).
[2] Chilicott, Alicia. “Towards protocols for describing racially offensive language in UK public archives,” Archival Science, 2019.
[3] Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor have described such an approach as “radical empathy” in their article, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Arcive,” Archivaria 81 (Spring 2016).