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Reparative Description: The Importance of Words

This essay explores reparative description, shares some of the work done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries' Conscious Editing Initiative, and gives some practical tips for gaining administrative buy-in.

Published onMar 14, 2022
Reparative Description: The Importance of Words

Reparative Description: What is it and why is it important?

 As cultural heritage workers of color, we are often acutely aware of the power and misuse of language in our work areas. Take archival description, for example. Archival description and finding aids serve as the primary tool archivists use to make collections accessible. Because of this, the language employed by archivists and special collections librarians is incredibly powerful. But when it comes to representing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and other historically underrepresented groups, archival description has often omitted or further marginalized peoples through harmful language choices. 

 Imagine you are an amateur African American genealogist who has been diligently researching your family tree. You smashed through the ‘1870 Brick Wall’1 and managed to place your ancestors on a South Carolina plantation. A Google search has brought you to the family papers of the plantation owners, housed in the special collections of a university library. It’s a richly detailed document, and you think you’ve hit the motherload. But when it comes to the collection material documenting the lives of enslaved people, the description is heartbreakingly scarce. Whereas the names of white family members were enumerated attached to glowing biographies, there are no names for the enslaved people. The only mentions of the enslaved are in a series that includes land deeds and transactions, furniture, and livestock lists. This research scenario plays out repeatedly for descendants of enslaved people who engage with collections held by the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina  at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collections Library. Since collection, which was founded in the 1920s as a way to venerate the elites of the Antebellum South, the lives of Black people contained within were an afterthought at best and erased at worst. 

While this particular scenario may be unique to the Southern Historical Collection, the misrepresentation and erasure caused by legacy description is not. For many years now, librarians and archivists have been grappling with the negative impact that outdated and harmful description and metadata have on marginalized communities. The process to remediate this description goes by many names: reparative description, inclusive description, inclusive metadata, conscientious description, and conscious editing, to name a few. While these initiatives can go by various names and have different priorities, they are united in their goals to correct the exclusion or mischaracterization of marginalized people and create new, respectful description and metadata that surfaces and empowers marginalized groups. At UNC-Chapel Hill, this work falls under the banner of conscious editing. At UNC Libraries defines conscious editing as “bring[ing] active, critical awareness of bias, privilege, and power and an ethos of deliberate care to the assessment, creation, and refinement of descriptive archival texts” (UNC Libraries, 2021).

Conscious Editing at Wilson Special Collections Library 

Wilson Special Collections Technical Services (SCTS) has spearheaded the work of establishing conscious editing as an ethos within the library and remediating legacy archival description. The library’s antebellum or slavery era finding aids have been the primary focus. Some of the remediation work has included calling out names of the enslaved, refraining from and sometimes paring down the valorizing language used to describe collection creators, explicitly connecting family and plantation names with slavery, and creating new access points for researchers (UNC Libraries, 2020). 

While SCTS is the department that carries out many remediation efforts, getting buy-in from around the library has been critical to sustaining and growing conscious editing efforts. SCTS experimented with ways to engage other library staff, including an online form for remediation suggestions, establishing a chat channel, and scheduling case studies and ethical description office hours for complex remediation cases (Dean, 2019, p. 44). Library leadership established the Conscious Editing Steering Committee to guide and further broaden the work begun by SCTS. The steering committee has created shared understanding and support around conscious editing. This includes creating a vision and values statement and holding focus groups to introduce staff members to conscious editing concepts and the work done in the library. The focus group, led by members of the steering committee and had staff participants from various library departments, examined antebellum finding aids. The focus groups put the uneven description between the collection creators and those enslaved by them on clear display and helped to underscore the need for reparative description work. In 2021 the steering committee charged a task team made up of staff from curatorial, technical services, and reference and instructional services to create a set of recommendations to direct further remediation work on the library’s slavery-era collections. 

Advocating for reparative description

Because each special collection and archive has its own legacy of collecting, the starting point and priorities for reparative description or conscious editing efforts will vary from institution to institution. But no matter history of the institution, its size, scope, or focus, institutional support is necessary to start an initiative of this type. With all the work required of library and archives professionals, supervisors and administrators might be very hesitant to sign off on the additional work of conscious editing. When advocating to begin reparative description at your institution, it might help these two things in mind. 

Focus on the practical: 

While some supervisors and administrators might recognize a moral imperative to begin conscious editing work, others might not. Conscious editing is long and often complicated work that requires shifts in priorities and workflows. For some, moral reasons are not persuasive enough to justify shifting efforts. Some practical benefits of conscious editing work are community impact, filling gaps in collecting and the historical record, diversifying your user base, and better search results (Berry, 2020). Beyond an increased user base, emphasizing improved accessibility may be the most vital practical benefit to win over a reluctant administration. Accessibility underpins all work in special collections and archives. As stated by Dorothy Berry, “[…] description that better reflects diversity is often simply more accurate and more closely matching the terms our patrons will use for searching” (Berry, 2020). 

It’s a marathon, not a sprint: 

As mentioned previously, conscious editing can be time-consuming and complex work. As such, supervisors and administrators must understand that it is an ongoing process that requires resources over the long term. In the era of “More Product, Less Process,” it is critical to emphasize to leadership that reparative description work often takes longer than the type of description currently used and will not be perfect or final. If the changing and uncertain nature of conscious editing give your leadership team pause, you can remind them that processing and description hs always been iterative (Coup, 2020).


Bibliography 

Dean, J. (2019). Conscious Editing of Archival Description at UNC-Chapel Hill. Journal for the Society of North Carolina Archivists, 16, 41–55. 

Society of American Archivists. (n.d.). Reparative description. Dictionary of Archives Technology. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/reparative-description.html#:~:text=n.,characterize%20archival%20resources%20(View%20Citations)&text=We%20are%20seeking%20marginalized%2C%20hidden%2C%20and%20silenced%20voices.

Society of American Archivists. (2021). Inclusive Description. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www2.archivists.org/groups/description-section/inclusive-description

Sunshine State Digital Network SSDN. (2020). Introduction to Conscious Editing Part 1 of 3. YouTube. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGCTtDgNty4

Sunshine State Digital Network SSDN. (2020). Introduction to Conscious Editing Part 3 of 3. YouTube. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtl_ysMpPN8.

UNC Libraries. (2020). https://github.com/UNC-Libraries/TS-Archival-Procedures-Manual/blob/main/Style%20Guide.md. GitHub. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://github.com/UNC-Libraries/TS-Archival-Procedures-Manual/blob/main/Style%20Guide.md#identifying-and-characterizing-de-centering-whiteness.



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