Toward Ethical and Inclusive Descriptive Practices in Library Special Collections
UCLA Library Special Collections is committed to remediating harmful description by creating and implementing an anti-oppressive approach to discovery and access.
At UCLA Library Special Collections (LSC), we are guided by professional values and codes of ethics in support of ethical and inclusive approaches to descriptive practices. These do not act as prescriptive standards; rather, they provide a framework for intentionality and care in decision-making. The ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians, in particular, recognizes that “descriptive standards are products of the social world in which they were created. Therefore, standards are not neutral.…”[1(opens in a new tab)] Consequently, we believe that ethical description requires that we be transparent about our decision-making; that we engage in critical and iterative reflection; and that we commit to continual learning and growth. We strive to respect everyone who creates, uses and is represented in our collections by adhering to principles of equity, diversity and inclusion when we create our finding aids, catalog records and other descriptive metadata. By doing so, we hope to ensure that when we create and remediate description, the result will be inclusive, humanizing and anti-oppressive.
To report potentially offensive description in Library Special Collections materials, please fill out this form(opens in a new tab).
Read more about our past and current approaches to description below.
There are many factors that impact how special collections material is described. First and foremost, description is the product of individuals who approach this task with their own inherent biases. While LSC is comprised of people from different intersectional identities, the Library is a predominantly white organization, and this is undeniably reflected in the work that has been done at LSC.
Historically, description was not framed as a political act, but rather as a tool for discovery by means of the deployment of ‘neutral’ terminology written from an unbiased perspective. This so-called neutrality, a political act in and of itself, amounts to tacit complicity. Our past approaches to description aligned with this framework, which resulted in some existing description of our materials containing language that may be offensive or cause harm. For example, LSC staff did not critically engage with potentially offensive practices, such as repurposing problematic bookseller description or employing outdated standardized subject headings and authorized terms.
Our decisions about what to include and how to structure the description we create are guided by national and international cataloging and description conventions that enable standardized searching across the entire University of California library system and beyond. Our reliance on these standards means, in some instances, we have employed certain terminology that is outdated and harmful. The resulting description is further influenced by the contextual, technical, and standards-based limitations of the various discovery platforms that we utilize to make our material accessible. We support efforts underway to update these terms at the national level.
Additionally, it takes a lot of time and labor to create archival and bibliographic description, and, unfortunately, Library Special Collections has limited collection management staff resources to do this work. Alongside these factors, descriptive practices in LSC have also been heavily influenced by the need to prioritize externally funded projects and those which we acquired with donor-imposed deadlines or based on other donor-related priorities while our backlog increased. This resulted in productivity expectations that prioritized throughput, which were driven by professional imperatives for efficient processing.[3(opens in a new tab)] This emphasis meant that we focused on publishing more finding aids with minimal description, often re-purposed from donors, booksellers or the creators of the material whenever possible.
More recently, scholarship in the field of information studies has
recognized the harm that an unexamined practice brings about.
Specifically, the temporal framework of slow archives is about “focusing
differently, listening carefully and acting ethically.”[4(opens in a new tab)]
A descriptive practice that does not actively seek to remediate
holdings with racist or otherwise harmful content is a disservice to our
communities. We acknowledge that we are not neutral[5(opens in a new tab)]
and neither is the description that we create. LSC is working to
remediate the harm we have caused by critically examining our existing
records and implementing new descriptive practices that aim to be
inclusive and respectful.
We are committed to remediating harmful description by creating and implementing an anti-oppressive approach to discovery and access. To sustain this approach, we will center people in all of our metadata practices and adapt our strategies for doing so over time.
As LSC reviews, revises and creates new description for the materials we steward, we strive to implement ethical and inclusive descriptive practices in the following ways: