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Stuck at Home, but Not in the Past: Implementing Inclusive Description Standards in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress

By Katie Duvall, Katherine Madison, and Rachel Telford

When processing staff in the Preparation Section of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division began working remotely full-time in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had the opportunity to engage in projects that required more time for reflection, analysis, and discussion than is typically available when meeting on-site processing deadlines. The work of our shop routinely focuses on the large-scale processing of manuscript (paper and digital) collections, but without access to our building, our offices, our stacks, and the thousands of boxes of unprocessed material in the processing work queue, we had to find other ways to support our mission. This blog post will focus on one of these efforts in particular: an addition to the Preparation Section’s style manual to include emerging and established best practices for inclusive and respectful description.

In this new remote work environment, colleagues began documenting workflows and creating training manuals for newer staff who had been brought on board within the past few years. Many of us who were newer to the division and to the Library took advantage of the time to explore our digitized collections and online finding aids. Several metadata and transcription projects were launched and adapted to remote work. And many of us were able to pick up professional service projects and to delve deeply into the professional literature. While many staff members turned to literature on the topic of digital preservation, others read up on institutional history, and the authors of this post found ourselves digging into the archival theory, recommendations, and best practices regarding inclusive description.

Looking at this body of literature, archivist Rachel Telford was inspired to dedicate part of her remote work hours to reviewing the division’s existing finding aids to see how they measured up to emerging professional standards for inclusive language, such as writing about slavery. She discovered through this review that, while the language in our finding aids wasn’t as bad as some of the examples used in the literature, there were definitely instances of outdated language and terminology— hardly a surprise in a special collections department dating to 1897. For example, the names of women in the collections of family papers were frequently obscured, and terms such as “slave” and “Indian” (rather than the more modern, accurate, and respectful “enslaved person” and “Native American”) were in common use. 

It was also clear from Telford’s review, and from her working experience in the Preparation Section, that processing staff had very little guidance in this particular area. The Section already had a number of detailed manuals guiding the structure of our finding aids and descriptive procedures. In terms of voice and style, however, these manuals primarily covered technical points such as abbreviations and acronyms, dates, geographic locations, citation of legal cases, and use of proper names and name authorities. They did not address more complex and subjective issues, like how to write about race, gender, disability, immigration status, or other areas where language has evolved and continues to do so.

Two of the existing manuals—the Guidelines for Processing Manuscript Collections and the Manual for Preparing Finding Aids—had been undergoing the process of revision over the previous year, with final updates approved in just the last months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A third manual—the Style Guidelines for Processing and Describing Manuscript Collections—was still in revision as of March 2020. With this in mind, along with the emerging reality of extended remote work, Telford proposed writing an additional chapter for the style manual focused on inclusive description best practices. Her proposal was approved and the Manuscript Division’s Inclusive Description Working Group was formed in April 2020 to implement the project.

The working group consisted of seven volunteer archivists and archives technicians from the Preparation Section. (The three authors of this post served on the working group. [1]) Our work began with an acknowledgment that while we are all experienced archives professionals, we had to be open to a deep learning process, including listening to and learning from the communities most affected by non-inclusive archival descriptive practices. We also acknowledged early on that descriptive language is iterative and constantly evolving, and that instead of developing strictly prescriptive guidelines (along the lines of our pre-existing manuals), we would have to create a document that gave processing staff the tools to make the best decisions possible for the varied collections in the division. 

This addition to the Section’s style manual was also based on the principle that there is often dissonance between the language used in legacy collection descriptions and the language in use today. This disconnect dramatically impacts the discoverability and use of collection materials by many researchers, particularly by the communities and individuals most likely to be harmed by absent, non-inclusive, or offensive language. Especially given the prevalence of keyword searching as an access tool, the terminology used or not used at all levels of a finding aid, from scope and content notes, to biographical notes, to series descriptions and folder lists, affects the discoverability of a collection. We realized we had to create guidelines that leveraged respectful and modern description at all levels to bring researchers into our collections in an efficient and welcoming way.

Much of the process for crafting what would become a chapter in the revised Style Guidelines followed a familiar pattern to the revision of the Preparation Section’s other manuals. Accessing a shared document on a server, individual members of the working group drafted sections while using track-change and commenting features to edit and give feedback on others’ work. Weekly virtual meetings were held to review our progress, discuss particular challenges, and revise our workflow as necessary. Unlike other revision processes, however, the working group began with a blank slate. While we had the general structure of the style guide, we would be creating new guidelines for our Section rather than updating older ones.

To do so, we relied heavily on the work done by archivists and archival scholars at other institutions.[2] And when the archival literature pointed us more towards theory than practice, we read style guides created by journalists and affiliate organizations, such as the ADA National Network’s fact sheet “Guidelines for Writing About People with Disabilities.”[3] As we made our way through these resources, we compiled a concise bibliography for the rest of the division to explore during their remote work time, which would prepare everyone for the style guide recommendations to come. For example, we wanted to ensure that everyone was familiar with the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, a set of guidelines, endorsed by SAA in 2018, outlining “best professional practices for culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material held by non-tribal organizations.”[4]

Focusing on the types of materials most commonly found in the Manuscript Division, the group decided to cover select topics for the first edition of the guide, including (but not limited to) African American and Black identity, gendered language, LGBTQ+ identity, and slavery. While writing each individual section, some common themes emerged which we decided to consolidate into an introductory “Voice and Style” section of the guide. We felt it particularly necessary to draw a distinction up front between archivist- and creator-supplied language. For example, we recommended that when supplying language for descriptive front matter, archivists should “make every effort to describe individuals using the terminology they use to describe themselves and their communities” while considering “the historical context, potential research value, and the potential harm to represented communities when making decisions about whether to preserve problematic creator-supplied language,” especially in folder lists.[5]

The working group completed a preliminary draft of the style guide in July 2020—a rapid turnaround due to the focused nature of remote work. Following established procedure, we sent the draft to Manuscript Division colleagues for a lengthy feedback period. Fellow processing staff, reading room staff, and the division’s historical specialists reviewed it and sent us their comments. The working group met virtually several additional times to discuss and incorporate the feedback from our colleagues. The final version of the Style Guidelines has been approved for interim use by the Manuscript Division while the document awaits final approval from Library management.

As the COVID-19 emergency continues, some Preparation Section staff have been able to return to work on-site part time, and as processing resumes the updated and new style guidelines are being implemented. The working group remains aware that our guidelines are a starting point for research and reflection. As more collections are accessioned and processed, we hope to continue adding to and updating the guide to enhance and further the inclusivity and discoverability of our collections and to reflect emerging best practices for archival description.


Footnotes

[1] The other members of the working group include Karen Linn Femia, Colleen Benoit Kim, Nate Scheible, and Annette Scherber.

[2] While we reviewed a range of resources, we began the process with the comprehensive bibliography provided in the widely circulated Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Resources (October 2019)

[3] “Guidelines for Writing About People with Disabilities,” ADA National Network (2018), https://adata.org/factsheet/ADANN-writing

[4] Introduction, Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (2007), https://www2.nau.edu/libnap-p/protocols.html

[5] Chapter 3, Style Guidelines for Processing and Describing Manuscript Collections (November 2020), Preparation Section, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress


Katie Duvall is an archivist in the Preparation Section of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division and the current chair of SAA’s Description Section. Katherine Madison is an archivist in the Manuscript Division, Preparation Section and the current vice chair of the Description Section. Rachel Telford is an archivist in the Manuscript Division, Preparation Section and the chair of the section’s Inclusive Description Working Group.

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4 thoughts on “Stuck at Home, but Not in the Past: Implementing Inclusive Description Standards in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress

  1. Thank you for sharing! Are those of us outside LOC able to see any of the Manuscript Division publications referenced here – the Guidelines for Processing Manuscript Collections, the Manual for Preparing Finding Aids, and/or the Style Guidelines?

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  2. Thank you for sharing about your experience and process! Will the new style guide be eventually shared outside of your institution? Many of us are wanting to do similar work and I’m sure would find it helpful. Thank you!

    Like

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