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Guiding Principles for Description

Adopted July 2020 by Rubenstein Library Technical Services Department.

The Rubenstein Library Technical Services Department (RLTS) acknowledges the historical role of libraries and archives, including our own institution, in amplifying the voices of those with political, social, and economic power, while omitting and erasing the voices of the oppressed. We have developed these Guiding Principles for Description as the first step in our ongoing commitment to respond to this injustice.

  1. We will use inclusive and accessible language when describing the people represented by or documented in our materials. We commit to continually educate ourselves on evolving language and practices of inclusivity and accessibility. 

  2. We will prioritize facts and accuracy, and resist editorializing, valorizing, or euphemistic narratives or phrases in our description. This includes a commitment to revisit and revise our past description. 

  3. When describing our collections, we will purposefully seek and document the presence and activities of marginalized communities and voices.

  4. We welcome and will seek to incorporate input and feedback on our descriptive choices from the communities and people represented by and in our materials.

  5. We will be transparent about the origin of our description, and our role in adding or replacing description. We will also commit to increased transparency about our own institution’s past descriptive practices. 

  6. We will advocate for and celebrate library description, and the essential labor and expertise of the library practitioners who create and maintain that description, as crucial for any ongoing preservation of, access to, and research within library collections.

How We Describe: Rubenstein Library Technical Services Style Guide

  • Download PDF of "How We Describe: Rubenstein Library Technical Services Style Guide"

This guide codifies RLTS’s local language and stylistic choices across all descriptive platforms. It intends to affirm the RLTS Guiding Principles for Description and give guidance for staff creating and editing the library’s description of special collections materials. This guide advises staff about how to write inclusive, anti-racist descriptions of our collections, including description of inherently racist or harmful items, and encourages description that demonstrates respect and care for the people or communities documented in our collections, particularly marginalized and historically oppressed populations.

References and Resources for Further Reading

Anti-Racist Description Resources,” Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, Oct. 2019. 

Antracoli, Alexis A., and Katy Rawdon, "What's in a Name? Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia and the Impact of Names and Name Authorities in Archival Description." In Ethical Questions in Name Authority Control, ed. Jane Sandberg. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2019: p. 307

Caswell, Michelle. “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly 87:3, 2017: 222-235.

Drabinski, Emily. “Teaching the Radical Catalog.” in Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front, ed. K.R. Roberto. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, April 2008.

Foreman, P. Gabrielle, et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” community-sourced document, last accessed August 10, 2020.

Oral History Association Principles and Best Practices, adopted October 2018.

Principles for Ethical Description in Special Collections Technical Services,” UNC Libraries, June 2020.

Rinn, Meghan R. "Nineteenth-Century Depictions of Disabilities and Modern Metadata: A Consideration of Material in the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection," Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 5, 2018.

SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging,” Temple University, adopted June 26, 2019.