Language in archival descriptions changes

Monday, April 27, 2020

Special Collections & Archives (SCA) has expanded its statement regarding language in archival descriptions to meaningfully integrate equity and reconciliation work into the department’s archival practice. The changes reflect a formalization of on-going efforts made by staff to acknowledge known instances of discrimination that appear in archival records.

Reason for statement expansion

Over the past several months SCA staff have discussed how to balance upholding the context of records with putting principles of equity and reconciliation into action. A decision was made to move beyond blanket ‘language of its time’ statements to identifying instances of problematic language or imagery.

As noted in the revised statement: “SCA staff view this manner of providing and expanding on the context of problematic records to be in keeping with the University of Waterloo’s Principles of Inclusivity and Policy 33 - Ethical Behaviour, as well as the Association of Canadian Archivists’ Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.”

Practice in action

Records held in archives often contain language and imagery that are representative of their time. They may include instances of racism, sexism, ableism or other forms of discrimination, today considered inappropriate and harmful. These types of records are collected and maintained as a reflection of the era in which they were created and provide important historical context about the world around us. Although this can be upsetting, collecting and maintaining the integrity of these records lets researchers critically review and assess them as they see fit.

While seeking a balance between upholding record context and implementing equity centered practices, SCA’s goal will be to identify known instances of problematic language and depictions in archival records. Staff won’t catch everything, nor will they try to, but every effort will be made to name and acknowledge readily apparent instances of discrimination, on a case by case basis.

It is important to note that related work will not be tied exclusively to problematic content. Creating more equitable and inclusive archival spaces means working to better identify records of interest to marginalized and equity-seeking communities. This includes more careful description of records that, for example, document the history of residential schools, settler colonialism and land tenure, as well as using current and accurate language when referencing First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.  


  • Content notes will be added to fonds or collection level records indicating, where known, the prevalence of particular types of problematic language or imagery. One such example is the note accompanying digitized versions of The Dominion, which, in part, reads: "The Dominion contains language from the era in which it was written. This includes problematic wording, cultural references, and stereotypes that are no longer used or appropriate today such as racist and sexist jokes or points of view."
  • General notes will be added at the item level regarding the content of certain photographs. The note accompanying negatives titled Waterloo Highschool Knitting Bee from the Kitchener-Waterloo Photographic Negative Collection is one example. It reads: "Boys' Slave Day poster with racist depiction of a Black person visible on wall behind knitting bee participants."
  • Records improvements and intentional description will be undertaken to allow for improved keyword searching and introduce more precise descriptive language. The finding aids for records in the E Palmer Patterson fonds are an example. They were recently updated to more appropriately refer to First Nations and Inuit, using current language. The work included documenting the changes in names used to refer to peoples over time, such as the Nisga’a or Tlingit, in corresponding authority records.

Useful resources

In the absence of clear and current direction from available archival standards, both in Canada and abroad, the following list of resources has proved useful in informing SCA staff's understanding of the evolving nature of context as it pertains to equity and reconciliation in archival practice.

Moving forward

There is much to be done and challenges lie ahead. SCA staff do, however, believe that this change is an important step toward continuing to responsibly manage and provide access to archival records in their care, particularly as more of those records become retrievable online via the Archives Database and the Waterloo Digital Library.

Your assistance with the work ahead is welcome. Please contact us to suggest record corrections or improvements.






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