Describing Better: Introduction

Over the past year, Center for the History of Medicine staff developed a policy to guide the way we describe collections. Our primary goal was to implement best practices for describing people who are underrepresented in our collections. (This includes people of color, women, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and others). Our goals grew to include other elements of what we came to describe as "conscientious and inclusive" description. After months of reflecting, researching, writing, editing, and discussing, we created our Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description. Then we began reviewing and revising many of our finding aids.

This project emerged last November. Our team of four Collections Services archivists read Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s (A4BLIP) “Anti-Racist Description Resources.” This excellent resource helped us to understand some of the ways that archival description can be harmful, and offered some solutions. We felt impelled to develop similar guidelines for the Center for the History of Medicine. The principles described in A4BLIP's document supported us in generating our own document. Our guidelines are grounded in the context of medical history collections and use local examples from the Center’s finding aids.

Finding aids mediate a researcher’s access to unique collections. So, it’s important that we describe collections well! To us, that means describing creators and subjects accurately and respectfully. It's also important that we describe people in a balanced way. And language matters. Offensive, outdated, misleading, or whimsical wording impacts the way that researchers understand the collections. On November 2, our colleague Dorothy Berry of Houghton Library presented "Conscious Editing: Enhancing Diversity and Discovery,” hosted by the Sunshine State Digital Network. We already know that offensive description is alienating, inappropriate, and harmful. Dorothy emphasized that it is also simply poor descriptive practice. Accurate, up-to-date description can make it easier for users to locate resources. Balanced and respectful description provides users with helpful context.

Here's some context for our collections. Most of the papers at the Center are from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. They pertain to the history of medicine, dentistry, and public health. White men have dominated these fields. Women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color physicians and patients have been marginalized. Sometimes our finding aids glorified someone whose research harmed people. Other times, they used language that is now considered pejorative.

While working on the guidelines, our goal was to provide clear and practical instructions. We wanted to document ways to avoid or remediate harmful and offensive description. We wanted to provide high-quality resources for representing marginalized people. Leaving room for Center archivists to use their professional judgment was important, too.

We began by reading archival literature on describing marginalized people. The work of many other archivists was helpful and inspiring. We learned from Dorothy Berry, Kelly Bolding, Jarrett Drake, Meghan Rinn, Anna Robinson-Sweet, and others and we thank them for their scholarship. Their work expanded our perspectives of justice and equity in description. Some of our background reading was theoretical. Other readings provided information for describing people from specific marginalized identities. Institutional policies from Temple University and Swarthmore College helped us, too. (Check out our list of Works Cited and Additional Resources).

After several months of drafts and discussions, we incorporated the guidelines into our policies manual in May 2020. The guidelines consist of recommendations and examples. They also include citations and a list of resources. They are not finished; the guidelines exist in the spirit of reparation and iterative learning. That means that we will continue to mold them towards helping us meet our descriptive goals. There is always more to learn about descriptive best practices. We have already returned to the document to make small edits. Discussions about other changes have come out of the revision process. Reviewing and modifying the guidelines in the future will be essential to their success and relevance.

This is the first in a series of blog posts. Later posts will explore specific aspects of the guidelines. They will look at how we applied them to our finding aids. We invite your feedback on our guidelines and on the revised finding aids we’ll be sharing.