Describing Better: Outdated Language

We’re back with Part IV in a blog series about the Center’s Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Language evolves over time to reflect the way understanding and beliefs change. Words that were used commonly twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago may be disrespectful, unclear, or inaccurate today.

Our finding aids, written over decades, describe collections generated over centuries. Therefore, we were not surprised to discover language that, for various reasons, needed updating.

We had several goals in updating terminology in our finding aids. We wanted to address terms that are pejorative, outdated, and/or obfuscating. We wanted to balance the access benefits of including more terms with the harms caused by offensive terms. In most cases, we decided to go with the approach of using parentheses to add contemporary terms, which would keep the original language in context and indicate that a particular term isn’t used today. Historians may be interested in topics, concepts, or diagnoses that don’t have an exact match in modern medical terminology. For this reason, it’s important to include these terms—with context—even if they are outdated or stigmatizing.

This post focuses on the language used in narrative description fields of finding aids. We developed slightly different guidelines for subject headings.

After working on this policy, our guidelines now read (in part), as follows. Note that names in parentheses refer to resources listed in our Works Cited.

If you describe a person’s identity using a term that may not be generally preferred by members of that identity group today, provide an explanatory note to document your efforts (Rinn) or to clarify your reason for using that term. Avoid imprecise, anachronistic, or outdated terminology, paying particular attention to identity and medical terms (A4BLIP, Bolding). If your scope and content note, biographical note, or administrative history employ outdated, pejorative, or offensive terms that are taken directly from the records, include the current equivalent term(s) in parentheses.

Provide context (in the form of a processing note) for any outdated or non-preferred terms used in description or as subject headings (A4BLIP). The sample statement below may be used and/or modified as appropriate:

"Recognizing that historical medical terms do not always completely or directly map to contemporary terms, that historical terms can be offensive or inaccurately characterize a condition, and that the presence of both historical and contemporary terms may be useful for researcher discovery, the archivist has attempted to employ historical terms as they appear in the context of the collection in the description, along with contemporary terms in parentheses."

Historical names of institutions can sometimes contain terminology that is outdated or offensive. Do not revise the historical names of institutions. Note their contemporary names in parentheses, if applicable.

Anatomical, medical, scientific, and geographic terms often have a colonial legacy. Include common names or explanations alongside medical or scientific terms (Berry2, Jones). Consider the cultural and historical context of the records you are describing, and include Indigenous or non-Western terms or place names, whenever relevant to the context or cultural understanding of the subjects or circumstances you are describing (Bolding3, Jones).

Do not use titles like Mr./Mrs./Ms./Mx., unless it would clarify the identity of someone whose first name is unknown.

When we describe archival collections, we strive to make them as discoverable as possible by using multiple keywords that researchers may search for. In accordance with our new guidelines, we’ve added common terms alongside medical terms (“ear infection” alongside “otitis,” Alexander Forbes papers), broader terms alongside more specific terms (“Native American” alongside “Wampanoag,” David Potter papers, forthcoming), and contemporary terms alongside historic terms (“St. Petersburg” alongside “Leningrad,” Jacob Moreno papers). (We’ve done the same for historic names of institutions that have changed over time, such as the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children (later Elwyn Institute and now Elwyn)).

Below are several examples of how I applied these standards to some of our finding aids.

Clemens Benda papers

Clemens Benda was a psychiatrist who directed several state hospitals in Massachusetts during the twentieth century. In the previous version of the Clemens Benda finding aid, Benda's research interests were described as “Down's syndrome (mongolism) and cretinism, mental retardation, neuropathology, and existential psychology and psychiatry.” This list uses the terms that Benda himself used to describe his work. Today, some of these terms are pejorative, offensive, and stigmatizing. I updated the sentence to include the contemporary equivalent terms in parentheses. It now reads, “His research interests included mongolism (Down syndrome), cretinism (congenital hypothyroidism), mental retardation (intellectual disabilities), neuropathology, and existential psychology and psychiatry.” (For information on additional context inserted into the Benda finding aid, see Part III).

Louis Tompkins Wright papers

In the finding aid for the Louis Tompkins Wright papers, Wright was described as a Negro (the term that was used to describe Black Americans during Wright’s lifetime). Today, the term is outdated, and for that reason, disrespectful. (Frankly, “Negro” was likely outdated at the time the original finding aid was written, probably in the late 1980s). Recently, we replaced the word "Negro" with either the word “Black” or the term “African American.” The term “Negro” remains only when it's in historical context (such as in the title of a paper Wright authored in 1917). Similarly, the outdated racial term "colored" remains in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (To read about identifying collection creators’ race, see Part III).

Fanny Katz papers

Most of our collections are about men. After being described by their first name and last names upon first mention, collection creators are typically referred to by their last name only. However, the Fanny Bowditch Katz papers consistently described Katz as “Miss Bowditch.” Fanny Bowditch Katz married Johann Rudolf Katz, changing her name to Fanny Bowditch Katz. That means that she was neither a “Miss,” nor was her full surname “Bowditch.” Notably, Bowditch Katz was given the title “Miss,” unlike male collection creators who were described simply by their surnames. This practice struck us as unnecessary, outdated, and inconsistent. The title “Miss” wasn’t necessary for clarity, respect, or searchability. If anything, calling Bowditch Katz “Miss Bowditch” made things more confusing. We got rid of “Miss” and referred to her simply as Fanny Bowditch Katz or Bowditch Katz.

We hope that these changes will make our collections easier for keyword-searchers to locate, as well as reduce harm caused by offensive language through the addition of context.

We invite your feedback at chm@hms.harvard.edu.