Intern Marco Lanier Works on Ethical Description at the Center for the History of Medicine

Picture of Marco re-shelving the Richard Strong Papers after adding a processing note on a file that used the term "Indian" to refer to Indigenous peoples across North, Central, and South America.

I have just completed a 60-hour field placement at the Center for the History of Medicine as part of my Library and Information Science (MLIS) program at Simmons University. During this placement I created nine ‘Level 1’ finding aids and revised twelve existing finding aids with reparative description in light of the Center's Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description.

The Center stewards centuries of resources that evidence the development of medicine, procedures, and practice. The medical field and the language it employs has historically inflicted harm and disregarded the experiences of people of color, Indigenous peoples, women, and the poor. It is important that this history is recognized, collected, ethically described, and made accessible to inform the historical record and the future of medicine.

As part of my MLIS program, we have considered ethics, objectivity, and dimensions of power in core archival tasks such as description, arrangement, and classification. In large part, these processes seek to represent and contextualize a resource, and in doing so employ language and knowledge situated within systems of power. While it is one thing to recognize power in theory, how can repositories employ methods, approaches, and guidelines that decenter systems of power and seek to ethically describe and arrange their collections?

These questions have come up in my work processing small manuscript collections and in reparative description. Informed by the Guidelines, one step towards ethical description is to standardize description in a way that recognizes the myth of archival neutrality but avoids value judgements. This ranges from identifying creators or subjects by full or preferred names, centering them as agents, while avoiding laudatory tones and personal titles (Mrs./Ms./Mr./Dr.), unless it helps to clarify a person’s identity. Using full and preferred names is key to describing the experience of underrepresented peoples, but it is also important to include the unnamed normative identity categories of white and male to decenter the hegemonic and universal.1 It is also important to employ common, direct language, especially in the case of medical terminology, which often remains complex and inaccessible.

In engaging with reparative description, I tapped into the workflow set-up by the Center that identifies finding aids with harmful and outmoded language. Making use of the Guidelines and the Center’s reparative description workflow, I reviewed instances of ‘Mrs. husband’s name’ and the use of the term “Indian.” In the first case, I conducted research using existing description, genealogical sites, and web searches to determine the identity and full name of the individual. When possible, the name was updated to reflect an individual’s full name and a processing note was added describing the revision. When a name was unable to be determined accurately, I indicated so in a processing note.

In the case of the term “Indian,” I pulled collections identified in the workflow to examine whether the term was employed to refer to the people or state of India or if it was employed to refer to Indigenous peoples, tribes, or nations. In the second case, the preferred tribal name was researched and added to the description in brackets and a processing note.

While I played a small role in the archival workflow at the Center, these experiences highlight how the prescriptive power of language, representation, and description can be addressed in a repository’s descriptive practice. The Guidelines for Inclusive and Conscientious Description and the reparative description workflow are continually revised and can be viewed publicly.

Below are some of the collections I worked on and are now accessible through the Center’s reading room:

1. Emily Drabinski. “Teaching the Radical Catalog”. In “Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front”, edited by K. R. Roberto. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008.