How we describe historical materials

Understanding Description of Historical Materials

CSU Libraries’ Digital and Archive Services provides online and in-person access to materials created by people and organizations from the past. Archives mostly contain primary sources, which are unpublished, one-of-a-kind letters, photographs, recordings, and other materials used for historical research. We (archivists) want you to use them, so we create guides called finding aids that provide context information and an inventory for each archival collection. We also make available online materials that we have either digitized or received digitally, and we add searchable descriptive information called metadata.

In these research tools, we try to describe all materials accurately and in a way that aligns with CSU’s Principles of Community. Some descriptions created in the past may not follow our current standards. They may include language that is dehumanizing, racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, or classist. We are working to fix those descriptions, but you might still find harmful and upsetting language.

Archival materials are part of the historical record. Original historical materials might contain negative stereotypes or words reflecting the culture or language of a specific time and place not considered appropriate today. We know encountering these images and words can be hurtful, but because they are historical evidence, we do not change them. We cannot rewrite the past.

Please help us to correct mistakes in descriptions or provide additional context for items by contacting special collections.

For more information about using archival materials, visit our research guide.

Policy on Inclusive Description and Metadata

Digital and Archives Services (DAS) recognizes that, over the years, harmful language has been created or used by staff in describing the department’s archival materials, in both finding aids and digital object metadata. To be inclusive of all, this language needs to be identified and remediated in past descriptions and not carried forward in future ones. DAS also recognizes that original content by material creators might contain harmful or outdated language and images.

DAS commits to describing archival materials in an inclusive manner that is accurate and respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in them. Our work will maintain materials as presented at the time of creation, align with CSU Libraries’ Principles of Community in Action, and stem from established and emergent best practices related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in archival description.

DAS acknowledges that descriptive standards and practice are not neutral and will continue to evolve. Where possible, DAS will engage collection donors and creators as well as community members represented in archival materials to produce respectful and inclusive archival description. This applies to description of archival materials through both finding aids and digital object metadata. This does not apply to description created outside of DAS, such as in MARC records, whether internal to the CSU Libraries or by other institutions.

This policy statement, offered by the 2023 Digital and Archives Services Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group, should be included as part of a broader department description policy and reviewed every three years.

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