The National Archives Catalog

Appendix: Reparative Description Preferred Terms

Introduction

About the Reparative Description Preferred Terms

The appendix includes reparative description preferred terms to support reparative description efforts of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) archivists, specialists, technicians, and staff to update harmful and outdated language in our archival descriptions. The list of non-preferred and preferred terms for reparative description links to guidance and notes on how to apply the preferred terms for archival description. The general guidance and style guide provides guidelines for using the preferred terms within Lifecycle Data Requirements Guide (LCDRG) data elements and access points.

NARA’s reparative description and digitization work is happening in the context of similar efforts at many other research libraries, private institutions, and government archives in the U.S. and across the globe. NARA made benchmarking a key component of our research for the non-preferred and preferred terms. We received input and feedback from community stakeholders on our approach to reparative description and on the non-preferred and preferred terms.

Guiding Principles for Reparative Description

The National Archives and Records Administration preserves and makes accessible the permanent records of the United States federal government. Archival records are the raw materials of history, and archivists’ work to make them publicly available can impact how events are remembered, whose stories are told, and which communities can find their experiences reflected in the national narrative. NARA’s records capture millions of stories across hundreds of years and their contents continue to have a real, direct impact on people’s lives. NARA’s records are the people’s records, and they should be equitably accessible.

NARA has a responsibility to repair inequities through our archival descriptive practices; this work is known in the larger archives profession as reparative description. We are committed to working with staff, communities, and peer institutions to assess and contextualize or update harmful descriptions and to establish standards and policies to guide staff in future description work. In this work, we will be guided by the following principles:

  1. Transparency—We will increase transparency about the archival process and provide space and tools for user feedback. NARA pledges to find innovative ways to inform the public about the origin of our archival descriptions, including whether the language is original to the record’s creator or was written by NARA staff. Where feasible, we will maintain and make available old/outdated versions of descriptions. We will create simple, accessible ways for users to give feedback and we will publicly document our efforts on our website so that we can be held accountable and further maximize NARA’s value to all of our users.

  2. Language—We recognize the vastness of NARA’s holdings and descriptive metadata, and we commit to using innovative methods to find, assess, and repair descriptions with harmful terminology, valorizing terminology, and underdescription. We will seek to use individuals’ and communities’ preferred terminology, while recognizing that including outdated terminology in descriptions can provide researchers with important context and access points into historical records. We will work to alert users to such language and explain why archives workers have included it so we can truly make access happen for all.

  3. Institutional change—We commit to a deliberative and thoughtful approach to archival description (including appraisal, processing, re-processing, digitization, and cataloging) that allows for community collaboration and cultural humility. We recognize the years of hard work put into achieving past description goals and providing basic access to our holdings, as well as the efforts of individual archives workers across NARA to implement reparative description. We commit to supporting archives staff and building our future through our people as we ask for their time and expertise to move forward.

  4. Collaboration—On an ongoing basis, we will seek input from marginalized people, colleagues within and outside of the archives field, and peer institutions about our descriptive practices. We will remain connected to our current users and work to build and rebuild relationships with marginalized communities by specifically acknowledging past wrongs, being transparent about our limitations, and following through on our commitments.

  5. Iterative/reflective process—We commit to making reparative description an ongoing, iterative process, not a one-time project. We welcome and will seek to implement public, stakeholder, and staff feedback, and we will continuously reflect upon our process to identify ways to improve.

  6. Leadership—We acknowledge that people and organizations representing marginalized communities have led the archives profession in developing reparative description best practices, and we continue to learn from their work. We recognize their leadership and build on lessons learned as we work to fulfill NARA’s role as a leader for government archives in implementing large-scale reparative description.

General Guidance and Style Guide

Due to their complex history, the non-preferred terms cannot be uniformly replaced with other terms in NARA’s archival descriptions or authority records. Each instance must be reviewed for context.

We anticipate the preferred terms and the use of terms will continue to evolve over time. This guidance is a living document that we will continuously expand and update. Our community-based approach means that a term’s usage may change or vary depending on the communities’ context and our analysis. 

NOTE: These changes apply to archival descriptions only, they do not apply to the content of the record.

Titles and Original Captions

Titles may be changed to remove harmful terminology and/or use preferred terms and phrasing.

When reviewing a title with a harmful racial modifier/non-preferred term, determine if it is better practice to remove all modifiers from the title or to replace it with the preferred term  in the title. In many cases, it may be better practice to remove the term rather than use a preferred term, especially if the description elsewhere provides context in the subject access points or another note field.

Original titles may be captured in the Other Titles field. If a Title is changed, the information must be added to the  General Note to explain the change, for transparency and discovery. Original captions for photographs with harmful terms should be moved to the Scope and Content Note according to the Lifecycle Data Requirements Guide (LCDRG) guidance.

Refer to the following LCDRG titles guidance.

Refer to the following LCDRG notes guidance

Harmful and Non-Preferred Terms in Quotes

Quotes require particular attention, especially when they can perpetuate the harm caused by using the term. Context will be key in these instances. Much will depend on how and by whom the term was used and whether it was solely archivist-supplied. Direct quotations in which harmful terms appear should be used sparingly and with care; they should not be included simply because they seem interesting. Alternatives to including direct quotations include paraphrasing (best for descriptions of non-digitized material) or transcription (best for digitized material).

Geographic Place Names

Harmful terms in geographic place names are not uncommon. Often, the term was adopted informally and became the accepted place name. Formal names for place names that have not been changed officially should be retained in the authority records until the place name is formally changed. In instances where the place name has been officially changed or where the term is used only colloquially, the current or formal name should be adopted in the authority file as the preferred term and added as an access point.

Access Points

We encourage the use of subject and geographic place access points to increase access, provide context, and facilitate discovery.

List of Non-Preferred and Preferred Terms for Reparative Description

This list is intended to complement a style guide and is not intended to be an authority list. Please consult the subject authority file for access points.

Non-preferred Term Preferred Term Date Added or Updated
Ghetto Inner city or Urban center 2022-07-20
Negress Black Woman 2022-07-20
Negro Black Person 2022-07-20
Nigger Black Person 2022-07-20
Slave Enslaved Person 2022-07-20
Slave owner, Slave holder, Slave master Enslaver 2022-07-20

Proposing and Adding Terms

The list of non-preferred and their associated preferred terms will expand over time. Additions to the list are reviewed and approved by the NARA Lifecycle Data Standards Board. Updates are added to the appendix.

If you find potential harmful language in the Catalog description of historical records, we encourage you to email us at catalog@nara.gov and provide a link to an example.

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