Research Our Records

Guiding Principles for Reparative Description at NARA

January 10, 2022

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 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 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 Where feasible, we will maintain and make available old/outdated versions of descriptions.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 We will seek to use individuals’ and communities’ preferred terminology, while recognizing that including outdated terminology in descriptions can provide researchers with important context and access points into historical records.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—We will listen to and seek ongoing input from marginalized people, colleagues within and outside of the archives field, and peer institutions about our descriptive practices. We will not only connect with our current users but also work to build and rebuild relationships with these communities through specifically acknowledging past wrongs, being transparent about our limitations, and following through on our commitments.
  5. Iterative/reflective process—We will 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 will seek to recognize their leadership and build on lessons learned as we work to fulfill NARA’s own potential as a leader for government archives in implementing large-scale reparative description.