File folders in a box. The tabs show with various labels like UNARM and Volunteers.

Folders from the L.A. Artists for Survival records relating to Target L.A., 1981–1984. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2017.M.46

As archivists at the Getty Research Institute, it’s our job to describe and organize the materials in Getty’s collection to make them easy for researchers, scholars, and historians to find. Our work largely takes place indoors, is often solitary, and far removed from the action of protests of social justice movements. But as we help shape the historical record, there is reparative work that we can do as archivists to support communities fighting for justice.

 The worldwide unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by police officers was a catalyst that compelled us to examine how we can help ensure that the voices of oppressed communities are accurately heard, represented, and thoughtfully described in the historical record.

Screenshot from a digital library record shows an entry about African American Art History Initiative Oral Histories.

Finding aid for the Getty Research Institute African American Art History Initiative Oral Histories, 2018–2020. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, IA60010

In describing archives and collections, we are interpreting history, and the words we choose are important.  For example, describing a subject within a collection as an “enslaved person,” rather than a “slave,” emphasizes the person’s humanity, making it clear that enslavement was something forced upon them, and does not describe their entire identity.  No matter how much we strive to be unbiased, the language we use in archival description carries weight—our choice of words guides and influences the reader.

A lack of description can also be problematic. When the creators, contributors, and subjects present in an archive are not acknowledged, it is called archival silence, defined as “the unintentional or purposeful absence or distortion of documentation of enduring value, resulting in gaps and inabilities to represent the past accurately.” We want to ensure that our language is respectful and does not silence anyone either intentionally or through omission.

Woman leans over a big table with a long poster that shows graphics of three figures in red, green and yellow.

One of the founding members of ARDWG at work at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

In July 2020, to counter this bias and harm, a group at the Getty Research Institute, comprised of one library assistant, a graduate intern, and nine archivists, formed the Anti-Racist Description Working Group. The goal of the Anti-Racist Description Working Group is to address and rectify biased language, distortion, and the erasure of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the descriptions we write for the archival collections under our care.

However, the field of archives and libraries is exceedingly white. According to a 2012 survey by the Society of American Archivists, the field is 86% white and 75% female.

Reflecting the demographics of the archival profession as a whole, the working group is predominantly made up of white women; without any Black and Indigenous members, as a result, we must continually educate ourselves and take extra care when reviewing and creating descriptions of communities we do not claim to represent.

First, we created a charter describing the group, our mission and scope, goals, deliverables, and our members. We then looked to other groups and institutions that have already engaged in this work. We first reviewed the Anti-Racist Description Resources, published by Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP). This document, created by A4BLiP’s Anti-Racist Description working group, was essential in informing our work on how to respectfully describe, and how to proceed with auditing past description.

We then completed an annotated bibliography of publications by archivists and librarians on anti-racist work, and conducted a survey of 67 peer institutions’ efforts regarding the reparative descriptions of collections and archives. We found that many of the institutions surveyed were in various stages of progress in their anti-racist work, which included projects such as publishing public-facing policy statements on anti-racist description, creating notes contextualizing offensive terminology, and implementing reviews of finding aids for problematic language.

Eleven women’s faces are lined up, each one in its own Zoom square.

The founding members of the ARDWG: Samantha Ceja, Beth Guynn, Helen Kim, Lauren McDaniel, Sara McGillivray, Kit Messick (Chair), Karen Meyer-Roux, Rachel Poutasse, Laura Schroffel, Sarah Wade, Lorain Wang

We devised tools and methodologies in order to begin a review of our legacy finding aids. Inspired by Princeton University’s Inclusive Description Working Group, we developed a lexicon of potentially problematic terms, then created a Python script that analyzed a set of finding aids files and generated a list of flagged terms if found within those files, allowing us to prioritize which finding aids to review first.

To date, the working group has reviewed 100 finding aids—almost 4000 pages, but barely a dent in the over 500 finding aids published by Getty. New finding aids are continuously being written and published, so we plan to create a style guide to help guide our work going forward. The group is also in the process of drafting a public policy statement about harmful language in archival description to post on the Getty Library’s web page.

The work of the Research Institute’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group is a long-term project and will be an ongoing, iterative process as our staff, collections, and preferred terminology evolve over time. We hope that our collaborative work will rectify biased descriptions and permanently influence the visibility and representation of BIPOC subjects in our collections.