By Lexy deGraffenreid and Ben Mitchell
As guest editors of the special issue of Archivaria on person-centred archival theory and praxis, we, Jennifer Douglas, Jessica Lapp and Mya Balin, are pleased to share a series of blog posts that reflect on the nature and enactment of person-centred approaches to archival materials and work. These blog posts complement the articles in the special issue, presenting a variety of perspectives on how centring the person in archival processes happens and why it matters. We're grateful to the authors for sharing their research and experiences!Introduction & Background
Adopting a person-centred archival praxis that privileges the language, culture, and preferences of those represented within collections has been a priority for Special Collections at Penn State since mid-2019. We aim to utilize an ethic of care, in which archivists prioritize the voices of those documented by and within records over traditional practices that prioritize documents themselves as well as the paradigms of predominantly white collectors and institutions. However, developing and implementing a more person-centred praxis is ongoing and has been evolving over a series of years. Due to the COVID-19 shift to remote work, Special Collections undertook a high-level audit of finding aids to evaluate completeness and to assess the presence of offensive language. This audit identified a broad array of obfuscating or offensive descriptive practices, which decreased the discoverability of archival records and perpetuated silences surrounding marginalized communities within our collections. This audit further identified that additional assessment was needed to understand the depth and breadth of these concerns.
Before further assessment, archivists determined that we needed to reconsider legacy archival practices and recentre the practice of archival description onto the perspectives and preferences of marginalized records creators and/or subjects. Our premise was that archival description should be accessible to and discoverable by the people and communities whose experiences are reflected within our collections. Moving towards a person-centred praxis required both self-reflection and adopting external expertise. As we do not have a community advisory group, it was necessary to take the time to research and pull in community-driven expertise and resources to better inform our descriptive practices. In summer 2020, in order to research more inclusive practices, we launched the Inclusive Description Working Group, which ultimately decided to author a style guide and resource guide for inclusive description. During summer and fall 2020, the working group began to compile resources such as community-driven thesauri, toolkits, and current projects to build an in-depth resource guide to ground the intended style guide in existing recommended practices and to be used as a learning resource. At the outset of the project, due to competing priorities and limited staffing, the working group decided to recruit an archival studies graduate student, Ben Mitchell, to conduct research and help draft the guide. In this next section, we will discuss developing and authoring the style guide as a working group after recruiting our graduate student to help develop the guide.
Developing the Guide
The project began with an extensive literature review. The literature review consisted of three major components. First, the working group worked independently to collect resources for review. These resources largely consisted of policy statements and style guides from similarly sized institutions, controlled vocabularies, active communities, and academic articles. These resources were compiled into a spreadsheet and served as the base for the literature review. In the following weeks, Ben reviewed the resource guide, selected a limited number of resources, and began to construct the literature review. The literature review was primarily structured around Archives for Black Lives’ guidelines. The group decided to focus on six general guidelines:
Language, Power, and Politics
Accessibility and Audience
Voice, Tone, and Expertise
Cultural Humility, Identity, and Naming
Violence, Oppression, and Challenging Content
Archival interventions (choosing mediation or not)
These guidelines would go on to form the backbone of the style guide, with additional, more technical categories for punctuation, formatting, etc. The working group examined the selected resources through these six lenses to inform the style guide. Most of the writing was done by Ben, but the group met weekly to make edits and discuss the findings. After final edits were made, the group began drafting the style guide itself. The writing process for the style guide followed the process for the literature review. Again, Ben did the majority of the writing, with continuous feedback and edits from the rest of the group. Each week, Ben drafted one to two guidelines for the style guide from the literature review. This work largely consisted of summarizing and transitioning the academic language of the literature review into the more technical language of the style guide. The style guide was designed to be easily understood, quick to reference, and to have minimal jargon.
In addition to meeting as a group for edits, Ben also met with individual group members to assist with the writing process. The group recognized the individual strengths and competencies of specific members and decided they would lend these skills to the writing process. For example, one member of the group had experience with controlled vocabularies, one member had experience with standardizing grammar, and so on. This way, the perspectives of the whole group could be included while retaining a singular voice for consistency.
After this process was repeated for each section of the style guide, the entire group met one more time for final review and edits. The process was designed to be highly iterative with editing done consistently throughout each stage. Furthermore, the style guide was specifically designed to be updated and edited based on evolving social conditions and changing archival standards. Adoption & Implementation The ultimate purpose of both the style guide and resource guide is to embed more inclusive practices programmatically into description workflows. The adoption of the guide’s practices happened alongside its drafting. Several collections requiring reparative redescription were prioritized as a result of the audit and served as useful test cases for researching and adapting people-first description methods. The guides formally launched in summer 2021 when Ben Mitchell presented them to all employees at a Special Collections employee meeting. The Interim Co-Head of Collection Services then implemented the guide across the Collections Services Team (a subset of the overall Special Collections Library charged with overseeing collection ingest, accessioning, description, and management) by introducing it in trainings alongside the local accessioning manual and processing manual. The expectation is set team-wide to consult the guide and implement more person-focused, inclusive practices for any accessioning or processing projects which document a marginalized person or group. Implementing the guides has had positive impacts across the Collection Services Team’s work. It is employed from the point of accessioning as a way to use more inclusive language in all parts of the collections services workflow to ensure that our minimally processed finding aids are person-centred in the potentially years-long interim between accessioning and processing. This care is especially necessary because our extensible accessioning guidelines indicate that collections under five linear feet are considered completed at the point of accessioning and many of the recently acquired collections documenting Black life or the LGBTQIA+ experience are small collections of less than five feet. For collections documenting marginalized persons or communities, the priority is to centre the voice of that community rather than to accession collections rapidly but insufficiently. This prioritization allows for a fuller, more robust minimal finding aid which is hoped to be more discoverable to researchers. Adopting this people-centred approach to extensible accessioning and processing forces archivists to recentre their praxis onto an ethic of care which prioritizes elevating the voices of marginalized creators and records subjects over traditional archival practices that minimized or excluded them through insufficient or obfuscating description. Ultimately, the adoption of the style guide will have an impact beyond Special Collections. The University Libraries’ most recent strategic plan includes the charge to “ensure equity of access by evaluating current descriptive access points within library catalog records, digital collections metadata, and archival description; create a plan to perform remediation on legacy descriptive practices; and identify and utilize alternative authority sources and a local style guide/thesaurus.” Members of the Inclusive Description Working Group form part of the action team assigned to this charge and the Guide is being used to inform broader projects around assessment and remediation across the library’s access points to create libraries-wide description that is more responsive and inclusive of marginalized voices. Recentring archival description on the experiences and preferences of people and their communities is not a single project. It requires an ongoing, iterative, and sustained program that is adaptable to the stated needs of the people whose voices we hope to centre. By creating and implementing this Style Guide to Inclusive Description and associated resource guide, and by adopting its recommendations in practice, we hope to build the scaffolding of a more diverse, people-centred repository that represents the diverse experiences of our community.
Lexy deGraffenreid is the Head of Collection Services at Penn State University’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library. Ben Mitchell is a STEM Librarian at the University of Rochester, but previously served as the Special Collections Discovery Assistant at Penn State.
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