Acknowledgement of Harmful Descriptions in Library Practices

As responsible stewards of library and archival materials, items in the Denver Public Library collection have been preserved in their original state and historical context. We acknowledge that some materials and catalog descriptions contain harmful and/or offensive language that reflect historical biases relating to ability, gender, race, religion, sexuality/sexual orientation, and other identities. Such viewpoints uphold white supremacy, colonialism, and the continued marginalization of historically oppressed identities.

While we recognize the importance and impact these resources have in education, research, and historical record, Denver Public Library does not support nor condone the harmful social attitudes and circumstances of described works.

Therefore, we are determined to find ways to mitigate the use of harmful descriptions in our catalog metadata. We are conducting catalog audits to identify harmful content and developing protocols to update and correct subject headings used by the Library of Congress.

This ongoing process will take time yet we are committed to creating welcoming spaces where customers, researchers, and all other users are free to explore and connect without continued harm. We recognize the importance of ensuring that our locations, collections, and resources are reflective of the communities we serve and we apologize for the participation we have had in perpetuating harm.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are ‘harmful descriptions’ a concern for the library?

Standardized sets of terms are often used to describe and catalog library materials, including Library of Congress (LOC) Subject Headings. Some of these terms are harmful in that they reflect painful ideologies and perpetuate systems of oppression that marginalizes many identities. It is unacceptable to continue to support, whether actively or passively, these ideologies or systems.

Denver Public Library is committed to actively examining our role in perpetuating oppressive systems as we strive to change inequitable practices, structures, policies, and the attitudes that drive them, in alignment with our mission, vision, and values.

What is an example of a harmful description?

A harmful description would be considered one that contains racist, homophobic, sexist, euphemistic, ableist, or demeaning language toward people of any marginalized group.

How are you addressing this problem?

To increase searchability while improving access and representation, we will evaluate non-subject heading language used by the Library of Congress and identify more appropriate subject headings that could be assigned in conjunction with those terms. Conducting catalog audits, developing corrective protocols, and actively updating and correcting subject headings is an ongoing process that will take time. You may encounter harmful language in a finding aid or catalog record that has not yet been reviewed. Please report that language using the Acknowledgement of Harmful Language in Library Descriptive Practices form. Submissions regarding the content of materials will not be considered in the context of this project.

Can I still access the primary resources or are you deleting records?

Our work to address harmful descriptions will not result in any changes to our circulating or non-circulating materials. The materials in our collections have research value and reflect the society in which they were produced. We will continue to make these items available because they are important resources for education, research, and the historical record. Examples of retained harmful language might include terms that the creator of the work uses to self-identify in which case said terms may provide important contextual information that will help users better understand the material or the conditions whereby it was created. Continued community feedback about offensive language encountered will inform us about important biases and prejudices in our collections, the needs of our communities, and other learning opportunities to identify what we may have missed.

Do I have to do anything special to find what I am looking for?

If you are accessing our collections, you may need to engage in your search by using offensive  historical terminology that was used in the past. We are actively working to remediate harmful search terms.

How widespread is this issue?

This issue is one of international concern. Generally, librarians and archivists rely upon professional standards and codes of ethics, donor feedback, research of communities and individuals, topics and conversations (when possible) with the person or individuals shared by or identified in the collections. While preparing this information, DPL used examples from fifty-four other institutions, like libraries, archives and museums, from around the world. We drew from their experience and resources when needed, to benefit from them as guides and advisors.

Where can I find more information?

In the Other Resources section below, we list some additional materials that offer more information about this topic.

How can I let you know if I find a harmful description?

If you come across harmful or offensive language in our finding aids, research aids, or in our collection descriptions, you can fill out the Acknowledgement of Harmful Language in Library Descriptive Practices form and it will be sent to our staff for review.

Other Resources on This and Related Topics

DPL Strategic Plan

Adler, Melissa. "Classification along the color line: excavating racism in the stacks." Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies: 1, no. 1 (2017).

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. "Anti-Racist Description Resources." Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia. (October 2019).

Caswell, Michelle. "Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives." The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy: 87, no. 3 (July 2017).

Drexel University. "Statement on Harmful Content in Archival Collections."

Newberry Library. “Statement on Potentially Offensive Materials and Descriptions.

Olson, Hope A. "The power to name: locating the limits of subject representation in libraries." (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).

Princeton University. "Statement on Language in Archival Description."

Rare Books and Manuscripts Section/Association of College and Research Libraries. "ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians."

Rinn, Meghan R. "Nineteenth-Century Depictions of Disabilities and Modern Metadata: A Consideration of Material in the P.T. Barnum Digital Collection." Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 5, Article 1 (2018).

Schaumburg Township District Library. “Harmful Content Statement.

Society of American Archivists. "SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics."

Temple University Libraries. “SCRC Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Archival Description and Cataloging.

Alert Us

If you come across harmful or offensive language in our finding aids, research aids, or in our collection descriptions, please let us know. You can fill out the Acknowledgement of Harmful Language in Library Descriptive Practices form with your feedback and it will be sent to our staff for review.