The use of language is a critical element of professional practice in archives and special collections. Whether it is used to describe materials, provide exhibit interpretation, or orient visitors via signage, language has a significant impact on the experience of all special collections users.
The Libraries’ Conscious Editing Initiative seeks to redress historical inequities and injustices in the ways language is used in archives and special collections. These efforts include replacing racist and derogatory language and removing biased language that assumes whiteness as a default. It also involves updating unbalanced descriptions (for example, those that prioritize white enslavers over enslaved individuals and families) and bringing the voices and experiences of marginalized groups to the forefront. Hidden lives and erased histories thus become discoverable for researchers, in the classroom, and through exhibitions.
Conscious editing brings an active, critical awareness of bias, privilege, and power and an ethos of deliberate care to the assessment, creation, and refinement of descriptive archival texts.
Archives and manuscript materials
The Conscious Editing Steering Committee is examining the language used in finding aids, or “road maps” to collections, to describe its archives and manuscript collections. An Antebellum Finding Aids Task Team is reviewing the more than 500 collections of antebellum papers in the Libraries’ Southern Historical Collection. One intended outcome of this work is the increased accessibility of our collections in unserved and underserved communities seeking meaningful connections with their ancestors and their histories.
The Conscious Editing Steering Committee is considering questions about the description of published materials such as books, periodicals, and sound recordings. Our description can include racist language transcribed from the item itself, or can include problematic language from national standards such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings. The committee is also considering when and how to warn our users about harmful content in our materials. Catalogers are discussing how to reconcile professional standards with user needs.
Guide to Conscious Editing
The Conscious Editing Steering Committee has developed a guide to inform librarians and archivists doing this redescription work. The guide contains articles on numerous topics, including rectifying ableist language, gendering and misgendering, discontinuing the perpetuation of white supremacy by unhiding the invisible norm of whiteness, and warning users about racist and harmful content. The guide also includes remediation examples and a bibliography of works used to inform decisions. The committee hopes that this guide will be a helpful resource for those writing or editing description in the library, and that it provides useful context about the work of conscious editing. As this work continues to evolve, the committee hopes that it will spark cross-departmental and community conversations about ways that the library can use language to better serve the communities who use and are represented in our collections.
The Conscious Editing Steering Committee is planning “community conversations” with library staff members to discuss articles included in the Guide to Conscious Editing. The goal of these conversations is to highlight conscious editing in a collaborative, cross-departmental environment.
- Meaghan Alston
- Michelle Cronquist
- Monica Figueroa
- Laura Hart
- Dawne Lucas, Co-Chair
- Rachel Reynolds
- Aaron Smithers, Co-Chair
- Matt Turi
- Kimber Thomas
- Jennifer Coggins
- Jackie Dean
- Sonoe Nakasone
- Tierra Thomas
Dean, J. “Conscious Editing of Archival Description at UNC-Chapel Hill.” Journal of the Society for North Carolina Archivists 16 (2019): 41-55. http://www.ncarchivists.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/jsnca_vol16_dean.pdf
Hart, L. “Conscious Language for a Jim Crow Archive.” Carolina Digital Repository, 9 April 2020. https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/concern/multimeds/6q182q97n
Learn more about the Libraries’ Conscious Editing initiative in the Windows Magazine article “A Choice to Empower.”