The Best Practices Subcommittee, headed by Suzi Noruschat and Meaghan O’Riordan, has started a new project. Many institutions are focusing on doing retrospective projects to assess harmful language in legacy description, especially in the wake of the nationwide protests responding to the murder of George Floyd and during the COVID-19 pandemic when many of us have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in projects like retroactive description. In the spirit of this work, Suzi and I thought it would be interesting to find out if institutions are thinking about these aspects during the pre-custodial assessments of materials, as well as during the initial description that may occur during accessioning. As the Accessioning Archivist for the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University, this was also my initial question when our collection processing team began crafting a harmful language statement and thinking of ways to approach a retrospective description project – what can I do at the time of accessioning to avoid creating more problems later?
At my institution, we are not quite there yet for accessioning, but we did begin using a new potential acquisitions report form about a year ago, and it includes a question about diversity:
We are thinking about diversity writ large; for example, we collect in Irish literature and poetry, so obviously most of those writers are white. However, we were not great at collecting from women, so that has been a more concerted effort as of late. Curators are free to answer, “No,” to this question, but having it as a required question on the form at least reminds them to think about this aspect of the acquisition before presenting it to a group for approval to move forward.
I asked members of the Accessioning Collective Slack Channel if they had similar practices in the early stages of the collection life cycle. Rose Oliveira, Accessioning Archivist at the University of Virginia, shared that they recently started what they are calling a “pink flag” system. The idea is that they have pink flags to alert them to collections that have material related to BIPOC, LGBT, women, and other groups where they need to be particularly conscious of description and access points. This system isn’t only being used in the pre-custodial and accessioning phases but throughout the collection lifecycle. Curators and the University Archivist use them as they bring in collection material, which allows for better description in the accession record and for those collections to be given a higher priority in the processing queue. The flags can also be used by public services and other staff members on already processed materials, so that they can do retrospective description as needed. Their curatorial team is also working on revising the collection policy, and awareness of diversity will be a part of that revision.
Melanie Wisner, Accessioning Archivist at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, shared that while the form that curators must complete before transfer of material does not explicitly ask about diversity, most are including that information as a reason for the acquisition when it is applicable.
Finally, Suzi reached out directly to Tammi Kim, Special Collections Technical Services Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Kim has an Accession Form that includes a section called “Themes” that enables selection of terms applicable to diverse and underdocumented groups, among other categories:
Here people can indicate at this early phase of the collection’s life what groups a collection documents so that, going forward, staff can be mindful during processing.
These are the only examples we were able to gather from the limited outreach we did. We are hoping, though, that others would like to contribute to this project by sharing their resources and practices, which we hope to gather in a more permanent place than a blog post. However, if your institution is not thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion at the time of acquisition or accessioning, hopefully these examples offered ideas of how you might do so in the future. If you are interested in adding to this group of resources, please contact Suzi and Meaghan.