Best Practices Sub-Committee: Pre-Custodial Diversity Assessment

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:

Image reads: Diversity and Documentation Value: Does this collection document an underdocumented community, help to diversify our collections, or meaningfully fill a gap in the historical record?

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:

Image reads: Theme(s) and includes options for African-American, Architecture, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, Community organizations, Entertainment, Gaming, Jewish, Las Vegas (1940-1999), Las Vegas (post-2000), Las Vegas (pre-1940), Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Mining, Native Americans, Nuclear testing, Politics and government, Southern and Central Nevada, UNLV, Water/Environment, Women

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.

3 thoughts on “Best Practices Sub-Committee: Pre-Custodial Diversity Assessment

  1. We are doing a diversity audit of our collections to try to develop collection development priorities that reflect diversity, equity and inclusion during the appraisal process. But, I like your idea to include this as part of the accession process as well. The data collected would be helpful for reporting and awareness by staff that DEI issues are important. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  2. What a great idea to include such questions and considerations at the front end of the archival process. Excited to see more institutions thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion in both accessioning and description.

  3. We’re not thinking about these issues this concretely at the accessioning stage–rather, it’s not part of our forms, though our curators are using these concerns as part of their collecting choices–but we just introduced a digitization form for staff to suggest collections or items to digitize that would diversify our online holdings. Previously, this selection work was only conducted by curators, so I think the working group working on this topic is trying to open the process up to other Libraries staff who work with the collections in different ways from the curators, and who have different perspectives from the curators.

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