Culturally Competent (Re)Description Education Campaign

Following the murder of George Floyd and the release of the RAC’s Statement In Solidarity with the Black Community, RAC archivists recognized that we have the opportunity to use archival description as a means for resisting the white supremacy inhabiting the archive’s records, humanizing individuals and groups who have been marginalized within the collections, and gaining the trust of users who often feel alienated by archives. To initiate the work, members of the Processing Team developed an education campaign to learn more about cultural competency in relation to archival description.

Culturally competent archival description is the documenting of materials with an awareness of one’s own cultural identity as well as the cultural identities of donors, sellers, custodians, creators, subjects, and users. It includes the ability and willingness to learn continually about how to apply those skills and knowledge in writing descriptive metadata.1 Culturally competent archival description also strives to represent “accurately, appropriately, and respectfully”2 marginalized, underrepresented, and historically oppressed people and contexts through descriptive metadata practices, whether during initial description and processing of current projects, or reevaluation and reprocessing of legacy holdings.

The work takes the form of reevaluating embellished language that valorizes the record creators (“genius” or “preeminent”), ensuring racist or ableist titles do not make their way into description written by archivists, using correct, direct terminology when describing distressing records (“hate mail” or “racist”), and – given the RAC’s mission of collecting records documenting the history of philanthropy – providing context about the power imbalance that exists between affluent, powerful individuals or foundations and the grantees seeking funds. RAC processing archivists developed a training program to support staff in writing archival description that reflects the research needs of the diverse community we serve, beyond traditional scholars.

Goals

The education campaign was designed to equip RAC staff with the knowledge and expertise to recognize, prevent, and remove pejorative, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, euphemistic, and ableist language; hagiographic description that valorizes white men and people and organizations with power; and to address the absence of description related to individuals and groups from marginalized communities.

Project aims:

  • Introduce all of the RAC’s staff, regardless of their role in the organization, to the concept of cultural competency generally and in relation to archives.
  • Provide RAC staff with the expertise to recognize patterns of problematic archival description in RAC collections.

Scope and Audience

This project was primarily intended to facilitate education and awareness of culturally competent descriptive practices for all staff who create or use archival description. This education and training program’s main goal was to empower staff who encounter problematic archival description to revise it according to archival best practices and culturally competent guidelines.

Phase 1

The first phase of the education campaign began in December 2020 and consisted of a period of self-guided learning followed by discussion sessions conducted virtually via video conference. We encouraged all staff to participate in the education campaign because everyone, regardless of their position at the RAC, has a role to play in assisting researchers, providing access to materials in person and online, and ensuring our description follows RAC standards. It also provided an opportunity for the entire staff to gain deeper understanding of systemic racism and white supremacy in general.

Learning Modules

Three discussion sessions in January 2021 to accommodate staff

  • Provided agenda in advance
  • General takeaways and definitions
  • Initial icebreaker question to encourage discussion
  • Read aloud the University of Minnesota Extension’s “Setting ground rules for productive discussions”
  • Split into breakout rooms for smaller discussion groups

Phase 2

Following the Phase 1 discussion sessions, RAC initiated a series of reading group discussions, also carried out via video conference, to explore topics concerning how to implement workflows and policies for creating more inclusive archival description, how to make discoverable histories that have been marginalized, and how to recognize and combat white supremacy culture in our practices.

Using discussion facilitators from outside of the Processing Team, Phase 2 sessions incorporated more diverse perspectives on how culturally competent description relates to different job activities and different material formats, focused more on actions RAC archivists can take, and investigated specific issues within our collections and description.

Reading Group 1 - Story, History, and Silences

Collaboration with the Digital Strategies Team and Research & Education.

Reading Group 2 - Hidden Histories and Opportunities for CCD Actions

Collaboration with the Reference Team.

Reading Group 3 - CCD Case Study for the RAC’s Audiovisual Materials

Collaboration with the Collections Management Team and the 2020 Selznick Fellow.

Next Steps: Action Campaign

Following the Education Campaign and the foundational work of the 2020 Selznick Fellow and Audiovisual Archivist to create initial culturally competent description recommendations for audiovisual material, the Processing Team will move forward with action-oriented tasks, including crafting guidelines to add culturally competent description to the Guide to Processing Collections, developing a reporting tool that staff can use to inform the Processing Team of problematic description, and performing a collection audit in order to identify and assess where in our collections reparative description actions need to be implemented.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all of the archivists, authors, and scholars we cited in the Phase 1 and Phase 2 overviews as well as others in the archives, libraries, and cultural heritage fields who, for many years, have led the pursuit of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices in relation to description of archival materials. We give special recognition to the work of the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group for their Anti-Racist Description Resources as well as Dorothy Berry, Kelly Bolding, Annie Tang, and Rachel E. Winston for their SAA 2018 presentation “Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories”. Both of these works were instrumental to the inspiration and planning of the RAC’s culturally competent description activities.

The RAC archivists responsible for developing and carrying out the RAC’s CCD campaign acknowledge that we are not experts on the subject and are learning with the rest of our colleagues. We pledge to continue to engage with research and literature concerning culturally competent description topics, to recognize and reflect upon our own position in relation to white supremacy culture and oppressive practices in archives, and to listen to the voices of our BIPOC colleagues and of others from marginalized backgrounds in archives and related fields.