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Special Collections: Potentially Harmful Content Warning

The Special Collections Department of the Cunningham Memorial Library holds the University's unique physical and digital collections. Special Collections consists of three units: Rare Books & Manuscripts, University Archives, and the Permanent Art Collect

Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Collections, Cataloging, and Descriptions

The Cunningham Memorial Library (CML) makes an impact across our community by fostering research, teaching, and discovery, and by providing professional services, resources, experience, and expertise.

The CML Special Collections Department’s goal is to collect materials from different cultures and time periods to preserve and make available the historical and scholarly record. As a result, we recognize there are materials in our collections that may contain ideas of imperialism, white supremacy, misogynistic/misogynoir, and Western-centric and xenophobic opinions and attitudes; bias towards sexuality, gender, religions or abilities or other oppressive language or sentiment. It may contain graphics that are violent or provocative in nature. We retain such material unaltered in order to document history and preserve context, but we are making efforts to update our finding aids and collection descriptions to eliminate further oppression.

The Special Collections Department recognizes that description is not neutral, nor are the individuals who create these descriptions. With that in mind, we aim to describe our material and collections in a manner that alleviates the oppression of those who use our resources.

  • It was common practice to reuse language provided by creators, previous owners, and vendors.
  • We are making efforts to identify harmful language and update terminology to eliminate oppression and bias in our descriptions.
  • Many items retain their original descriptions to ensure that attitudes and viewpoints are not erased from the historical record. We do not censor the materials in our care, but we aim to clarify instances where original language is retained by using quotation marks and/or by providing additional historical context.
  • What constitutes appropriate description changes with context and over time. This impacts the description standards we apply to our collections.
  • We use Library of Congress Subject Headings as standardized subject terms to enhance access to materials. Some of these terms are outdated and harmful and we support efforts to change them.
  • When creating new records/descriptions and updating old ones, we strive to use terms that communities and individuals used to describe themselves.
  • We recognize that maintaining outdated and accurate description is an ongoing process. Staff are working on implementing practices to address offensive or harmful language as part of routine description work. We acknowledge that we may not always make the right decisions, so we encourage feedback from our users. We understand that terminology constantly evolves over time and efforts to create respectful and inclusive descriptions is an ongoing process.

Finding aid with problematic language will be retained for transparency purposes and will be available upon request. We also make a note of these changes in the “Edition statement” section of the finding aid or on as a note on the digital items page. Going forward, we seek to use inclusive, accurate, and respectful language in describing newly acquired and newly processed collections.

If you encounter language in our catalog records, digital object metadata, or elsewhere that is offensive or harmful, we welcome your feedback. Please contact us at Staff will review the description and update it in a way that balances the preservation of original context with an awareness of the effect of language on our users. Revisions may include providing additional context and/or replacing problematic terminology.

This statement was adapted from those of Folger Shakespeare Library, Princeton University Library, Brandeis University Library, and Washington State University. It was last updated September 19, 2022


Anti-Racist Description Resources: Archives for Black Lives:

Land Acknowledgement:

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials:

PT Barnum Museum: A note on language and disability:

GLAAD media reference guide – terms to avoid:

Homosaurus- an international LGBTQ linked data vocabulary: