Last year, OCLC’s Rachel Frick and Merrilee Proffitt convened a group of experts, practitioners, and community members to discuss reparative and inclusive descriptive practices, tools, infrastructure, and workflows in libraries and archives. Staff from the National Archives participated and were energized by the conversations. Last week, OCLC published a report based on the convening, “Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community Informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice.” The report helpfully frames the challenges to consider when working on inclusive and reparative metadata work.
The report is a must-read if you have an interest in the archival profession. Three particular points made in the report have resonated deeply with the reparative description and digitization work we are doing at the National Archives:
It Takes Time to Build Trust
OCLC notes that building trust is a key element of reparative and inclusive description work:
Trust is built between organizations and communities through experiences, and it is diminished or increased with each interaction. Trust is cumulative and communicated in every action. (OCLC, p. 16)
Over the past year, NARA’s Reparative Description and Digitization Working Group has developed a process for building relationships with communities. This entails working within the Agency to identify our own experts on specific communities. Getting advice from our internal experts about whom we should contact in external communities. Meeting with external community contacts to discuss their community’s relationship (or lack of) with the National Archives and listening to their recommendations for reparative description, transcription, and digitization efforts.
In the past, we might have just leaped into the work at that point and started doing what we thought we heard from the community contacts (if we had contacted them at all). But with our current focus on building relationships and trust, we decided to work up potential projects based on what we heard from the community contacts and then meet again with them to confirm – are we on the right path? Did we understand you correctly? Do our priorities reflect your intentions?
What we have found is that the community contacts are somewhat surprised that we contacted them again and pleased that we not only listened to them, but actually did some follow up work. This is not a fast process and it is not “one and done.” We will continue meeting with community contacts as we work through projects that are useful to them. In this way, NARA intends to become more inclusive and to build ongoing trust with our users.
The OCLC report confirms this approach:
Relationship building, communication, and developing a shared understanding in the reparative and inclusive description space should not be rushed if the ultimate goal is to open up descriptive practice to be inclusive by building trust and reciprocal relationships with contributing communities. (OCLC, p. 6)
This process takes time, which can be somewhat alarming when we look at the scale of work in front of us. But this time is critical to take. OCLC notes:
The urgency to address past harms and correct harmful behaviors and workflows must be tempered by proceeding at a speed that supports building trust, promotes continuous learning, and embraces iterative effort. The work of reparative and inclusive metadata will never be finished. Stewarding the data about library and archive collections for users today and into the future will require ongoing refinement to practice (OCLC, p. vi).
Actions Speak Louder than Words
With the Archivist’s Task Force Report on Racism and our Potentially Harmful Content Statement, NARA acknowledges systemic racism and exclusive practices in our archival work. This is a critical first step, but must be followed by action. The OCLC report notes, “…acknowledgement and apologies are not substitutes for redress…” (OCLC, p. 7).
Staff from across NARA as well as the Reparative Description and Digitization Working Group have been attending pertinent Society of American Archivists webinars and training sessions to learn from our peers who are doing similar work. We have also invited experts to speak with us so we may learn from their work. We know that NARA is one part of a larger archival community that is learning to address systemic racism in our work.
OCLC notes, “All institutions (and individuals working within institutions) can and should consider the power they hold and their ability to dream and enact change. Not taking any action perpetuates the status quo.” (OCLC, p. 15). NARA’s working group is in the process of developing concrete approaches to enable reimagined descriptive metadata practices. This includes updating our Agency’s description training, standards, and review processes to embed guidance on reparative terminology and descriptive practices into our core description workflow. As we begin to make progress on these efforts, we are determined to be transparent by posting milestones to our Reparative Description and Digitization webpage.
Our Responsibility as a Power-Holding Institution
OCLC’s report notes, “Institutions such as government bodies, schools, churches, libraries, archives, and other organizations that serve communities are entrusted with considerable power to act responsibly on behalf of society. Typically, the larger (in wealth, status, profile) the organization, the more power it wields. ” (OCLC, p. 15)
At the National Archives, we recognize the important position our institution holds as we preserve and provide access to the permanent records of the federal government. We do not take our position lightly and we are committed to continually learning and growing with the archival community.
The values expressed by libraries, archives, and related fields of knowledge aim to affirm the desire to welcome and embrace all peoples. The information communities of practice have embraced this set of values while continuing to operate using systems and structures that were developed during the nineteenth century and reflect a Western white male hegemony. These current systems and structures do not support the kaleidoscope of races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, religions, abilities, and more that are reflected in the communities that are served by libraries and archives today. By applying white-centered, Western concepts to items representing a wider, diverse world view, there is the risk of hiding knowledge in plain sight. A user familiar with terms based in their communities’ culture and knowledge may never connect to objects described using terms based on the dominant culture, effectively silencing these diverse voices in collections. (OCLC, p. 9)
This is the work of archives going forward, to repair the description of our historical records, to listen to those who have been silenced, and to center those who have been marginalized. By doing so, we improve and expand access to the records and provide a fuller understanding of our history for all Americans.
For Further Information:
- Frick, Rachel L., and Merrilee Proffitt. 2022. Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community-informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. https://doi.org/10.25333/wd4b-bs51
- Cataloging Lab’s List of Statements on Bias in Library and Archives Description