SAA Session Recaps: 101: Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories

In advance of the 2018 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Michelle Peralta, recent graduate of San Jose State University School of Information

101: Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories

You could not have asked for a better first session to open SAA 2018 than “Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories.” The panelists, consisting of chair Annie Tang, Dorothy Judith Berry, Kelly Bolding and Rachel E. Winston, each presented case studies that illustrated just some of the challenges in describing materials from historically underrepresented or marginalized populations, and introduced frameworks that employ cultural competency tactics and approaches for (re)description.

Annie Tang (formerly of Johns Hopkins University) opened the session by acknowledging the history of the ancestral people on whose land the session and conference was being held.

Some of the goals of the education session increasing archivists’ cultural competencies, applying social justice approaches to description, and exploring how archivists’ personal feelings affect their description. Tang stated that cultural competency is not a spectrum in which one travels from point A to point B, rather, it is a continuum in which one is constantly learning, and in which cultural humility, empathy, and literacy are applied.

Tang also addressed the session name change — previously, the session title contained a quote by Sherman Alexie in the poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” — after the many sexual harassment accusations against Alexie, which is, in itself, the application of cultural competency.  

Slides from this session can be found here: Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories.

Rachel E. Winston (University of Texas at Austin) – (Re)Discovery: Navigating Collections and Dusty Descriptions

Rachel E. Winston began by defining cultural competency and offered two definitions — the first by Helen Wong Smith and the second by DeEtta Jones. Winston focused on erasure in descriptions, or the problems that arise when description is lacking. That is, how do we fix what has been erased? How do we revise what has not been described?

An example Winston showed was Memín Penguín a Mexican comic book that portrays the main character and his mother as “pickaninny” and “mammy” stereotypes. However, the catalog description does not mention that the comic contains potentially triggering material, nor does it provide context for the comic. Another example was the photographs of the I.L. Maduro collection, which depict the construction of the Panama Canal, but whose descriptions erase the work of the people of color who labored to construct it, even as these very people are visible in the photographs. Both of these examples are cases of erasure/non-description. So how do we raise the voices of those erased when they have not been described? And who is responsible for helping students process items such as Memín Penguín when found in collections?

For Winston, the answer lies in instruction. In using collections in ways that are not apparent, in having students encounter erasure, archivists can teach critical information skills and empower critical information consumers. In this model, staff and listen and address concerns of students who are encountering questionable content to help them process the materials. Winston concluded by asking what can be made possible by centering historically marginalized communities and how doing so can make archival ever work more rich.

Dorothy Judith Berry (Harvard University) – Negro/Colored/Afro-American; Describing Blackness on a Mass Scale

For many, digitization is seen as an objectively good thing, and mass aggregations has thrown the proverbial doors open to accessible and representative digital collections. Dorothy Berry presented a case study of to illustrate the pitfalls of description found in mass aggregations. aggregates digitized materials that are available online from over 1,000 cultural heritage institutions, museums, libraries, and archives, accounting for nearly 520,000 items focusing on African-American history. When the University of Minnesota received a Council on Library Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections Grant, there was an opportunity to identify, digitize, and make available African American materials from across a breadth of collections, yes. But there was also the opportunity to enhance metadata and description — to rethink traditional methodology of what gets represented and how.

So whose history has traditionally been represented in the digitization projects that make it online? Berry points to a few factors and lists the ramifications said factors have on how communities are represented in these digitized collections. Rights issues/complications lead to an over representation of controversial materials, which may contain materials with upsetting representation of groups/racial caricatures. Another factor is the collecting practices that have traditionally funded the digitization of the collections of wealthy men, which means any portrayal of marginalized communities is not how that community would want to represent itself. And historical realities of what groups were more likely to have access to materials, technology, and literacy to build collections, and who were more likely to entrust collections to institutions means that collections lean toward privilege and therefore represent a reality lived by a small group of people.

Traditional archival practices further complicate matters. Archivists title files of “controversial materials” by using historically accurate terms and language but provide zero context in description which can be seen as racist in a contemporary lens. The assumption of neutrality creates biases in favor of historical racism, and that the archival profession is still overwhelmingly white women — all of which contribute to problematic descriptions.

Berry provided examples found on Umbra Search of African American materials that had missing descriptions, misleading descriptions, contextually inaccurate descriptions, which illustrate that in this era of digitization and mass aggregation, the archival profession is only at the beginning stages of describing materials on a broad scale. With these mass digitization projects, the focus has been so much on the fast processes to put materials online, but there has not been the same attention given to establishing systems and practices for thinking about how to describe Blackness. For how to represent our work to the public.

Digitization allows archivists to be iterative in description — we can revisit descriptions and revise or make choices of what we use in metadata. Some suggestions for description on a mass scale include creating a descriptive model that can be replicated, but is focused on the user and clarifies ambiguous folder titles, and writing brief additions that add value to descriptions.

See also: “Digitizing and Enhancing Description Across Collections to Make African American Materials More Discoverable on Umbra Search African American History” by Dorothy Berry.  

Kelly Bolding (Princeton University) – You Can’t Ask the Dead A Case Study on LGBTQIA+ Identities and Outness in Archival Description for Historical Collections

Inspired by Bergis Jules’ “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” Kelly Bolding presented “nascent attempts” at confronting failures of care in the description of LGBTQIA+ materials and the attempt at striking a balance between remedying silences in records and preserving the privacy of the subjects found in those records.

The first step was to query existing finding aids to locate where description was doing harm in order to remediate said harm, and to discover LGBTQIA histories that have been obscured by their descriptions or lack thereof. This lead Bolding to such collections as the Vardaman Collection, which contains materials of Mansel Vardaman Boyle who, as Vadaman, LaVarde, or La Vardy, was one of the most well-known female impersonators active in vaudeville circuits at the turn of the 20th century. An example of ambiguous queer identity, Bolding presented materials that show Vardaman as a female impersonator as well as Vardaman presenting a strong masculinity outside of their impersonation, which was a tactic many vaudeville performers used in order to separate themselves from accusations of queer sexualities.

This prompted Bolding to ask how can archivists redescribe or revise legacy descriptions of collections of deceased LGBTQIA+ people without imposing the violence of outing them or incorrectly labeling them? To what extent is it appropriate for archivists to do this? Citing from K.J. Rawson, as well as from Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” Bolding cautions against applying modern terms and culturally-specific language to these legacy descriptions, and prioritizes the privacy and needs of the subjects of the records in question.

Instead, Bolding presented two strategies for redescription without violence:

  • Research terminology use in its original historical context and provide context for historically accurate terms if used in description. Use descriptive notes in finding aids to describe activities instead of naming identities where they are ambiguous, taking a note from queer signaling whereby one leaves clues without outting subjects
  • Tag ambiguous collections with umbrella subject terms as of interest to LGBTQIA+ researchers rather than attempting to identify subjects or creators with contemporary terms. Be transparent — be clear about what we don’t know, and maintain old versions of finding aids for so it is clear where archivists have intervened (and these old finding aids also have research value)

(See the Digital Transgender Archive for an example of thoughtful descriptive policies).  

Annie Tang (formerly, Johns Hopkins University) – Dealing with Dealer Descriptions: Navigating Black and Asian Identities as Creators and Subjects in Purchased Manuscript Collections

Manuscript collections that have been purchased are accompanied by descriptions created by dealers and can contain useful information about the provenance of the item such as time and place of origin, and previous ownership. But these dealer descriptions also cause problems as they seek to generalize, gloss-over, or even rewrite historic narratives, and this tendency in dealer descriptions can be particularly damaging towards marginalized populations.

Annie Tang presented on the the problems of dealer descriptions that pertain to Black and Asian identities as subjects and creators. An example of a dealer description from a collection of screenplays portraying Asian and Asian American characters — a deliberate and conscientious choice of title as the screenplays were often portrayals of Asian and Asian American characters created and acted out by white performers — said that in the time period between 1955-1965, there was a “slow progressive move to accept interracial unions and to accept and understand Asian culture, and a particular effort towards acceptance of the Japanese.” However, Tang showed an image of Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s to illustrate the discrepancy between the dealer description’s version of history and the reality of the 1961 racist portrayal of a Japanese man in cinema.

Dealer descriptions have their own objectives and aims, which are not always compatible with those of an archives or library, and as such, cannot be taken wholly in place of archival description and thus these materials merit redescription.

Another problem with dealer descriptions Tang brought to light was the attribution of adjectives to subjects in such photographs as the ones found in an African-American postcard collection where the description describes the background and a man holding his hat, “while the children look on blankly.” In redescribing materials, Tang cautions against either including interpretations of what people are feeling or thinking in photographs.

Tang then invited the audience to participate in a redescription exercise, providing three examples of real dealer descriptions and asking the audience members to revise the descriptions.

Lastly, Tang concluded the presentation and the session with recommendations for what can be done if one finds themselves without time, resources, or staff to provide major remediation and redescription, which include: on-demand/as-you-go description, share the load, ask users in the finding room for feedback on finding aids, guides, and catalog records, discuss/train colleagues in cultural literacy and, finally, do not automatically ask your token coworker for their labor.