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Statement on Potentially Harmful Language and Content

Established in 1935, the Bentley Historical Library and its collections include some language and content that may be harmful or difficult to encounter. These records span the history of the University of Michigan (founded in 1817), the state of Michigan, the United States, and their respective engagements with the world. It is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records to the public. As a result, some collections reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance and not from any endorsement of such views or events. 

The Bentley Historical Library and its staff stand against marginalization, oppression, and bias in its many forms and one way we look to combat this is by addressing exclusionary collection descriptions. We acknowledge that the language and structures used to describe these collections are not neutral. Currently many of our collection descriptions, including (but not limited to) catalog records, finding aids, databases, digitized collections, and exhibitions, are based on established systems and standards that often uphold and perpetuate many forms of oppression and bias.

Moving forward we are dedicated to revising and updating our descriptive language, and to describing archival materials in a manner that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use and are represented in the collections we manage. We are in the process of correcting and remediating use of offensive and harmful language and content in existing descriptions of archival materials. But with thousands of finding aids and catalog records, this is an ongoing process and will take time. 

Additionally, when new archival collections are prepared for research (that is, organized, described in finding aids, and cataloged) archivists face choices about the words and language used to describe the archival contents (for example, documents, letters, and photographs) as well as the people and organizations who created or are represented in the collection. As a result, while we create description in finding aids, they can also reflect language that was used by the people and organizations that created the material. For example, maintaining the titles of folders in a collection is a common practice because it provides important context about the materials. 

Nevertheless we strive to:

    • Examine and remediate offensive or harmful language used in descriptions of resources where we as the Bentley Historical Library have agency to make the change.
    • Push to eliminate oppression and bias embedded in descriptions by supporting the use of community-accepted alternative vocabularies in local descriptions.
    • Work with community partners to help identify vocabulary in collection descriptions that causes harm and find replacement terminology.
    • Promote anti-racist collection development strategies. 
    • Facilitate access to collection materials in a way that supports users.

This is an ongoing process and if you do encounter problematic or offensive language in catalog records, digitized collections, finding aids, exhibitions, or elsewhere, or if you have questions or suggestions, please contact us at:

Bentley-dei@umich.edu

This statement was developed by the Bentley Historical Library’s Potentially Harmful Language and Content Committee and is based on similar statements and efforts at the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library,  NARA, Princeton University, Temple University, and University of Michigan Library.