From Getty’s Iris Blog:
As archivists at the Getty Research Institute, it’s our job to describe and organize the materials in Getty’s collection to make them easy for researchers, scholars, and historians to find. Our work largely takes place indoors, is often solitary, and far removed from the action of protests of social justice movements. But as we help shape the historical record, there is reparative work that we can do as archivists to support communities fighting for justice.
In describing archives and collections, we are interpreting history, and the words we choose are important. For example, describing a subject within a collection as an “enslaved person,” rather than a “slave,” emphasizes the person’s humanity, making it clear that enslavement was something forced upon them, and does not describe their entire identity. No matter how much we strive to be unbiased, the language we use in archival description carries weight—our choice of words guides and influences the reader.
A lack of description can also be problematic. When the creators, contributors, and subjects present in an archive are not acknowledged, it is called archival silence, defined as “the unintentional or purposeful absence or distortion of documentation of enduring value, resulting in gaps and inabilities to represent the past accurately.” We want to ensure that our language is respectful and does not silence anyone either intentionally or through omission.
In July 2020, to counter this bias and harm, a group at the Getty Research Institute, comprised of one library assistant, a graduate intern, and nine archivists, formed the Anti-Racist Description Working Group. The goal of the Anti-Racist Description Working Group is to address and rectify biased language, distortion, and the erasure of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the descriptions we write for the archival collections under our care.