Statement on Potentially Harmful Language in Collections, Cataloging and Description

Brandeis University was founded on the principles of social justice and equality and the Brandeis Library has been a cornerstone for that vision. The Brandeis Library makes an impact across our community by fostering research, teaching, and discovery, and by providing professional services, resources, experience, and expertise.

Libraries and archives collect materials from different cultures and time periods to preserve and make available the historical and scholarly record. As a result, the Brandeis Library's collections may contain materials that our community could find offensive and/or harmful.

The Brandeis Library recognizes that description is not neutral, nor are the individuals who create these descriptions. With that in mind, the Brandeis Library aims to describe its materials and collections in a manner that is respectful to individuals and communities who use our resources. However, for a number of reasons, users may encounter offensive or harmful language in descriptions of works in the main collection and archival collections may contain historical language that is harmful—for example, language that is racist, sexist, or homophobic.

  • Many of our catalog records and finding aids were created years ago and may contain harmful language. It was a common practice to reuse language provided by creators, previous owners, and vendors. 
  • 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 over time. This impacts the description standards we apply to our collections. 
  • We use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as standardized subject terms to enhance access to materials. Some of these terms are outdated and harmful and we support efforts to change them. We work to provide alternatives to harmful terms whenever possible.
  • 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 updated and accurate descriptions is an ongoing process. Staff are 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. 

If you encounter language in our catalog records, digital object metadata, or elsewhere that you find offensive or harmful, we welcome your feedback, questions, or concerns. 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 and Princeton University Library. It was last updated on 2021-08-11.

Additional Resources

Brandeis University's Anti-Racism Plan

Brandeis University Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion