State Archives’ Statement on Potentially Harmful Content
The Rhode Island State Archives is responsible for preserving and maintaining access to the permanent, historical records of State government. The State Archives provides virtual access to its collections through prior staff-generated finding aids, descriptions, and digital copies of more than 10 million records dating back to 1638. Some records, finding aids, or descriptions may contain content that is harmful, offensive, or difficult to view. In addition, some of the materials presented in our collections may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions that do not constitute the current opinions and views of the Department of State. The State Archives is committed to working together with communities throughout Rhode Island to assess and update descriptions that are harmful.
What is harmful content?
Harmful content is viewable content which causes a person distress or harm. Historic collections often document the exclusion, silencing, or mischaracterizing of marginalized people that may be offensive or harmful to view.
What harmful or difficult content may be found in the catalog and digital collections?
Harmful or difficult content may:
- Reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes;
- Be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more;
- Contain profanity, racial slurs, or other harmful language;
- Include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more; or
- Demonstrate bias and lack of representation of all Rhode Islanders and their experiences.
Why preserve harmful records?
The State Archives maintains these records unaltered in order to document history and preserve context. The preservation of these records is key to government transparency as they document the activity of State government; however, can lack full representation of the people of Rhode Island and can be harmful in a number of other ways, as described above. The State Archives is not only continually working to expand its collection to more accurately represent all Rhode Islanders, but it is also committed to working together with communities throughout Rhode Island to identify harmful content and present it in an inclusive, accurate, and respectful way.
Why are some of the terms and language used in the prior descriptions harmful?
Archivists often re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the material. This can provide important context, but it can also reflect biases and prejudices. Additionally, archival description can be a subjective process and can reflect the opinions, language, beliefs, or biases that were acceptable at the time of description but are now considered offensive. In the past, archival repositories, including the State Archives, did not have standards and policies to help archivists avoid harmful language.
How is the State Archives addressing harmful content?
The State Archives knows that some records it is responsible for, including records of Rhode Island history, government, and culture, contain harmful content. The State Archives is working to address this issue both with respect to newly-acquired and newly-processed collections and to prior acquisitions and processed materials. For example, the State Archives staff is working to:
- Evaluate existing processes for exclusionary practices or institutional bias that prioritize one culture and/or group over another;
- Review and study best practice for reparative description;
- Inform users about the presence and origin of harmful content;
- Research the problem, listen to users, experiment with solutions, and share our findings;
- Standardize descriptive terms, supplementing or revising prior staff-generated descriptions with inclusive, accurate, and respectful language, and utilizing such language in describing newly-acquired and newly-processed materials; and,
- Making an institutional commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility through trainings and professional development opportunities.
How do I report potentially harmful language in the catalog and digital collections?
If you identify potentially harmful language in any records or descriptions or materials maintained by the State Archives, please report it via email to [email protected]. Please include in your email the following information, as applicable:
When reporting harmful content, please include:
- The name of the record;
- The title of the description or document;
- A quote of the specific language you feel is harmful; and
- A suggested alternative, if you have one.
The State Archives staff will review each report and assess the harmful content within the permanent record or revise or remove certain language from the prior staff-generated descriptions or materials. Please note that State Archives cannot alter original records; however, our staff can acknowledge the harmful nature of the record in staff-generated descriptions and/or revise or supplement any harmful language in prior staff-generated descriptions or other staff-generated materials.
Sources: 1. National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). Nara's statement on potentially harmful content. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.archives.gov/research/reparative-description/harmful-content