Writing and Implementing a Statement to Remediate Harmful Language in the Library Catalog | Peer to Peer Review

As a cataloging librarian, I decide how a resource is described in its catalog record by assigning subject headings and a call number and determining whether notes or a summary is necessary. All of these decisions impact the findability of a resource and how a catalog user will perceive its content. So I am especially concerned with how a library resource is represented when it contains prejudicial content.

Andrea Schuba head shotAs a cataloging librarian, I decide how a resource is described in its catalog record by assigning subject headings and a call number and determining whether notes or a summary is necessary. All of these decisions impact the findability of a resource and how a catalog user will perceive its content. So I am especially concerned with how a library resource is represented when it contains prejudicial content. This may include harmful words, such as slurs, in the title or other bibliographic information. Because it is necessary to transcribe certain bibliographic information directly from a resource into the catalog record, I wanted to find a way to explain why harmful words appear in catalog records, instead of censoring the word or censoring the entire resource by not cataloging it. By explaining harmful words, patrons may be less likely to feel unwelcome in the library after seeing an offensive word in the catalog. I first heard about statements of harmful language in 2020 or 2021 in a listserv email and wanted to write one for my library.



I asked my supervisor, the University of Maryland (UMD) Libraries’ Director of Cataloging and Metadata Services, if I could write a statement of harmful language. She agreed and shared with me that one of our archivists recently wrote a Statement of Harmful Language in Finding Aids. I contacted the archivist and she explained the process of implementing this statement for the UMD Special Collections and University Archives. Then I drafted a statement that could be applied to any resource in the library catalog and shared it with my department for review and comment. Four colleagues in my department, as well as the Discovery Strategies and Systems Librarian, were interested in forming a working group for the statement. We edited the language of the statement, created a feedback form that allows catalog users to report problems with harmful language, and determined where to display the statement on the library website and online public access catalog.



When the working group finalized the statement, we sent it to the Associate Dean of Libraries for Collection Strategies and Services. It was subsequently shared with the Library Management Group, where it was endorsed. The Dean approved the statement because it relates to the UMD Libraries’ Statement of Commitment to Anti-Racism and Social Justice and our strategic goals related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. We collaborated with two colleagues in Libraries Strategic Communications and Outreach to post the finalized Statement of Harmful Language in Catalog Records on our library website.

In addition to the website, the working group decided how to display the statement in the catalog. This was complicated because UMD has two catalog interfaces: WorldCat UMD and the Classic Catalog. The Discovery Strategies and Systems Librarian in our working group was able to add a “Harmful Language Policy” link to the statement in the footer of our more popular WorldCat UMD interface. However, the Classic Catalog is managed by the University System of Maryland and Affiliated Institutions Library Consortium (USMAI). We cannot simply roll out the statement in this interface because it will need to work for all USMAI institutions. Particularly, all institutions will need a method of receiving and responding to feedback about harmful language when it pertains to one of their records. The USMAI Metadata Committee is considering a statement and feedback mechanism that works for the Classic Catalog interface.

The working group considered placing the statement directly into MARC records. However, if we were to retroactively place the statement in MARC records that we identified as having harmful words, then it would not be applied consistently. It would be impossible to search and find all harmful words in existing catalog records as well as the records for incoming shelf-ready materials that are processed without UMD catalogers. Furthermore, it is impossible for any one person to know all the words that can be considered offensive. The link in the footer is not as obvious as having a statement directly in catalog records, but it is consistent.

Some libraries display their statement on harmful language in every catalog record using features of their discovery layer rather than recording it in their MARC records. Princeton University and University of Michigan are two examples. Because UMD will be migrating to a new integrated library system soon, this may be a possibility for us in the future depending on the capabilities of the new system.



Library systems looking to gain ideas for their own statements of harmful language can browse the List of Statements on Bias in Library and Archives Description at Cataloging Lab.



It is helpful to think about why your library contains materials with harmful content. Sometimes this happens because certain materials have not yet been weeded. This also happens because materials with harmful content are useful to some researchers. Libraries that may find a use for holding prejudicial materials include large research libraries with expansive, cross-curriculum collections, or research libraries with a narrow focus on specific eras of history. Researchers who study groups of people with marginalized identities may find prejudicial materials about these groups to be useful for explaining why these groups have experienced discrimination historically or today.



It is useful to explain that certain information from a resource must be transcribed into its catalog record or a finding aid in order to promote discovery of the resource.



Library employees have been creating catalog records and finding aids for decades. So it is possible that some records or finding aids include offensive words written by a past or present employee, or that an offensive word in the resource was not contextualized by an employee. This may happen because language changes over time and some of today’s offensive words were widely used historically by people in power. Additionally, library employees can have their own unconscious biases or be ignorant about certain words that are offensive. Explain that your library can change harmful language written by employees.



If your library has the capacity to respond to patron concerns about harmful language in the catalog, your statement can include a link to a feedback form or an email address where people can send concerns. This would require an employee or group of employees to be responsible for checking and responding to feedback.

By writing a statement of harmful language for your library, you may remediate harm caused by offensive words. The statement can explain to your patrons that you are not endorsing these offensive words or prejudicial content. It can also maintain a welcoming atmosphere in your library by expressing your willingness to accept feedback and change content description.


Andrea Schuba is Monographs Cataloging Librarian at University of Maryland in College Park, MD. 

Opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Maryland Libraries or the University System of Maryland.

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