About Reparative Archival Description

What is Reparative Archival Description?

Historical materials may include viewpoints, positions, norms, and values by the original creators that may be harmful to our researchers. Our collection guides, digitized collections, metadata, and original content may include language that is harmful to many communities represented in the collections in a variety of ways.

When we find harmful language that was created by a library employee, we update it. When we identify harmful language by the original creator, we provide additional context.

The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at NC State University Libraries collects, preserves, and makes accessible unique and historical materials for research and educational success. The SCRC is committed to recognizing and addressing the historical harm that archives, archival collecting, and descriptions have caused marginalized and underrepresented communities. We strive to sustain ongoing, intentional work to confront and repair existing harmful descriptive language, and to create new, inclusive descriptive language through community engagement and collaboration. We seek to empower people and communities in this work to enhance archival research and representation. This practice is an iterative process and we hope to remain flexible and proactive in regards to evolving terms and languages.

How You Can Help

We invite you to help us identify harmful language in our collections. We know that we cannot identify every instance of harmful description, so we welcome feedback from you and our community of researchers. Please contact us at library_specialcollections@ncsu.edu if you encounter problematic or harmful language in our collection guides, digitized collections, historical timelines, or other collection descriptions.

We will review the term or description and take necessary action to update it in a way that balances the preservation of the original context, emerging archival practices, and our ongoing commitment to describe materials with respectful and inclusive descriptions. This can look like changing the description or providing additional context, which would also help make the material more discoverable to future researchers.

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more? View the full reading list (Google spreadsheet).


  • Improve discoverability of historically marginalized communities through the audit, repair, and contextualization of harmful description
  • Use care, respect, inclusion, transparency, and accessible language when creating and revising description
  • Engage in ongoing critical self-reflection and cultural humility
  • Continually educate ourselves and our students, faculty, researchers, and colleagues on evolving language and practices of inclusivity and accessibility
  • Acknowledge the roles of our institution and profession in reinforcing power structures
  • Ensure accountability through public documentation (e.g. blog posts)
  • Center communities through participatory description or by using community-adopted language, and invite community feedback
  • Advocate for inclusive description within the profession

What We've Accomplished So Far

  • Tracked problematic subject headings and providing local headings and suggestions for updated terms
  • Created a reading list of scholarly articles, thesauri, popular press articles, controlled vocabularies, reference guides, and other sources on emerging practices for reparative archival descriptions and conscious editing
  • Initiated updating harmful language in our historical timelines and other discovery platforms
  • Convened in Fall 2020 to review emerging practices and existing resources, conducted environmental scan of peer institutions and archives, and established a groundwork for future work
  • Provided feedback for the NC State University Libraries Inclusive Language Statement draft (coming soon)
  • Conducted outreach to community groups and students regarding reparative archival descriptions, silences in the archives, and responses to harmful language
  • Created content awareness notes to provide attention regarding material that may be harmful or problematic: "Please note that some historical materials may contain harmful content and/or descriptions. Learn how we’re addressing it."

Group Members

Laura Abraham, University Library Specialist
Victor Betts, Student Success Librarian for Special Collections
Shelly Black, Digital Archivist
Brian Dietz, Lead Librarian for Collections Stewardship and Discovery
Cathy Dorin-Black, University Library Specialist
Virginia Ferris, Lead Librarian for Outreach and Engagement
Linda Sellars, Head of Technical Services for Special Collections (past member, retired)


Thank you to our colleagues in the SCRC, Robin Davis from User Experience, the EDI Committee, and David Goldsmith for their support and feedback.