Descriptive Access - Language and Description

Baker Library has collected contemporary and archival materials since the founding of Harvard Business School in 1908. Over the decades, generations of archivists and librarians have chosen words and subjects to describe and catalog these collections. The language used in these descriptions continues to evolve over time. Words or phrases used in the past may now be considered outdated or even offensive, while individuals or subjects once thought too unimportant or tangential to mention are now described fully.

When describing or cataloging original materials for the first time, staff choose terms and subjects that describe the collections as we perceive them. We do our best to describe the collections accurately, fairly, and completely. We also make revisions or additions to existing descriptions when we become aware of issues or omissions.

For materials housed in folders or other items such as photographs and audiovisual materials, staff retain the creators’ own descriptive language, even if it reflects inherent biases or prejudices. Retaining the creators’ original title and language for these materials not only provides important details about the materials, but also preserves both the materials’ historical context and the creators’ point of view.

Users should be aware that they may encounter offensive or harmful content in the collections including offensive, misrepresentative or euphemistic language and terms used to describe individuals or communities.

Our Approach to Original Description and Cataloging

We are part of a larger library and archival community and are actively engaging with our colleagues across Harvard University and beyond to examine our current descriptive practices. Within Harvard University, we support and are committed to following the Guiding Principles for Conscious and Inclusive Description at Harvard.

We acknowledge that:

  • Our role as stewards of the historical record and narrative places us in a unique position to choose the individuals and organizations that are remembered and how they are represented in collection materials.
  • We often describe people, organizations, and communities we are not part of, many of which historically have been, and continue to be, marginalized and underrepresented.
  • Our biases are reflected in our description, and that in our roles as library practitioners we are not neutral.
  • Due to the extent of the collections and the variable approaches to description that staff have used over time for remediating legacy description, we may overlook the roles and/or voices of marginalized and underrepresented people and communities and may not describe accurately and completely the racist or offensive aspects of the materials.

We will strive to:

  • Be transparent about the role we have in shaping description, including people and communities noting the origins of our description and the changes we make. We recognize that transparency will be the ultimate measure of our progress.
  • Write ethical and inclusive description that gives voice to those who may have previously been omitted, underrepresented, or marginalized in our description.
  • Write description that describes and acknowledges the dynamics of power and privilege, while emphasizing the lives and lived experiences of marginalized, underrepresented, less privileged, and oppressed groups.

Our Approach to Re-Using the Creators' Language and Terms

We acknowledge that:

  • Creators sometimes use offensive, misrepresentative or euphemistic language or terms to describe their materials, and it is important to preserve these language and terms in their original context to maintain the accuracy and authenticity of the collection.
  • Context and situation, of both the creator and users can change over time and determine whether particular terms are offensive.

We will strive to:

  • Approach offensive, misrepresentative or euphemistic language and terms thoughtfully to understand the potential impact of our decisions so that we can better serve our users and the collections we steward.
  • More closely examine a creator’s own descriptive language for biases or prejudices.
  • Provide context for, but not censor, creator-sourced folder titles used in collection inventories.
  • Contextualize and frame historically-accurate terms that are now considered offensive, misrepresentative or euphemistic and flag the presence of offensive or harmful content where possible.


Our Commitment

We acknowledge that this work is ongoing and is part of our continuous education and critical examination of our descriptive practices including all new collections. We will:

  • Continue to learn, listen, and engage with faculty, students, and the broader research community to understand the ways that they interact with and interpret the collections held by Baker Library.
  • Reach out to and engage with colleagues, donors, and the communities who have expertise in relevant subject areas for input when describing collection materials.
  • Promote equitable access and discovery of collection materials by disseminating our description and digital materials across platforms within and beyond Harvard.
  • Not censor offensive terms, or remove or censor offensive materials, from collections. Racist and biased materials serve as evidence of the activities of the institution, community, or individual from which the materials originated.[1]
  • Implement the ongoing processes of remediating our description, focusing on addressing and rectifying biased language that demeans or excludes people because of identity, condition, or beliefs including, but not limited to race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, or religion. 
  • Call attention to the stories of marginalized and underrepresented communities and identities in the collections we hold and steward.
  • Write factually-based description, using clear and direct language, and using equitable and impartial terms in our work. 



If you encounter offensive, misrepresentative or euphemistic language or terms in finding aids, catalog records, descriptions of digitized resources, or other content created by Baker Library staff, please contact us at Your feedback is an important contribution to our efforts to create an inclusive and conscious description.


June 2021 (revised November 2021)

[1] Melissa J. Nelson, “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives,” Accessed October 28, 2020.