American Archives Month: Conscious Metadata at FSU Libraries

On September 27, five representatives of FSU Libraries attended the SSDN Conscious Metadata Working Session in Tallahassee, FL. In the spirit of the American Archives Month theme of The Power Of Collaboration, we shared ideas and brainstormed next steps on conscious editing at FSU Libraries. Read on to find out what we learned and what we’re doing next.

The day-long working session, was sponsored by the Sunshine State Digital Network (SSDN) and supported by a grant from the Florida Division of Library and Information Services. Groups from four different Florida repositories attended to discuss workflows, opportunities, challenges, and priorities for conscious editing projects, and to connect with other professionals doing similar work. FSU Libraries was represented by faculty and staff from Special Collections & Archives (SCA) and Metadata & Discovery Services.

While terms like reparative description, inclusive description, and conscious editing have recently gained traction the archives field, previous iterations of this work are evident in SCA going back decades. For example, a glance at the folders in the Florida State University Seminole Symbol Files reveals that the original title was something like the “Seminole Mascot Files ” (perhaps less inclusive than the current title). Other reparative efforts by SCA faculty are documented in an article in the 2018 Society of Florida Archivists Journal. In addition, SCA recently launched an Inclusive Metadata Strategic Initiative in coordination with the most recent FSU Libraries Strategic Plan.

Discussion at the working session centered on a few FSU Libraries problems and solutions. We acknowledged the likelihood of potentially harmful content in our online catalog, finding aid database, and digital repository. We discussed search result algorithms in our catalog that add related subjects to user searches. This is normally helpful, but produces odd and potentially offensive results sometimes when searching for demonyms. For example, while there certainly are works about lesbian vampires, not all users searching for “lesbians” will require all the “vampire” results!

FSU Homecoming King and Queen, 1975.

We reviewed instances of outdated and misleading description around race, enslavement, and cultural appropriation in our databases. We evaluated the Seminole Symbols Files and other sources for description that conflates depictions of Native Americans with depictions of student’s adaptations of that culture. Currently, users would have trouble using our subject headings and text searches to distinguish between them.

A recent product of the Inclusive Metadata Initiative was a thorough Statement on Potentially Harmful Content for our digital repository. It effectively demonstrates the breadth and iterative nature of the work before us, and gives users a path to share feedback with FSU Libraries. Workshop attendees agreed this statement was well-crafted and could be adapted to other databases.

We have been inspired to take a few immediate next steps at FSU Libraries. The DigiNole harmful content statement and workflow will be adapted to our finding aid database. A need for a reparative description advisory group, beyond the Inclusive Metadata Initiative members, has become apparent. This group would field user feedback, incorporate reparative description into our processing priorities, and revise guidelines for description of future acquisitions. Further strategizing is needed around algorithmic issues with the catalog – the software is merely licensed by FSU, and cannot be modified locally.

We recognize the need to partner with subject experts at FSU and beyond. We would never consider ourselves authorities on, say, quantum physics or medieval printing presses without studying up. However, it has historically been common for folks at predominantly white institutions to make uninformed assumptions about the nuances and continuing influence of systemic racism and cultural appropriation. Solutions to systemic issues will, of course, require ideas from outside the system. We look forward to your feedback and your support in bringing outdated description into the 21st century.

Published by Rory Grennan

Rory Grennan is Director of Manuscripts Collections at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

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