As archivists increasingly concede that neutrality is impossible, we suggest that non-action is still action. It follows that to treat reasonably offensive records as any other record is to apply an interpretation that they are innocuous, unremarkable, and uncontroversial. Archivists may perceive the stakes of describing these materials as particularly high, but they lack a comprehensive set of descriptive strategies in consideration of interpretive ethics. As a result, existing practices are likely to be local or ad hoc. This research aims to identify and explore descriptive strategies archivists use which serve to construct (or concede) the meaning that certain historical materials are potentially offensive using a combination of literature review, evaluation of finding aids and descriptive metadata, and exploratory interviews with archivists and other memory institution professionals. Results supported the assumption that strategies are largely ad hoc practices and local norms influenced by a handful of culturally sensitive descriptive protocols; underscored that strategies are contextually implemented; and revealed practical and philosophical divisions between archivists working with largely offensive collections and those working with largely uncontroversial ones. These findings suggest that while a comprehensive set of descriptive strategies may support a community grappling with its professional legacy, there may be no strategy capable of reconciling matters of ethics and discoverability, and the highly contextual practices are incompatible with overly rigid frameworks.

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Kimberly Schroeder

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.