Making item descriptions more inclusive

Most library patrons probably don’t think about everything that happens behind the scenes for them to be able to find a book. They search for a title or some keywords on the library’s website, and a list of books, articles and other materials appears on the screen in a matter of milliseconds. Little do they know, there is an entire team of people dedicated to making those items easy to find, tasked with writing descriptions and entering metadata for each item so that patrons can find what they need.

Over time, though, descriptions can become outdated or even harmful, due to changes in terminology or new language that better reflects how people want to be represented. Knowledge about the contributions of historically marginalized people also changes over time. To address these changes, Clemson Libraries established the Inclusive Description Task Force in 2022.

The task force was led by Jessica Serrao, metadata librarian for digital collections, who said she noticed that she and several colleagues in different departments were having similar conversations on the topic.

“I realized that we were all having these conversations about different descriptive practices, but we were all talking about it in silos based on the format of materials or systems in which they’re managed. The purpose of the task force was to bring people together who were already thinking about this so we could come at it from a more cohesive and centralized place,” she said.

The task force researched what peer institutions were doing, compiled an annotated bibliography and conducted an audit of Clemson’s descriptions to get a sense of the scope of the work that needs to be done. Considering that Clemson Libraries has more than 3 million items in its catalog alone, not counting archival, museum, and digital collections, reviewing and updating descriptions is no small task.

“We know we’re not going to be able to do all of this at once. There’s just so much to look through and so many records that we manage. We’ll need to prioritize projects on a manageable scale while ensuring the most egregious cases are addressed first,” Serrao said.

In the audit, the task force looked for specific keywords that are now considered problematic. For example, the term “Indians of North America” was used more than 7,000 times. That term could be updated with “Native American” or “Indigenous.”

In addition to remediating harmful language, other inclusive descriptive practices include adding contextual information to explain why certain terms were used in the original descriptions or adding disclaimers to the catalog to let users know that they may come across harmful language. There could also be a harmful language reporting form that patrons can submit when they come across harmful language in the catalog. These are all practices other academic research libraries have implemented.

The task force also looked at ways that records could be updated to include the names of people who were previously unrecognized, such as women, enslaved people or those from other marginalized groups. For example, some archival records related to the University’s history should be updated to include Anna Calhoun Clemson, wife of Thomas Green Clemson. Historically, women were not mentioned in a husband’s collection of archival materials, even if they were the creator of a substantial number of records in the collection.

“There’s so much material, especially in Special Collections and Archives, that just by looking at it and providing updated descriptions can uncover the people and the players who were involved in the history of the institution and the collection,” Serrao said. “The way that we describe our materials affects the way that people can search for them, so it’s up to us to find out what’s important to our users and what voices need to be centered and recognized. There are people who have been marginalized and they become subsumed within a collection. Inclusive description will bring them forward to be discoverable.”

The task force issued a report of recommendations on how the Libraries can create a framework to implement inclusive description practices moving forward, including the establishment of a permanent inclusive description team to oversee this work.

Serrao said it is important to know that inclusive description isn’t about hiding history, but rather about bringing attention to it, the good and the ugly.

“These terms and the way descriptions were written in the past are indicators of historical thoughts and ideas. We don’t want to erase difficult histories that propagated the use of these harmful terms. Instead, it’s an opportunity to learn from that history, contextualize the terms, and add updated terms that today’s users are likely to search for,” she said.