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      Connected | July 13, 2022

      Ongoing effort seeks to identify and correct harmful terms in PEM’s library catalog

      Kim Ross

      Written by

      Kim Ross


      In April of 2020, I joined the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) staff at the Phillips Library as the Native American Mellon Library Fellow, a position designed to assist the library in its mission of collecting, stewarding, and providing access to materials and resources, with a focus on practices related to Indigenous subject materials. My work was part of an ongoing decentering initiative led by the Phillips Library to remediate colonialism in library practice and resource description. Thinking critically about words and the power they hold is one step in the path forward. Harmful language perpetuates stereotypes and spreads false narratives and false representations, and for whatever reason, it still exists in many libraries.

      My responsibilities included building on the critical cataloging work done by the previous Native American Summer Fellow as well as processing a donation of roughly 3,000 volumes, theses, and serials from Dr. Jeffrey Phipps Brain, an archaeologist renowned for his contributions in the field on Southeastern Native American art and culture. Dr. Brain’s immense collection reflects his long career as well as his long standing affiliation at PEM as Senior Research Associate, and with other major contributors such as Philip Phillips and renowned universities like Yale and Harvard.

      Photos courtesy of the author.
      Photos courtesy of the author.

      The unprocessed Brain library materials are housed within rows of boxes, stacked 12 feet high. They contain documents pertaining to Native American art and archaeology, prehistoric and historical material culture, colonial archaeology, the exploration period, as well as South American, African, and Polynesian art and archaeology from scholars such as Charles Clark Willoughby, Arthur Putnam, and Warren K. Moorehead. The inventory, spanning more than 100 pages, includes Antiquities of the New England Indians, Indian Burial Place at Winthrop Massachusetts, The Stone Age in North America, and Stone Ornaments Used by Indians in the United States and Canada. These works contributed to shaping the fields of archaeology and ethnology in the 19th century, when basic literacy, higher education, and publishing were afforded to few.

      During the nascent period of cross-cultural exchange, and even today, a majority of scholars researching in the fields of ethnography, anthropology, and archaeology concerned with non-European groups had no implicit affiliation with the societies and artifacts they studied and they approached their subjects with a perspective limited by their own cultural perceptions.

      Despite the often sincere efforts on the part of these scholars to understand the traditions and values of cultures different from their own, colonial bias and cultural relativism pervade the foundational scholarship in these fields.

      Photos courtesy of the author. Acculturation in the Americas (1952) by Sol Tax.

      Many of the misunderstandings these pioneering researchers introduced through ignorance or prejudice have had an enduring impact on perceptions of specific social and cultural groups within both specialist and popular contexts.

      Photos courtesy of the author. Acculturation in the Americas (1952) by Sol Tax.

      The perpetuation of racial and cultural stereotypes can be explained in part by the privileging of text-based discourses and transmissions of information within the methodological approach of these disciplines. Other forms of documentation, such as oral histories and the artifacts of material culture that often constitute a culture's self-understanding, have been denigrated as legitimate alternatives to the dominant historical narratives generated by these texts and their concomitant practices. One of the major consequences of this approach has been to subsume entire cultures that continue to change and develop within a mythology of the progress of global civilization. While artists and museums, such as PEM, have been addressing these misunderstandings in Indigenous art and culture, the library field has lagged behind, perpetuating colonial narratives and forms of valuation that prevent individuals and groups from correcting and adapting critical models to incorporate excluded modes of subjective understanding.

      Our wild Indians: thirty-three years' personal experience among the red men of the great West. A popular account of their social life, religion, habits, traits, customs, exploits, etc. With thrilling adventures and experiences on the great plains and in the mountains of our wide frontier (1882) by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge.”

      Photo courtesy of the author.

      On an institutional level, the library sciences in North America and elsewhere have absorbed and perpetuated colonial narratives and reinforced white-skin privilege, silencing and erasing the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups and individuals. Yet libraries are cultural institutions comprised of diverse individuals and serving diverse populations, and as librarians, we have a responsibility to contextualize, interpret, and describe our collections according to critical models that minimize harm to the staff and guests who engage with our systems and materials.

      Photo courtesy of the author.

      In the context of this fellowship, that meant:

      • Openly acknowledging the inadequacies of our past descriptive practices and committing to their remediation
      • Evaluate and correct the language we use to describe and catalog Indigenous culture materials for bias, accuracy, and consistency with how the subjects of our Indigenous collections describe themselves
      • Incorporate language that is equitable and consistent with how the subjects of our Indigenous collections describe themselves
      • Establish workflows for replacing problematic language and incorporating Indigenous terminologies including a feedback mechanism so researchers can flag terms for review and suggest alternatives.
      • Establish workflows and policy to ensure library staff have the tools and knowledge to continue doing this important work after the fellowship

      Native American Fellow Kim Ross working in the Phillips library with Catherine Robertson, Sarah Bilotta and Director Dan Lipcan.

      PEM's Native American Fellowship program and the opportunities it affords cultural institutions such as PEM to attract, hire and support diverse staff are key to validating and legitimizing diverse perspectives in libraries and museums.

      Native American Fellow Kim Ross working in the Phillips library with Catherine Robertson, Sarah Bilotta and Director Dan Lipcan.

      Due to the Mellon NAF program, the Phillips Library staff and I were afforded the opportunity to exchange knowledge, design and develop the Indigenous Peoples Subject Headings Project (IPSH), a controlled, local vocabulary that revises problematic Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) related to Indigenous peoples and begin to incorporate Indigenous Knowledges and community preferred-terms into the Phillips Library cataloging lexicon. Problematic terms are indexed but not displayed to allow accurate and granular searching of Indigenous subject materials and minimize harm caused by inaccurate or offensive to staff and researchers interfacing with our library system.

      To date, implementation of IPSH has resulted in the following changes to the Phillips Library catalog:

      • Local authority records created: 3,372
      • New terms added: 11
      • Bibliographic records updated: 3,331

      Titles found at the Phillips Library include: Indians of Connecticut, Columbia River Basketry, Stone Age on the Columbia River, Indians of the Northeast and Native Americans Before 1492. In each Phillips Library record, new language now states: “Library of Congress Subject Headings do not necessarily reflect the values or beliefs of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum and may have been supplemented or replaced."

      The work has resulted in a new “Harmful Language” statement on the library catalog main search page: “The Phillips Library is correcting the use of harmful, racist, and derogatory language in our catalog and finding aids. Through ongoing dialogue with communities, scholars, and others, we are actively working to respectfully describe, center, and amplify diverse voices and experiences within our collection. This includes revising policies, implementing new practices, and updating subject headings. We invite you to view our subject headings work here and encourage you to contact us via our feedback form if you encounter harmful or inaccurate language while exploring our collections.”

      In one example from a book called We Have Not Vanished — Eastern Indians of the United States by Alfred Tamarin, the bibliographic record lists as a subject heading: Indians of North America. The new record is expanded to include: Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Narragansett, getting more specific about what communities are addressed in the book.

      While we’ve identified and revised many terms, there is still work to be done. The global application of IPSH and the inclusion of a harmful language statement are important first steps that have resulted in surface-level intervention of bibliographic records. Plans for phase 2 involve enhancing the records impacted by IPSH to address ideological bias and working towards the respectful representation of Indigenous subjects in resource description and consulting with Indigenous communities to ensure they are engaged in this process and that revisions and updates reflect their feedback and perspectives. This project will be ongoing and evolve over time with subsequent phases focusing on refining methodology, maintenance and outreach. Long-term solutions will only be found through careful and constant reflection and the Phillips Library staff is committed to decentering. The work performed by Native American Fellows, such as myself, is critical to achieving their mission and improving access to materials for a broader range of researchers.

      The success of all Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion projects requires the participation of individuals with diverse lived experiences and identities and projects like this are one of the ways that cultural institutions can begin to affect wide-scale and meaningful changes.

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      Press Release

      PEM’s Native American Fellowship Program Strengthened by $1.3M Mellon Foundation Grant