Research library staff members care for millions of rare or unique items in a variety of formats, many of which are primary sources that document contemporary accounts of historical events and later remembrances by eyewitnesses. Items held in the collections include photographs; books; documents such as letters, diaries, business and organizational records, personal and political papers; architectural plans; maps; films and videotapes; oral histories and sound recordings; and periodicals. They cover a wide range of topics and offer opportunities for visitors and researchers to deepen their understanding of the many peoples, places, and events that have shaped Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
Recognizing Historic and Ongoing Biases in OHS’s Research Library Collections
Founded on December 17, 1898, the Oregon Historical Society has origins as a pioneer memorial association. Much like its predecessor, the Oregon Pioneer Association, early collecting efforts at OHS focused on the pioneer, settler-colonial experience. Today, OHS’s collection development work endeavors to better reflect a broad diversity of experiences and perspectives. But, the biases and omissions of our early collecting continue to remain evident across the library’s collections. OHS’s mission and vision reflect the work we are doing to provide access to resources that offer opportunities for research and reflection on the complexities of Oregon’s history.
Encountering Offensive Content in Library Materials
Library materials may contain offensive, inaccurate, or currently unacceptable terms and ideas that do not represent OHS’s institutional values. These materials may be difficult and uncomfortable to encounter, however, primary sources provide essential documentary evidence of past events. We continue to preserve these materials as part of Oregon’s historical record and to provide important contextual resources for researchers.
Language and Bias in Library Cataloging
Librarians follow specialized standards and best practices when describing collections for public discovery. At times these standards limit the cataloger to rigid controlled vocabularies which may not align with currently preferred terminology. Descriptions used in the research library’s catalog and indexes over the past 120 years may also reflect the biases and insensitivities present at the time they were created. Older collection descriptions may include objectionable language, sometimes copied directly from a material’s creators or donors, which may be lacking context to help researchers better understand why those words are used. In other instances, the information about primary sources may also be incomplete, inaccurate, or unknown.
In recent years, research library staff members have worked to develop and adapt new best practices that model a more mindful and empathetic approach. As we implement these practices to create descriptions for new collections, the research library staff is also working to actively enhance and contextualize past descriptions. Reparative cataloging takes thoughtful effort, but over time improves access to and understanding of the research library collections.
Changes Moving Forward
The process of describing library materials accurately is ongoing and requires regular reflection and revision to meet shifting research needs and evolving cultural understanding. When adding new collections and revising past descriptions we commit to investing time in:
- Researching and engaging with communities to understand how they self-identify and define their own histories;
- Evaluating the effects of reusing problematic language to balance research access with potential harm; and
- Striving for transparency by clearly distinguishing between original collection language and library-provided descriptions.
How Can I Help?
We welcome feedback. If you have additional information, concerns, or questions about the way materials in our collections are represented, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connect with Our Collections
We love to learn about the ways our community connects with OHS’s research library collections. Please feel welcome to reach out if you have used our collections in your research or creative project, or if you have discovered more about our collections that you would like to share with us. Sharing user stories that illustrate the value of our collections and research services is a valuable tool as we advocate for our future funding and program development. Send us a note at email@example.com if you have something to share.
Donate to OHS Collections
Donations of materials relevant to Oregon are essential in building our historical record. Visit our Donate to Collections page to learn more about that process.