By Quin DeLaRosa and Kate Mitchell
Here, we present an abstract and author reflections from a staff report given on August 18, 2022.
Reparative action has become something of increasing concern for archivists in the twenty-first century. With the rejection of neutrality in the archive has come the mandatory recognition of the harm and oppression perpetuated by archival practices, in particular through the way archivists describe and process collections. Yet, for all the noted popularity of reparative description, much of the archival literature to date has tread the crowded area between conceptual frameworks and initial implementations. If, however, archivists are to make good on their dedication to repair past work and lingering legacy practices, it is necessary for archivists to ascertain just how reparative their redescription practices are beyond initial implementation. To assist Princeton University in this endeavor, this work proposes a user experience (UX) testing model to assess the social justice impact of reparative description in Princeton University Library’s (PUL’s) finding aids. By adopting an ethics of care, as stipulated by this model, Princeton can forge stronger relationships with community stakeholders while continually improving reparative practices to encourage a sense of representational belonging for those that the archives have historically failed to serve. The authors approach this task by reviewing relevant literature in archives and related domains, analyzing survey findings gleaned from the professional archival community, and using this work as a basis to present their UX model for assessing reparative description.
Q: Working on this project provided a valuable opportunity for me to contribute to a discourse in a field that I am passionate about. Reparative description is a particular topic that has stirred much discussion regarding the role of the archivist and their ethics in an age shaped by a commitment to social justice. Having been at the center of many discussions in my graduate program, I felt grateful for the opportunity to engage deeply with reparative description through this research project at Princeton University.
K: Reparative description and the importance of anti-oppression archival practices were frequent topics of discussion during my graduate school courses, so I was really excited to then have the opportunity to explore the realities of reparative description during my fellowship at Princeton. In addition to doing this research project, I was also able to implement some of Princeton’s new reparative initiatives, including changing women’s names in their agent records. Some women were cited as Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name. To give them credit independent of their husbands, I added additional secondary names to their agent records, which included their first name.
Q: Probably the most notable challenge with this research process involved finding the appropriate angle to cover the topic from. My colleague Kate and I needed something fresh and innovative enough to contribute value to an already popular topic while still being grounded in recent trends within archival literature. We ultimately decided to go with a paper centering on assessment, as this is a whole is a stage of reparative work that remains relatively unexplored. From there, we managed to pull together a framework that brought together our mutual interests in archival ethics–especially as understood through a feminist ethics of care–and utilizing user feedback as a basis for archival description. I think the ultimate goal here was to consider what methods and tools can be used to discern how successful reparative description is in practice.
K: In addition to what Quin said, I think the other challenge we had was determining the criteria for our scale and figuring out the metrics by which to measure the social justice impact of Princeton’s reparative description practices. Since we based our model on Brophy’s 2005 scale for measuring the educational impact of library services on users (spanning -2 to 6), our challenge was finding a way to adapt his scale’s criteria so they related both to reparative description and to the University’s social justice impact. So, like other scholars have done, we decided to expand Brophy’s scale to track additional factors. Specifically, we considered the impact over time (short-term, long-term), impact on whom (individual, community, society), and the overall effect of the reparative efforts on fostering a sense of representational belonging in the archive. This last element was key because, as we understood it, the primary goals of reparative description was to combat the legacies of symbolic annihilation in the archive and offer better representation to those who have historically been neglected or abused by memory institutions.
Q: Moving beyond the summer, I found that I still had lingering questions in mind even after completing this project. This thought process led me on a course to my master’s thesis, which reframes reparative description in the context of extensible processing principles in order to support more scalable and actionable methods of assessment in academic archives. Based on my memorable experience of conducting research at Princeton, I know that I will continue to carry a conviction to find new pathways bridging technical processes like archival description with the values that archivists and our institutions espouse.
K: The intellectual exploration of reparative description as well as the hands-on experience I gained through this fellowship have been tremendously valuable to me as an early-career archivist. It is clear to me now more than ever that, as information professionals, there is significantly more work to be done to adequately respond to the archive’s social justice imperative. As Verne Harris (2011, p. 120) contends, social justice is “always in the process of becoming,” so it is and must be understood as a continuous, never ending endeavor for archival institutions. With our impact scale model, we sought to assist Princeton in their continuing work to address archival inequalities. In my own trajectory, I hope to take the theories and lessons learned throughout this experience into my future endeavors at other memory institutions to continue advocating for anti-oppressive archival practices.