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Chapter 6: And don’t forget about description and reference! (pp. 309-319) February 25, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used such a glib title, but it’s my personal view that issues of social justice are so often considered in conjunction with appraisal that they may be overlooked in relation to description and reference.

Archival description, just like any form of cataloging, is part of a process of control and a conscious or unconscious expression of power and political views. It is, as Jimerson notes, “inherently subjective.” (310) We choose what we describe and how we describe it, and all those decisions have implications. Just as in the previous section, Jimerson assembles some recommendations for his readers in regard to description:

  • “In preparing finding aids archivists should be alert for subtle shadings of bias and privilege in how they refer to social groups and individuals.” (312) (I found this section quite strong)
  • Description of holdings should include highlight gaps in the records–“the ethical archivist tells the user when the information is fragmentary, and clearly distinguishes what the archivist does not know from what she does know. Full disclosure avoids misrepresentation.” (313)
  • Inform the researcher about the circumstances of archival processing and description through methods such as additions to the finding aid (i.e. annotations or colophons) or supplementary materials that describe the institutional context and approach to processing taken at the repository. (313-314)

In regard to reference and access, the ideas Jimerson proposes seemed to me more like reminders of good professional practice—necessary and good, but not surprising:

  • Archivists must withhold from access all materials in accordance with legal requirements and the rights of “third parties” affected by archival disclosure. (314-315)
  • All materials not being withheld must be provided to all researchers on an equal basis, giving no special consideration to any class of researcher. (315)
  • Reference services must also be provided an equal basis to all researchers. [with caveat listed below] (316-317)
  • Public programming and outreach should reach out “into new venues of social policy and practice.” (317)
  • Efforts should be made to reach out to potential users who may not know about or feel comfortable using the  archives. (317-318)
  • Archivists should encourage the use of exhibit areas and other public spaces to open up the archives to people from all parts of the community, thus, as Verne Harris describes, transforming them “from a domain of the elite into a community resource.” (318-319)

At the close of this section, Jimerson goes further, calling upon archivists to “take sides”–“particularly when someone stands in front of the reference desk seeking information to secure justice.” (317) Archivists should also intercede, providing “unequal services” when users seeking social justice are unfamiliar with how to conduct research in the archives. In these cases, the archivist should step in and provide more assistance than is usually provided.

What were your reactions to this section. Does Jimerson go too far or not far enough in the areas of description and reference–or does he get it just right?



1. Jim Cartwright - February 25, 2010

What Jimerson describes using the term “unequal services” I find necessary and I hope I do that. I’m a little uncomfortable with the terminology. I think “services” may be so broad, some archivists may escape into complacency. Of course I’m uncomfortable with “unequal”, but Jimerson placed quotation marks around the word for a purpose.

I suggest we look at this situation as call for Archivists to give highest quality reference assistance, similar to the kind we would extend to students in a visiting primary or secondary school class we wanted to encourage to become top ranked historians and archivists. We should want to make such a favorable impression, the person would look forward to returning for further research.

2. Kate T. - February 25, 2010


I agree, and I think it’s really a question of giving “appropriate” service. That’s a slippery slope, of course, but that’s where professional judgment has to come into play. I mean, let’s be honest, if David McCullough comes to your archives, he’s going to get some excellent service, isn’t he? But, yes, you’re right, so will younger researchers who we want to encourage (National History Day?) or anyone else who really needs a bit more help (as in Rand’s example of someone seeking information to secure justice).

3. Elena Danielson - February 25, 2010

Equitable reference service is not mechanically equal. We went to extra lenghts to assist elderly people find documentation to support benefit payments. No one objected. I’ve seen extended reference service for favored readers turn into a subsidized reseach assistantship. That did create a sense of unfairness.

4. Elena Danielson - February 26, 2010

Regarding description and access to the papers of marginailzed groups (312): I remember in 1980 objecting to a register entry that listed a Mexican woman under her husband’s name as Mrs. Diego Rivera rather than using her own name. I guess 30 years ago the white male cataloger didn’t think a Mexican woman with few odd paintings to her credit would ever become more famous than her prolific artist husband. Meanwhile, a few searches were no doubt stymied looking for Kahlo under K instead of R. A lot of material on “minorities” is already in collections, hidden in plain sight.

5. Kirsten Wright - March 1, 2010

As always it’s great to read all the comments and others’ thoughts about this section. I had a couple of thoughts / discussion points while reading this section.

Regarding the point that Kate quoted above on p315: “Archivists should avoid the elitist notion that certain researcher groups…should be afforded special access privileges” – while I don’t think it’s come about due to any elitist notions, I thought that maybe some archives already do privilege some researcher groups over others. In Australia (and from what I understand, America too), research into genealogy and family history has meant a large increase in use of archives by these “researcher groups”, and in turn, a greater emphasis by archives on their genealogical resources. One example would be the ‘shake your family tree day’ held recently by the National Archives of Australia and participating State Archives, but less explicitly, the material chosen for immediate digitisation, or for indexing, is often the material used by the genealogy “researcher group”. I think by their size and presence, genealogists have become a de facto privileged group.

I was a bit uncomfortable with Jimerson’s call to “take sides, particularly when someone stands in front of the reference desk seeking information to secure justice” (p318). How do we necessarily know, when someone comes up to the reference desk, that they are seeking “information to secure justice”? I worry that taking this approach may mean the archivist is pre-judging the nature of the enquiry (and therefore the level and type of service given) before full information is known.

I found the discussion on finding aids very interesting and important to consider. Time and resource constraints may mean that older finding aids are still being used, and Jimerson highlights the issues in a thoughtful manner. Highlighting the gaps in the records and giving information about the archival processing which may affect understandings of the records are two things sometimes (often?) missing from finding aids, and again I think these are strong elements to consider when preparing finding aids.

6. Kate T. - March 1, 2010


Just a quick follow-up on the issue of older finding aids–for archives with a lot of “older” finding aids online, or who have concerns about putting such materials online, might it make sense to do with with just a few annotations? Such as making clear when the finding aid was created, and adding a note that highlights missing materials, etc,? In particular a note about the age of the finding aid might be beneficial if it may contain the kind of biases Jimerson discusses.

I agree that to some degree the pendulum may have swung in the opposite direction, and genealogists and family historians are now more of a privileged user class than many others. But if they are the majority, it may be hard to argue with their numbers (and ability to organize and lobby!). Historians are not being neglected, I’m sure, although they might have different opinions to be sure.

Kirsten Wright - March 2, 2010

Hi Kate,

Yes absolutely, I think adding notes and annotations to older finding aids are a great way for archives to keep them relevant – and also to highlight to users that the archive is aware of any issues with the finding aid. This allows the older finding aid to still be used if time and resource constraints mean it can’t be completely revised.

Re: genealogists and family historians being a privileged user class: I agree that as they are the majority and for many reasons, archives should indeed be encouraging them to use their collections. But I wonder how many archives (and again I’m thinking primarily of the State and National Archives) have deliberately chosen to privilege this user group or if it’s just happened by default? I’m not saying either thing is bad, it just struck me while reading this section.

7. Alison Stankrauff - March 2, 2010

I also really remarked in particular Jimerson’s bit about adding additional notes and annotations to finding aids… I think that that’s at once key for us to do as ethical archivists, to offer the best service, and also to (at least in very small part) put our voice in as being “forward thinking” – or, perhaps, in the eyes of “the public”, relevant…

Just to play devil’s advocate here on the point of genealogists and family historians being a “privileged” class – on the flip side, I think that there are a fair amount of us archivists who think a bit derisively of this group of users… My previous place of employment was the American Jewish Archives as one of two reference archivists, and a large portion of the reference requests were indeed genealogical in nature… I think that I had more colleagues in the wider field tell me that they felt sympathetic for all those family history questions I was fielding – and “how irritating” genealogists are than I can think of any other discussions I’ve had on any other genres of reference requests…

8. Joshua Zimmerman - March 3, 2010

I agree with most of the comments here. You’re right Kate, I think it’s already good practice to do a lot of the things that Jimerson mentions. I took these as reminders as well.

I didn’t have any trouble with Jimerson’s comments on pg. 318 about providing “unequal services.” I did not focus so much on the teaching users to read against the grain as much as teaching those who don’t know how to do archival research. Social justice seeker or not, teaching users to, well, use archives is central to outreach efforts of any public archives. I think it can have the largest effect when actively targeted at groups who have been undocumented/underdocumented in the past. I think it’s just good public programming! The aforementioned “privileged class” of genealogists should not be ignored, but offering only genealogy research workshops will only bring genealogists in.

I think that teaching users to read against the archival grain can be aided by finding aid annotations, large or small, in the way that like Kate mentions. We’ve heard of example where we can see the changing of language in finding aids, but does anyone have an example of a finding aid that provides an annotation to an older finding aid or the type of colophon (Light and Hyry) that Jimerson mentions? It seems to me that adding additional context is a good idea that many agree upon, but few practice.

9. Lincoln Cushing - March 3, 2010

I have to say that I was really surprised Jimerson didn’t even mention the pioneering work of Sanford Berman in challenging biased subject headings!

But this is a very real battleground. As a labor historian, I have made the case that union printing labels (“bugs”) should be included in catalog records, since they are an overlooked part of the published document that often offers useful information. I suspect that almost every cataloger has subject expertise that butts up against conventions. Push back!

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