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Michigan State University

Harmful Language in Library Resource Descriptions

History and context to accompany MSU Libraries' Statement of Harmful Language in the Catalog.

Harmful Language in Resource Descriptions

Terms and language in our catalog records and other resource descriptions may be outdated, culturally insensitive, and/or harmful.

Why is this? 

The work of the MSU Libraries to provide access to and discovery of millions of resources is made possible by reliance on national knowledge organization systems and shared description standards. The efficiency built into these shared systems and practices as well as the re-use of resulting metadata from libraries around the world means that a small group of library workers are able to describe and organize tens of thousands of resources each calendar year.

However, as noted by the Cataloguing Code of Ethics1, “Cataloguing standards and practices are currently and historically characterised by racism, white supremacy, colonialism, othering, and oppression.” Traditionally, these knowledge organization systems and descriptive standards have been viewed as universal and neutral, but we (along with many libraries worldwide)2recognize that they have actually always been problematic, offensive, and harmful. They are based in a nineteenth-century Eurocentric philosophy of information organization and management, and they have actively marginalized, demeaned, and erased groups outside the dominant culture.

What are you doing to fix it?

In the cultural heritage field at-large, and locally at MSU Libraries, efforts are ongoing to identify and change harmful language. We acknowledge the power of language in our systems and standards, our position of power, our tacit involvement in reproducing oppressive structures, and our responsibility to effect change in our daily work.

We don't have the resources to entirely depart from prevailing systems and structures, but while we employ them to ensure access to resources for our users, we also commit to being more active in the work of limiting their harm and changing them from within, and to do so with more cultural competency and urgency. We are supported in this work by the Libraries' Strategic Plan, which emphasizes considering the impact of our work on creators, researchers, and communities and the power we have as creators of description.

Furthermore, we are also inspired by national discussions around racial and cultural justice to closely examine our descriptive practices and address inequities as the implications for these discussions on the descriptive work of libraries and archives are increasingly clear. We acknowledge that this work is made possible by the efforts of many others who have led the way, both in civil rights movements and in the cultural heritage field.

We are committed to transparency in our processes as we undertake this work (view information about ongoing projects here [insert link upon creation]), and we welcome critiques, concerns, questions, and input from our users. Please reach out to us if you encounter any problematic language or have feedback on our process via our feedback form.

As part of this commitment, we offer the following resolution:

WHEREAS: Language, description, and knowledge hold meaning and power;

WHEREAS: Library description systems and structures are not universal or neutral and contain the inherent biases of their creators who operate from places of privilege and power;

WHEREAS: Structures that are intended to facilitate the discovery of resources in the MSU Libraries (subject or genre terms) may carry connotations that are demeaning, marginalizing, offensive, or harmful to underrepresented groups or individuals within these systems;

WHEREAS: Higher education and its libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions have upheld these structures and terms in the description and organization of library resources, both historically and presently; and the work of providing access to and facilitating discovery of millions of existing resources in these institutions is made possible through historic and continued usage of this data and reliance on
national knowledge organization systems;

WHEREAS: We are supported by the Libraries' Strategic Plan, which emphasizes considering the impact of our work on creators, researchers, and communities, and acknowledging the power we have as creators of description;


TO: Recognize our own position of power and tacit involvement in reproducing oppressive structures and our responsibility to effect change through our daily work;

TO: Educate ourselves on our own biases in approaching library resource description and management;

TO: Call out and work against biases in our local application of national standards and descriptions that fortify the Eurocentric philosophies that often reinforce and uphold white supremacy, sexism, ableism, the settler-colonizer narrative, discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community, and other forms of exclusion;

TO: Work to identify, change, and/or eradicate harmful language used in our local catalog descriptions. And to consult communities in the description of themselves and their created resources where appropriate and possible;

TO: Advocate for and actively pursue, through official channels, changes in the national standards and KOSs where we have identified harmful, oppressive, or marginalizing language and/or assumptions;

TO: Commit to transparency in our processes as we undertake this work (view information about ongoing projects here), and we welcome critiques, concerns, questions, and input from our users. Please reach out to [committee contact] with feedback.


(1) Cataloguing Code of Ethics. Cataloguing Code of Ethics Steering Committee, 202. Accessed March 25, 2021.
(2) For a list of other libraries involved in this work, please see, the Cataloging Lab List of Statements on bias in Library and Archives Description
(3) Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Resources:

Michigan State University