Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives

Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives

This post has been adapted into a presentation entitled “Archiving Hate: Legacy Descriptions and Offensive Materials in Archives.” This was presented at the Archives Association of Ontario Institutional Development Committee Symposium in October 2020

There are many issues that come with having racist materials in archival institutions. However, Information Studies and Archival Studies programs rarely discuss how to manage offensive archival materials. From experience, while working as a summer student at an archive, I came across a blackface photograph that was donated with a box of seemingly unrelated photographs. The archivist assessed the photograph and found that it had no relation to the institution’s history. The photograph was donated without any context to its creation. As such, the archivist decided that it was best to discard the photograph. The reason the photograph was donated is unknown, and the donor was not contacted to clarify this information. This situation made me wonder if there were any best practices for archives on how to manage offensive materials.


Should archives collect offensive materials? As the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics suggests, archivists have a duty to collect materials that were produced by an institution, community, or individual regardless of the material being offensive. The Code of Ethics states: “archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” [1] As such, racist materials should be collected as they serve as evidence of the activities of the institution, community, or individual they originated from. These records should not be censored to remove offensive elements. In preserving these materials, archivists play an important role in accountability.

Furthermore, as David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum, put it “items of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance.” [2] It is important for archives to collect and preserve racist materials as they have historical value. Racist archival materials can be used to investigate and understand aspects of Canadian history that is often under-explored. These archival materials can be used to understand the past, contextualize the present, and help Canadians learn from it.


How can archives describe racist materials to allow for discoverability but mitigate the pain they can cause users? The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group created metadata recommendations for archival professionals called the Anti-Racist Description Resources. Mentioned in the Newsletter of the SAA Description Section, this resource recommends that archivists unlearn the “neutral” language traditionally used in archival description. Instead, this resource suggests using language that is respectful to the community represented or invested in the records. For example, when describing slavery, people who were held in bondage should be described as “enslaved” or “captive” rather than “slaves.” Archivists should consider the potential harm caused when using creator-supplied language in the descriptions. Racist creator-supplied language should be contextualized and placed in quotation marks. If an archival institution is addressing racism in archival description, this resource recommends that the archive publishes an online statement outlining principles and goals. [3]

Based on my research, it appears that many archives manage racist materials as outlined by the Anti-Racist Description Resources. For instance, Princeton University Library published a Statement on Language in Archival Description that outlines their aims to describe archival materials in a manner that is respectful. The statement also describes their reasoning for maintaining offensive language in their finding aids. I do find, however, that discoverability remains an issue in archives. I searched several digital archives in Canada using keywords “blackface,” “minstrel,” “coon,” and “racist” and found limited results. This is not to say that the records I found are the only digitized records within these archives. In relation to lack of discoverability, a discussion was recently held at the Toronto Public Library called “what can we do with blackface and other racist materials in Canadian archives?” In this discussion, Dr. Cheryl Thompson argued that archives need to rethink their wording in archival descriptions as racist materials are difficult to locate.


How should archives provide access to racist materials? Should these materials be digitized or should they have access restrictions? According to the SAA Core Values Statement, archivists are responsible for promoting and providing the widest possible accessibility of materials wherever possible. [4] The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states that “in providing and managing access to records, we are sensitive to the evolving contexts of individuals (living or dead), organizations, or communities that are the subjects of the records, reconsidering access conditions as necessary in light of that sensitivity.” [5]

It appears that archival institutions use their own discretion to determine appropriate access for offensive materials. For instance, Hollins University temporarily removed digitized yearbooks that included images of blackface from its digital archives until they could provide contextual information for the images. They took this action in an effort to limit the pain they may cause users. [6] The SAA disagreed with this action, stating that removing those images was an alteration to the archival record, which goes against their Code of Ethics. [7] There is a value in digitizing racist archival materials and making them accessible. However, the impact these records could have on people today is worth consideration. If offensive records are digitized and made accessible, it is important to contextualize them.

Further Readings

Berry, D. (2018, August 2). Digitizing and enhancing description across collections to make African American materials more discoverable on umbra search African American history. The Design for Diversity Learning Toolkit. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from

Chilcott, A. (2019). Towards protocols for describing racially offensive language in UK public archives. Archival Science, 19(4), 359–376.

Dunbar, A. W. (2006). Introducing critical race theory to archival discourse: Getting the conversation started. Archival Science, 6(1), 109–129.

Holterhoff, K. (2017). From disclaimer to critique: Race and the digital image archivist. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 011(3).

Janes, S. (2017, August 25). Records we are not proud of: Archival outreach and controversial materials. Canada’s History.,-culture-society/records-we-are-not-proud-of-archival-outreach-and-controversial-materials

Pilgrim, D. (2005). Why I collect racist objects. Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from

Header image is “Portrait of unidentified man in blackface, dressed for a theatrical performance,” from Archives of Ontario. Reference code: C 320-1-0-12-6

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.