by Sharon Rondeau
(Sep. 8, 2021) — An email received Wednesday night reported that a page on the website of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) containing an image of the U.S. Constitution and links to related articles contains a “Harmful Language Alert” at the top of the page.
Initially when this writer clicked on the following link: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/1667751
the message appeared for a second or less, then disappeared. However, repeated opening of the link yielded the message fixed in the same location.
NARA has issued a page explaining “Potentially Harmful Content” which states:
The Catalog and web pages of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provide access to many millions of descriptions and digital copies of the permanent records of the United States federal government.
The Catalog and web pages contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. NARA’s records span the history of the United States, and it is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records. As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance.
The National Archives is committed to working with staff, communities, and peer institutions to assess and update descriptions that are harmful and to establish standards and policies to prevent future harmful language in staff-generated descriptions.
Examples of objectionable content include, according to NARA:
- “racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes;”
- Material which “may” be “discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more;”
- “include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more;”
- and “demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.”
According to The Free Dictionary, “ableist” means, “discriminating against disabled or handicapped people.”
To the FAQ, “How is this material described, and why are some of the terms used in the descriptions harmful?” NARA replies, in part:
- Archivists often use a standardized set of terms, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, to describe materials. Some of these terms are outdated, offensive, or insensitive.
- In the past, the National Archives has not had standards or policies to help archivists avoid harmful language.
A footnote states the page was “last reviewed on July 29, 2021.”
The Post & Email contacted NARA through its website to ask if the “Harmful Language Alert” was placed on the U.S. Constitution’s page intentionally or if it is a technical error. We will update this report if and when we receive a response.
Update, 8:34 a.m. EDT, September 9, 2021: The response received from the National Archives reads:
Dear Sharon Rondeau,
The harmful language alert is not connected to any specific records, but appears at the top of the page while you are using the online National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/).
The warning is placed there because original historical records may contain language that is racist or may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions.
To learn more about why the alert about harmful language appears in our Catalog please go to https://www.archives.gov/research/reparative-description/harmful-content
Thank you for contacting the National Archives. We hope this information is helpful.
National Archives and Records Administration