Princeton University Library advocates for reparative description for Indigenous collections through working group

In a move towards inclusivity and equity, Princeton University Library (PUL)’s Special Collections established the Indigenous Collections Working Group (ICWG) to conduct inclusive and reparative description work on archival and rare book collections that center around Indigenous communities in North America. Formed in 2021, this team is a subsidiary of the Special Collections Archival Description and Processing (ADAPT) Team's Inclusive Description Working Group.

"The group's overall goal is to assist in the development of policies and practices for the ethical stewardship of Indigenous-related materials in Special Collections," said Faith Charlton, chair of the Indigenous Collections Working Group. Alongside Charlton, the team comprises members from Special Collections, including the ADAPT and curatorial teams, as well as Cataloging and Metadata Services, represented by Minjie Chen, Will Clements, Phoebe Nobles, and Gabriel Swift.

Consists of a deed transferring land from Matappeas, Tawapung, and Toponemus to John Bowne, Richard Hartshorne, and James Grover

A deed transferring land from Matappeas, Tawapung (Taptawappamund), and Seapoekne (Sepegnona), sachems of Toponemus (Toponemose, Topanemus, Toponemesing), to John Bowne, Richard Hartshorne, and James Grover of Middletown.

Surveying the Collection and Making Changes

PUL Special Collections houses an extensive array of materials related to Indigenous communities, predominantly those located in North America. The scope of these collections is substantial, encompassing 40 manuscript collections at Firestone and Mudd Libraries, multiple photograph collections with item-level descriptions of more than 7,000 items, and around 100 bound volumes and single manuscript items. Additionally, more than 8,000 relevant holdings of print materials are distributed across all divisions of Special Collections, including over 300 graphic arts materials and approximately 100 objects of Indigenous origin.

The process of identifying materials in need of redescription involves multiple strategies. "One method ADAPT used was to search for keywords in our finding aids to locate collections with harmful terminology that require staff review," Charlton said. However, recognizing the limitations of automated techniques, the group actively seeks feedback from users, including colleagues, faculty, students, and external researchers and communities to help identify collections that require attention.

Once a collection or materials are identified, the responsibility of reviewing and determining what reparative work is required falls upon archivists, catalogers, curators, and subject specialists. This process includes revising current language to ensure accuracy and respect for the Indigenous communities documented.

Exemplary Redescription Efforts

The Indigenous Collections Working Group has initiated the redescription of a subset of collection materials focusing on Lenape tribal nations, specifically land deeds. The prioritization of these materials is the outcome of PUL's recent efforts to build relationships with Indigenous scholars and communities, notably through participation in the Munsee Language and History Symposium

One example involves a land deed that working group members collaborated on with experts from the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), including faculty members Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Melissa Moreton, Monmouth County historian Rick Geffken, and Sand Hill/Navesink historian and community member Claire Garland. 

This redescription effort entailed revising harmful language and enhancing what had previously been minimal information. The focus was on improving discoverability and access, with a particular emphasis on providing names, especially Lenape names, of individuals, communities, and places. The group intends to employ similar collaborative and inclusive description methods for other land deeds in their collections, such as a New York land grant recently acquired by the Library.

In addition to the ongoing redescription work, the group is actively exploring other projects, including the redescription of materials within the Association on American Indian Affairs Records, a substantial portion of which has been recently digitized. They are also focused on materials documenting residential boarding schools, a poignant chapter in Indigenous history.

Engaging the Wider Community

The ICWG extends an invitation for collaboration and the development of mutually beneficial relationships with Indigenous scholars, students, and communities, both within the Princeton community and beyond. “One accessible way for individuals to interact with the group and the library staff in general is through the ‘Suggest a Correction’ and ‘Report Harmful Language’ feedback forms, now seamlessly integrated into the Library's catalog and finding aids website,” Charlton said. “These forms offer a platform for users to contribute suggestions for revising harmful language and enhancing descriptions, thus fostering a sense of collective ownership and engagement.”

Published on November 1, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications