Our res­i­dent archivist Mary Ann Dav­i­son looks at how to pre­serve the past, when some of its phrases are now pe­jo­ra­tive

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Mary Ann Dav­i­son dis­cusses of­fen­sive ter­mi­nol­ogy.

What record are we at­tempt­ing to pre­serve of our past, if not a ‘per­fect’, rose-tinted one?

Are­cent ques­tion posted on an ar­chiv­ists’ dis­cus­sion fo­rum gave me pause for thought, and I’d be in­ter­ested to hear your views on the is­sues it raised. It all cen­tred around the use of words and phrases in archival ma­te­rial which would now be con­sid­ered of­fen­sive, and how best to cat­a­logue the ma­te­rial in ques­tion. So, for ex­am­ple, a col­lec­tion of cor­re­spon­dence be­ing cat­a­logued con­tained ref­er­ence to a med­i­cal term that is now viewed as pe­jo­ra­tive. Should the ar­chives cat­a­loguer in­clude the word at all? If it is in­cluded, should the word be con­tained within in­verted com­mas, or should an al­ter­na­tive word be used?

The ques­tions raised here get right to the heart of what we do as ar­chiv­ists – we pre­serve the past. We col­lect his­tor­i­cal records, and we cat­a­logue them so that any­one with an in­ter­est in them can ac­cess them and in turn learn about our shared his­tory. It is shared, af­ter all – a fact we should never lose sight of.

Fur­ther­more, it is the job of ar­chiv­ists to make the ma­te­rial as ac­ces­si­ble as pos­si­ble, which in­cludes clear and de­scrip­tive cat­a­logu­ing. Surely an archivist would not be do­ing his or her job if we changed the con­tent of the very item we are try­ing to pre­serve and make avail­able? For by chang­ing the cat­a­logue de­scrip­tion, we might as well change the item it­self, or even dis­card it al­to­gether. Just be­cause an item con­tains an of­fen­sive word or term, how­ever, is that rea­son enough to dis­card it? What record are we at­tempt­ing to pre­serve of our past then, if not a ‘per­fect’, rose-tinted one? And another ques­tion – if we are cre­at­ing a per­fect ver­sion of the past, in whose eyes is it per­fect?

This is all very deep and mean­ing­ful, but I be­lieve these are very im­por­tant points, and should be ad­dressed and dis­cussed from both sides. As a ge­neal­o­gist, how would you feel if you dis­cov­ered one of your an­ces­tors was, say, the owner of a slave plan­ta­tion? It is a very real pos­si­bil­ity. If the records don’t ex­ist to prove it, how­ever, it re­mains a part of your his­tory, doesn’t it? Why not, then, keep the records, to learn more about this time in his­tory? This clearly in­cludes the views of those liv­ing at the time, de­spite the changes which have en­sued since then.

Another ex­am­ple is the use of words in a med­i­cal sense. For ex­am­ple, we find the word ‘id­iot’ be­ing used with a high level of fre­quency in 18th cen­tury par­ish reg­is­ters – should we erase all traces of this, as we would never re­fer to some­one as an id­iot nowa­days, at least, not in a med­i­cal sense? I can­not see a con­vinc­ing case for do­ing so.

In­ci­den­tally, this was the con­sen­sus in this par­tic­u­lar on­line dis­cus­sion, with one per­son sum­ming the sit­u­a­tion up per­fectly: ‘We should not deny his­tory, as that is a sure-fire way to for­get and re­peat it.’

What do you think? Have you come across any par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing words or phrases we would never use nowa­days? Let me know!

A cen­sus record show­ing epilep­tics de­scribed as im­be­ciles

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