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