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Statement on Harmful and Bias Language in Archival Description


City of Portland Auditor’s Office strives to not only ensure that the people of Portland have an open and accountable government, but also that all community members experience a sense of belonging regardless of race, gender, country of origin, sexual orientation, or ability.  

As a division of this office, The City of Portland Archives is charged with making historical city records accessible to the public and City employees for research and inspection in accordance with Oregon's public records laws. 

As keepers of the City of Portland’s historical record, we have tried to describe documents with care for our community, however, we recognize that we do not and have not always succeededDescription of historical records is never unbiased, and neither are the archivists who choose the language used in that description. Some descriptions found in Efilesmay have been written many years ago using harmful and discriminatory language that would not be used by archivists today. Archivists also make mistakes or use poor judgement when describing historical documents, photographs, and objects. We take responsibility for the harmful language in our descriptions and take responsibility for the pain we have caused.  

Confronting Harmful or Triggering Content in the Historical Record

As historical resources, archival records reflect the prejudices of the era in which they were created and include language that is offensive. The use of this language is not condoned by The City Portland Archives, but we are committed to providing access to this material as evidence of the inequalities and attitudes of the time.

When searching for records held by The City of Portland Archives, users should be aware that some materials may:

  • Demonstrate the exclusion and oppression of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as people with disabilities by local government. 
  • Reflect white supremacist and American imperialist and settler-colonial ideologies, which include racist, sexist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes.
  • Be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, ability, religion, and more.
  • Include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, crime, natural disasters, and more.

Users searching City records should also be aware that Efilesincludes both historical records and current and semi-current records still under the jurisdiction of other City bureaus and divisions. The City of Portland Archives has no control over the language used by city employees and elected officials in current and semi-current records. 

City of Portland Reparative Description Project   

The City of Portland Archives staff acknowledges that our personal biases affect the historical record of our city. We are beginning the process of creating procedures to establish descriptive practices that prioritizes accurate language and terminology that shows care for all members of our community.

We aim to identify records in the City of Portland’s historical collections that contain racist, ableist, and sexist language and perspectives. We will change inappropriate archivist-supplied description to make sure that the language we have chosen to enhance access to the City’s records does not harm the people who use them. We will also highlight historical records in our collections that use language that is now antiquated and/or derogatory, but necessary to maintain the original context of the document. We do not alter the content of the original records and are committed to providing access to this material as evidence of the inequalities and attitudes of the time. 

This project prioritizes the experience of Portlanders who have had less privilege within city government and less control over how they are represented in the archives. We wish to amplify voices of these members of our community by using names, language, and terms preferred by those being described. 

This process will be ongoing and will require Archives’ staff to regularly review policies, procedures, and language. We will ask for feedback to insure we are fulfilling our commitment to underrepresented and historically marginalized communities. 

The main objectives of this project include:

  • Identifying harmful language in the description of historical records.
  • Changing harmful language added by archivists and highlighting historical language necessary to maintain the original context of the document.
  • Connecting and consulting with various communities represented in the historical collections.
  • Identifying and amplifying the experience of Portlanders often excluded or ignored by the historical record, while protecting the privacy of community members that may be endangered by personal identification.
  • Maintaining ongoing, sustainable critical language policies and workflows for describing historical documents collected by Archives & Records Management. 

How You Can Help

The City Archives urges community members to report any potentially harmful language in the descriptions of historical records and objects. If you would like to submit a report of harmful language, you may do so by emailing Please include a quote of the specific language you feel is harmful and a suggested alternative if you have one.

We will determine whether to change or remove terms from archival descriptions.  We will weigh potential harm against considerations such as input from affected communities, accurate preservation of the historical record, professional best practices, and allocation of staff resources.

Please note, this process applies only to language found within catalog descriptions of the records, not to the content of the original historical records. We do not alter the content of the original records.