Equitable Metadata Practices Related to Gender, Race, and Culture

NCDHC staff use the following guidelines when describing materials, particularly images. These are evolving practices developed to mitigate years of racial and gender bias. 

These are just the guidelines; if you’d like some of the reasoning behind this work please refer to blog posts listed at the bottom of this page. Many others are working in this area and their efforts inspire and inform our own. For more reading, see the bottom of this page.

Special credit to Lulu Zilinskas, NCDHC graduate student from 2019-2021, for her research in this area as support for our work.

Cultural Context and Race

When describing what’s happening in a photo, use active voice. For example, instead of “cotton being harvested by farmworkers” use “farmworkers harvesting cotton.” 

Incorporate race into an item’s description if known with high certainty based on context. This includes listing the term “white.” If race is not self disclosed, an example of such context could mean a student at an HBCU or the owner of a Southern plantation before the Civil War.  This description is a good example.

Below is our list of preferred terms. These are the terms most prevalent in our collection at the moment. This list may expand over time. 

Don’t UseDo Use
Slave(s)Enslaved person/people
Slaveholder(s)Families/Individuals that enslaved people
Pejorative terms related to raceAfrican American, Black (always capitalized), Asian American
Indian (when referring to indigenous populations)American Indian or Indigenous
Blind, Deaf, Crippled, Birth Defect, Handicapped, Epileptic, Physically ChallengedRefer to this table for alternatives
PoorPoor people
Alien or Illegal alienUndocumented immigrant
Criminal, convict, felonPerson convicted of a crime

Gender

When coming up with a title for a picture with a few people, identify all of the photograph’s subjects by their names, moving from left to right.

If there are a lot of people in the image and using all of the names in the title would make it too long, choose non-gendered specifics if possible for the shorter title.

If you have known family relationships, either from the item itself or from the partner, put those in the description in parentheses and list for all.

When the only known metadata are honorifics plus one or more surnames, record the honorifics for individuals from left to right.  (In other words, don’t default to always placing Mr. first for a heterosexual couple.) In this instance you will be judging people based on dress and visual information – this isn’t ideal but we’re making the tradeoff.

  • Example: Mrs. and Mr. Candace and Donald Dreyfuss

When there’s no information to the contrary, use “adult(s)” over man, woman, gentleman, or lady. Use “child(ren)” over boy or girl. Other alternatives are “people” or “individuals,” or gender neutral terms based on context, like “diners,” “workers,” or “students.” Exceptions to this rule are for proper titles that you’re repeating as they were historically used, such as “Women’s Club” or “Boys’ Basketball Team” or “Girls’ School.”

  • Examples: Sandra Cannon and Unidentified Adult; Two Children on Swings

Do your best not to make assumptions about the people in the photograph if you don’t have contextual verification. For example, don’t assume that adults standing close together are married, or that children present with adults are in the same family.

NCDHC Blog Posts on Our Equitable Metadata Work

Selected Resources About Equity in Description

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia: Anti-Racist Description Resources. Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group. October 2019.

Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives. Michelle Caswell. 2017.

Annotated Bibliography for Cultural Assessment of Digital Collections. Cultural Assessment Working Group of the Digital Library Federation (DLF) Assessment Interest Group. 2017.

Updated January 2023