Potentially offensive material in archival records - an explanation of archival practice

Studying the past frequently requires access to archival records. Archival records are written in the language used by the writer, and represent the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of the historical time in which they were created.

Archivists strive to provide access to records in their original form and order, presenting records as they were originally created, impartially and without interpretation. Preserving these words and images in their original context helps us to understand society and its institutions at the time the records were created, and allows them to be useful as historical evidence in understanding previous actions, attitudes, and policies.  Unfortunately this means researchers will occasionally encounter language or depictions (such as a photograph depicting a performer in blackface makeup) which are racist, sexist, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory by current standards. 

Archivists at the Halifax Municipal Archives create descriptions of records in our holdings for our searchable online database. We reproduce offensive wording only when it is transcribed directly from the title or content of an item (usually with a warning and explanation added to contextualize the offensive language). In the description of the record, which gives more detail about the material, we use current and appropriate language and do not perpetuate the use of outdated or non-preferred terminology. 

For example, the City of Halifax Mayor’s Office correspondence includes a file of letters from the Halifax Coloured Citizen’s Improvement League. Even though “coloured” is an outdated term for Black people or other persons of colour, we would not change the wording in the file title as it is the formal name of the organization. This term also gives historical information about the language used at the time the League was in existence. Further, researchers searching for terminology from the specific time period they are investigating might not be able to find the file if the name was changed or removed completely. 

In the part of the description where archivists add more detail about the record however, we would not describe the League as “a group of coloured citizens” but would instead describe the League as “a group of Black citizens.” This uses currently acceptable language to refer to the creators of the records, and also adds additional search terms for anyone researching Black history in Halifax.

Researchers may also see content warnings in the descriptions of records, noting that the material itself contains offensive terminology or content. 

Add your voice - submitting comments

While archival records themselves will never be altered, the process of describing those records is ongoing. As we learn more about the records and the aspect of the region’s history they document, we will update descriptions. If you notice that an archival description includes incorrect information or if you can help clarify an uncertain date or an unidentified photo, please contact us  or use the “Add Comments” button in the Archives Database. Similarly, if you have any concerns about offensive material or would like to suggest a content warning, please contact us

While we conduct basic research and strive to describe material accurately, the experiences and knowledge of the people viewing the records can be valuable sources as well. We welcome suggestions, corrections, comments, or questions.

Upon receiving additional information or corrections, staff will verify the information with other sources and update the description accordingly. Commenters will be credited in the description if they agree to being named. 

Upon receiving comments identifying harmful records or description, staff will determine the best correction, consulting HRM’s Diversity and Inclusion Office for additional advice as appropriate. 

Add your records - filling gaps in the historical record

Many communities within the region are not well-represented in government records, particularly those who have been ignored or marginalized by government throughout history. This needs to change. The Municipal Archives values the inclusion of community records as an important complement to municipal government records and welcomes opportunities to offer a secure and accessible home to records from diverse groups.

The Municipal Archives also recognizes that communities with different knowledge-keeping practices, such as traditional oral histories, or who have experienced institutionalized racism in Halifax may be hesitant or opposed to donating records to a government institution.

If you have historical documents, photographs, audio-visual materials, maps and plans, etc. you'd be interested in preserving, please contact us to discuss the available options to ensure valuable records endure and are available to tell their story well into the future. You can find more information about donating your records on our website, or by contacting us at archives@halifax.ca