Language in Archives

Language is very much human. It is not static; it is not just words on paper or sounds coming out of one’s mouth. It is dynamic, constantly transforming and evolving. The full extent of the power that language has is so often underestimated. The documentary Change the Subjectfollowed Dartmouth students on their mission to terminate the use of the term “illegal alien” in the Library of Congress’ subject headings. This film made me reflect more deeply on how language has had an impact on my life, and how its effects our ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

Catalogue titles are not merely words in a catalogue, they are not just a “neutral organizing principle.” We often fail to consider the deeper meaning and value behind words and how these terms can affect the way we view a particular topic. What is considered “neutral” may not truly be neutral, just conventional. Many systems of power rely on language including library archives. When power rely on words, it is important to be mindful of using impartial, unbiased language to ensure fair usage of that power. The term “illegal alien” implies an otherness, and dictates who belongs and who is an outsider, instead of encouraging fairness and openness to all.

Language, just like information technology, requires constant maintenance and repair. Because both are constantly evolving and changing even more quickly in our rapidly developing world today, maintenance has become even more important. The research I’ve done and the information I’ve learned from these past few weeks has helped changed the way I view history. I have also learned much more about the College’s two hundred-year history. I feel more connected to my school, and have also begun to look at history from a more critical viewpoint.

Initially, I wanted to dive deeper into the College’s response to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and compare it to the COVID-19 response. Conducting a project solely on the 1918 influenza at Amherst would have required an extremely detailed search into sources, but unfortunately time is not on our side. Although we chose to do a more comprehensive overview of disasters in general, we were still able to incorporate this as one of the disasters we look more closely into. Our current project allows for a much wider variety of sources to choose from and to analyze. I can’t help but wonder what future archivists will discover when they look into the sources we’ve left behind about the COVID-19 pandemic.

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