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Cultural Note for National Geographic Society Collections

The National Geographic Society’s archival materials constitute a historical record and may contain unsettling images, language, or other objectionable content that does not reflect contemporary social and/or cultural views or the Society’s current values. Staff are implementing practices to address troubling or even potentially harmful content while retaining authenticity of the original record. 

Statement

At the National Geographic Society we believe in using the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonders of the world.  The Society has long told the story of our human journey through grant funding, cartography, photography, filmmaking and more.  Reflecting more fully on the Society’s story means  recognizing the roles colonialism, racism, and sexism played in who was allowed to be an Explorer, who was able to tell stories, and whose stories were told.   The Society recognizes the importance of acknowledging these parts of our past so that we may chart a more equitable and inclusive future.  

Within the Society’s Special Collections, our mission is to ensure that our records provide an inclusive and authentic representation of our history, our activities, and our story. While it is our intention to accurately reflect history, we also want to acknowledge that users may encounter  troubling and even potentially harmful content within our collections.  

Frequently asked questions

Where does this content come from? 

Throughout the Society’s history, it has produced materials and collections that bear witness to its role as one of the leading scientific and educational organizations in the world.  This content includes well-known products like the magazine, books, and films, as well as educational materials, documentation of exhibits and live presentations, and records related to grant making, field research, and administration of the Society. These objects form the basis of original research, exhibition, and interpretation. 

The archival record generally and the archival records of National Geographic Society in particular may contain gaps. Individuals and groups may be unrepresented, underrepresented, or misrepresented. Sometimes this lack of representation or misrepresentation is inadvertent, but often it reflects decisions and practices of content creators, librarians and archivists past and present, as well as larger patterns of exclusion and marginalization at National Geographic Society and throughout society.

What harmful or troubling content may be found in National Geographic’s Collections?

Some items may:

  • reflect oppressive ideologies, including racist, sexist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes.
  • be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, ableism, religion, and more.
  • include content such as natural disasters, ceremonies and traditions, ruins and artifacts, nudity, violence (human and animal), and more.
  • demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.

Why does National Geographic make troubling or potentially harmful content available? 

National Geographic collects, preserves, and presents these materials as part of the historic record. Librarians and archivists seek to balance the preservation of this history with sensitivity to how these materials are presented to and perceived by users.

How is this material described, and why are some of the terms used in the descriptions harmful? 

  • Librarians and archivists often re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the material. This can provide important context, but can also reflect biases and prejudices.
  • Librarians and archivists often use a standardized set of terms, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, to describe materials. Some of these terms are outdated, offensive, or insensitive.
  • Librarians and archivists choose what language to use when describing materials. Some of these descriptions were written many years ago, and may reflect  descriptions that vary with context, time, and the positionality of the description creator.
  • Communities with less access to and privilege within libraries and archives have had less control over how they are represented and described.
  • Librarians and archivists sometimes make mistakes or lack an understanding of differing perspectives.

How are librarians and archivists working to address this problem and help users better understand such content?

Our key guiding principles are to:

  • Ensure inclusive and equitable cataloging practices.
  • Examine how and when to update legacy records.
  • Seek input from local communities and peer institutions.
  • Share our process and work. 
  • Continue our own education on issues of bias and de-centering majority identities in metadata practices.

Some of the ways we are approaching this work include: 

Recognizing unsettling imagery or terminology

The Society’s archival materials constitute a historical record and may contain unsettling images, language, or other objectionable content that does not reflect contemporary social and/or cultural views or the Society’s current values. Staff are implementing practices to address troubling or even potentially harmful content while retaining authenticity of the original record. We are deeply committed to expanding our cataloging practices to reflect inclusive and equitable archival practices.

If you would like to share additional knowledge regarding items in the catalog, please notify us through this Google form. We appreciate your feedback and your interest in the National Geographic Society’s history and activities.

Undoing assumptions

Our records may include assumptions about gender or other demographic characteristics. We are committed to questioning assumptions in order to better reflect the people and resources we describe. 

Acknowledging peoples and place names   

The names we attach to places can reflect the white-centering that permeates record keeping. We are examining how to better acknowledge Indigenous and marginalized peoples in our collections.  

DEI Metadata Glossary 

We are creating an internal glossary of DEI metadata terminology to supplement our cataloging to improve and aid search results. 

Examining subject headings

Standardized authority files, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, may contain outdated, offensive, or non-inclusive terms. We are exploring ways to address this through keeping aware of and implementing vocabularies from alternative subject and genre thesauri. 

Cultural heritage collaborations

We welcome the opportunity to enrich our collection descriptions through collaborations with researchers and communities with expertise on content material. 

Making an institutional commitment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)       

We believe we can only achieve our mission when we actualize our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in every aspect of our work.

As an organization guided by science and innovation, we recognize that research shows the very best ideas result from teams with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences working together effectively to harness the creative power and ingenuity of diversity.

Championing all voices and ensuring members of the Society community are empowered to bring their unique perspective and story to bear on our mission work is critical to pushing us to a brighter future. National Geographic's DEI Story and Guiding Principles.

How can I report harmful content and/or submit comments?

Staff are implementing practices to address troubling or potentially harmful language as part of routine cataloging work. In addition, we encourage users to provide feedback to help us tackle this issue. We recognize that terminology evolves over time and that efforts to create respectful and inclusive descriptions must be ongoing.

If you would like to bring our attention to potentially harmful content and/or share additional knowledge regarding items in the catalog, please notify us through this Google form.  We appreciate your feedback and your interest in the National Geographic Society’s history and activities.

Resources and references guiding this work 

Many readings and resources, including statements by fellow archives and libraries have inspired and guided our efforts. DPLA's Statement on Potentially Harmful Content  was particularly helpful in formatting and establishing this page. While there are no current national archival standards for remediating potentially harmful language, we took action outlined by suggestions and examples in the following resources and more:

If you would like to share additional knowledge regarding items in the catalog, please notify us through this form. We appreciate your feedback and your interest in the National Geographic Society's history and activities.

Email: specialcollections@ngs.org

Banner Photo Credit: Renan Ozturk.