VRC Commitment to Ethical and Antiracist Digital Stewardship

Like many archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions reckoning with inequality and anti-black racism inherent in their structures in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, the Visual Resources Center recognizes that our digital collections—developed in consultation with faculty and students by image requests and orders— are a living archive that grows organically in response to prioritized areas of art history research and teaching, the parameters of which have been historically narrow. The metadata schemas, cataloging practices, and vocabulary authorities (i.e. Getty Vocabularies and Library of Congress Subject Headings) we use to describe images of art and architecture in our digital collections workflows can create and perpetuate art information that is outdated, incorrect, and actively harmful to many individuals and cultures throughout history. The user communities we intend to serve today (i.e. faculty, students, staff, and users of our publicly available digital collections) are not well served by this narrow approach. During this moment of reflection and growing awareness, we also have an opportunity to adapt our workflows to represent a more inclusive definition of “art and architecture” and related practices, aided in part by our digital collections’ ability to be dynamically and organically grown. Simultaneously, we can prioritize the ethical care, maintenance, and sustainability of a user-centered digital collections program in support of teaching and research. The VRC staff commits to becoming better stewards of our digital collections in the following ways: 

  • Actively reach out to and serve as a resource for faculty, instructors, and students working on topics related to artists and movements that are underrepresented in visual culture. Prioritize ethical collection development in the areas most relevant to their teaching and research.
  • Participate in the community of visual resources catalogers researching and practicing critical cataloging, a theoretical approach which analyzes and addresses the ethical issues of metadata and classification. Implement critical cataloging practices to repair and improve metadata records that are misleading or incorrect in our metadata projects, prioritizing areas of the collection aligned with active faculty and student teaching and research. Work with individual artist- and cultural authority-produced materials (i.e. use artists’ statements or public-facing web resources made and maintained by the culture we are describing) to source appropriate metadata. Submit corrections and additions to the art vocabulary authorities we routinely utilize as a way to contribute to the field beyond the VRC’s password-protected collections.
  • Continually educate ourselves on antiracism, institutional racism, allyship, and inclusivity in the library, museum, and digital collections fields through research and professional development. Apply that education to our digital collections work and our research support services, including reference and instruction. Collaborate with campus colleagues and collections whenever possible.

Bridget Madden, Associate Director 
Allie Scholten, Digital Collections Manager
July 1, 2020

2021 Update on the Commitment to Ethical and Antiracist Digital Stewardship

The last twelve months have provided the opportunity to realign the VRC’s priorities and focus on ethically maintaining the existing collection. As we approach one year from publishing the The Visual Resources Center’s Commitment to Ethical and Antiracist Digital Stewardship (published July 2020), we would like to reflect and update the VRC’s user community on the changes and progress made on the action points and where we can improve going forward. As staff members, we are continually learning from colleagues and collaborators who are frontrunners in ethical archiving and librarianship. Editing and maintaining the collections so they serve our diverse user community, especially those who have been marginalized by archives, will remain an ongoing priority of the VRC’s and the commitments made will be integrated into our ongoing work. 

Nearly 450 new images of works by artists associated with the transpacific region or creating art around transpacific subjects have been added to LUNA this year, in collaboration with students in Orianna Cacchione’s “Transpacific Art Histories” and staff at the Smart Museum. This collaboration also led to the VRC rethinking how artists’ cultures are attributed. The VRC is working to align cultures with how the artist identifies, including hyphenated nationalities, reformatting the culture to “born in Germany, works in the United States” rather than “German artist” where applicable, and leaving it out entirely when preferred by the artist. Shifting language from “unknown” to “unrecorded” in records where artists’ names have been disregarded (particularly Indigenous artists) attempts to acknowledge erasures in the archive. We’ve additionally prioritized cataloging new images of African art and updated the cataloging practices and metadata records for existing images of “traditional” African art in the collection. Other significant critical cataloging efforts this year include editing the imbalanced treatment of subjects related to Christian topics and working to standardize language across religious subject headings. The Metadata Research cohort (detailed below) pursued in-depth research and metadata remediation to the existing collection, removing or contextualizing harmful language and ethically cataloging images.

In addition to the subject-specific editing undertaken by student employees and staff as part of the critical cataloging project, the VRC hosted two critical cataloging workshops where outside librarians, archivists, and scholars presented their work on critical cataloging initiatives and ethical archiving: “Introduction to Critical Cataloging” and “Queer Archives: The Work of Critical Cataloging and Queer Archival Labor,” which was a collaborative workshop with Dr. Jennifer Sichel and her course on Queer Archives and Queer Theory. A collaborative community notes document was produced detailing the workshop and listing more resources. The VRC also created and maintains a critical cataloging resources list. Of the six outside presenters invited, only two identified as POC. We would like to increase POC representation in event collaborators in future programming. Over 2,300 problematic or unhelpful subject headings in our database were edited or deleted this year. Subject headings can be some of the most subjective additions made by staff, and vague or wrongfully-applied headings can harmfully affect records. A public-facing Subject Language Guide was created to inform users of changes and guide searches. A selection of these changes were presented at the Visual Resources Association’s annual conference, continuing this dialogue with other visual resources professionals. Based on changes made to subject headings in our cataloging system, the VRC submitted problematic subjects from Library of Congress and their proposed, preferred term to the Cataloging Lab, a community of metadata librarians associated with #critcat addressing issues with Library of Congress Subject Headings. We have posted newly updated VRC Cataloging Guidelines, a working doc intended to articulate and document the VRC’s current critical cataloging perspectives and decisions for cataloging images of art and architecture for teaching and research at the University of Chicago, within the context of the VRC’s LUNA digital collections.

The VRC created a robust and practical student employment program this past year, hiring four Metadata Research Associates from undergraduate and graduate students. The work of the students over the AY 2020-2021 has led to subject-specific, reparative metadata changes that will be reflected in LUNA by Summer 2021. Analyzed subjects include representations of race, gender, and new media in art. The research and discussions between student employees and staff has led to structural changes to the image database, editing language to reflect current scholarship and community language, and changes to the cataloging practices held by the VRC. Because most professional development opportunities, including conferences, were held virtually this year, the VRC was able to offer funding to our student employees to attend a conference of their choice, and we were pleased to support two employees who wished to attend virtual conferences over Spring Break. We hope to continue variations of this student employment opportunity in the future.

VRC staff has attended many events and workshops hosted by the library and archival community this year, notably the Sunshine State’s “Introduction to Conscious Editing Series” led by Dorothy Berry, Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library, Harvard University. Participation in the Visual Resources Association’s Equitable Action Committee has also been useful in thinking about how to make the VRC more equitable. We are applying this knowledge to our collections, which has led to changes in cataloging practices. Accessibility concerns also extend beyond racism built into our institutional structures; the VRC’s physical space and digital collections are currently inaccessible to many. Please see the VRC Accessibility Statement for further details and action plans. 

Bridget Madden, Associate Director 

Allie Scholten, Digital Collections Manager

July 6, 2021