Issue 45, 2019-08-09

Digitization Selection Criteria as Anti-Racist Action

By deciding what to digitize in special collections and archives, we choose what narratives to promote, what history to highlight, and what legacies to further. This paper details a new initiative at LSU Libraries to integrate diversity and inclusion goals into digitization policies. After reviewing examples of how digitization can be either beneficial or harmful to individuals represented in the historical record, the author uses Ibram Kendi’s definition of racist policy — that which leads to racial inequalities — as a starting point for exploring how digitization selection can help counteract histories of exclusion.

by S.L. Ziegler


By deciding what, among the many possible choices, to digitize in special collections and archives, we choose what narratives to promote, what history to highlight, and what legacies to further. Louisiana State University Libraries’ Special Collections is in the midst of creating new digitization prioritization policies for our special collections, and to inform our decisions we’re looking closely at our legacy of racist and exclusionary practices. Specifically we are (1) including diversity and inclusion goals as a standard criteria for digitization selection, and (2) reviewing past restrictions on collections to investigate their role in upholding racial narratives.

A Note About My Whiteness

This paper describes a project designed to counteract racism. As such, beginning with a note about the author’s whiteness is essential: I am white. I benefit from the protections that whiteness afford. I regularly talk about racism and anti-racism without being accosted in person or online.

This safety is a privilege and a responsibility. I benefit from the hard work of many scholars and practitioners, including (but certainly not limited to) Dorothy Berry, Jarrett Drake, Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, Sofia Leung, Tonia Sutherland, and Baharak Yousefi. As a white person in a management role in an academic library, I am in a position to have some say over what portions of our large and diverse collections will be digitized. I fulfill this responsibility by finding ways to operationalize the lessons I learn from these and other thinkers.

Deciding What to Digitize

Starting in the late 1990s, institutions such as Harvard and Oxford started publishing digitization criteria policies.[1] A primary focus of these policies is the argument that digitization creates new collections and is thus akin to collection development for analog material. Similar to collection development for physical material, decisions related to what material to digitize should consider the institution’s mission statement, collecting scope, and audience.

While many institutions currently have some form of decision-making practice related to digitization, public documentation is often hard to find. Notable exceptions include Dartmouth’s Selection Policy for Digitization Projects[2] and University of California’s Selection Criteria for Digitization.[3] Both provide digitization selection guidance by applying the overall mission of the respective libraries to the specific considerations of any given project. Dartmouth’s policy aims, “to create a consistent, structured approach to reformatting our collections,” and does so by reference to the institution’s core mission.

The primary goal of collection development at Dartmouth College Library is to create collections of enduring value in support of research, teaching, and learning at Dartmouth College. The Library’s digitization program is designed to distribute its collections widely and to bring them to the attention of scholars and students within and beyond Dartmouth, enhanced with tools that will enable transformative uses of those materials.[4]

In addition to tailoring needs to specific institutional settings, many common criteria are shared among different institutions. The policies from Harvard, University of California, and Dartmouth all contain considerations of copyright and access restrictions, preservation of source material, research use of the collection, and projected use of digital content.[5]

Among libraries specifically tailoring digitization priorities to match institutional goals, Duke University Libraries offers a significant example. In 2017, drawing on the libraries’ strategic plan as well as the university’s statement on diversity and inclusion, the Advisory Council for Digital Collections (ACDC) released a call for proposals on the theme of diversity and inclusion. “The Diversity and Inclusion Digitization Initiative” states the call “will further demonstrate DUL’s commitment to diversity … by focusing digitization resources on improving access to historically overlooked voices and experiences found in Duke University Library collections.”[6] The call for proposals resulted in seven new digital collections that promote diversity and inclusion and established new workflows for soliciting and prioritizing digitization recommendations from staff across the libraries.[7]

LSU Libraries is currently re-working our digitization priority policy. Much like other libraries, we’re considering copyright, conservation, projected future use, and other criteria; and like Duke University Libraries we’re drawing heavily from our strategic plan. During this process we’ve learned a lot from the published policies of other libraries as well as the body of literature related to selection for digitization.[8]

It Matters What We Decide to Digitize

We have also benefited greatly from a growing body of literature related to both the harm that digitization can cause to particular communities, as well as examples of the benefits it can bring.

Recently, Zinaida Manžuck undertook a review of the literature related to ethical digitization.[9] This literature, Manžuck claims, shows a change in the thinking of professionals working in libraries, museums, and archives. “This shift,” writes Manžuck, “is demonstrated by attention to the impact of digitization on the lives/values/behavior/needs of specific communities and people and numerous instances of working for and with communities to develop methods of selecting, presenting, and organizing digitized heritage content online to provide richer, more dynamic, and inclusive engagement with the past.”[10] When the impact of digitization is not acknowledged, people can be harmed. Writing about the decision to digitize On Our Backs, a lesbian porn magazine, Tara Robinson urges librarians to consider the possible harm to participants in the magazine. “Consenting to a porn shoot,” writes Robinson, “that would be in a queer print magazine is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be available online.”[11] Debates about what information should be shared digitally is an active area of research for material related to indigenous communities,[12] zine librarianship,[13] and many other fields.

Concurrently, there are many examples of digitization projects that are working to fill gaps in the archival record by telling new stories through digitizing archival records, gathering undertold stories from various institutions via digitization, and offering a digital front door to widely dispersed material. Black at Bryn Mawr, Umbra Search, and In Her Own Right serve as examples.

Black at Bryn Mawr is a project started by Bryn Mawr students after other students hung a confederate flag on campus. The project is an attempt to “build institutional memory of the College’s black students, faculty and staff from Bryn Mawr’s founding” to the present day. To do this, material from the college’s special collections and elsewhere are being digitized[14]. brings together hundreds of thousands of digitized materials from over 1,000 libraries and archives across the country, and as such serves as a front door to search material related to African American history.[15] In Her Own Right brings together material highlighting women’s struggle leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment. The project makes material from multiple institutions available through a common interface.[16]

Moreover, our digitized collections become the building blocks of ongoing digital projects. As many in the Code4Lib community know, having collections digitized enables a wide variety of new work, from computational access[17] to deep learning.[18]

Digitization Selection as Anti-Racist Action

Digitization matters. As we’ve seen in the examples above, it can help further institutional missions. It can cause significant harm to communities when done unreflectively. It can bring together otherwise inaccessible stories when done well. Digitization can also counteract long-standing institutional practice. This is what we hope to do at LSU Libraries by integrating our diversity and inclusion goals into our digitization prioritization policy.

LSU Library’s current strategic plan includes among its goals, (1) Adapting and augmenting of description of collections to expose otherwise hidden materials relating to diverse or marginalized populations; and (2) Strengthening the Libraries’ culture related to diversity through appropriate programming, policy development and mentoring.[19] Recognizing that “all research libraries suffer from past failures to recognize, routinize, and celebrate diversity throughout their operations,” the library’s strategic plan aims to develop, “a durable and pervasive culture of inclusion for underrepresented or marginalized groups, be they racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, or geographic in nature.”[20] This culture of inclusion involves collection development. As such, it relates directly to selection for digitization.

For all of its benefits, the strategic plan doesn’t name the problem its trying to solve. It acknowledges a lack of diversity without specifying the history of racist collection development and descriptive practices. This history is not unique to LSU Libraries, nor is it unique to the U.S. South. Many critiques of standardized description draw attention to biases in the way many types of communities are described[21], and/or simply excluded completely.[22] If we are to take seriously our “past failures to recognize, routinize and celebrate diversity,” as our strategic plan encourages us to do, we must acknowledge our library’s specific practices and build new practices.

To routinize a celebration of diversity, we need policies that advance anti-racism. For the purposes of this paper, I’m using anti-racism in a general sense: the active resistance against recognized racist practices and policies. By racism, I mean both overt racism in collection description, and also the established practices that maintain racist outcomes. As race scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes, there is no possibility of being “not-racist” there is only racist and antiracist action. “All policies, ideas and people are either being racist or antiracist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity.”[23] Those of us working in the field of cultural institution management, those of us who choose what to digitize and thus what narratives to promote, what history to highlight, and what legacies to further have the opportunity to enact anti-racist action through digitization prioritization policies that counteract our racist past. This is a small corner of the world, to be sure, but it’s the corner we have some say over.

Implementing Anti-Racism

We are still at the early stages of developing a means of implementing anti-racism into our digitization selection policy; time and experience will no doubt help us shape our process in the future. Our initial efforts focus on two areas. The first is to prioritize collections that contain underrepresented communities in general, and African Americans specifically. As a predominantly white institution in the U.S. South, there is no difference between our story and the story of African Americans. Our collections have many African American individuals and communities in them, though we rarely center these stories.

To operationalize anti-racism, we’re adding an inclusion criteria to our digitization prioritization checklist. Much like the other institutions explored above, we have criteria related to copyright and access restrictions, preservation of source material, research use of the collection, and projected use of digital content. To this list we’re adding a criteria to allow us to evaluate how, if at all, any given collection can help us counteract traditional erasure.

Discovering which collections have communities we want to highlight can be difficult because manuscript collections often contain a wide variety of material relating to many different topics, events, people and places. Deciding what to describe is often a challenge and no description can contain everything. Add to this the traditional exclusion of non-white professionals in the field and it is littler wonder that we have a history of collection development and description that have favored a representation of whiteness.[24]

However, there are ways to work with extant descriptions. Dorothy Berry, in effort to find collections related to African Americans for the Umbra Search project, emphasizes the need to look beyond immediate descriptions. “A list of potentially relevant words used across time to refer to African Americans and their history was devised and each collection finding aid available online was individually searched.” Terms included “Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African American, Interracial, Civil Rights, Human Relations, & Intergroup.”[25]

The second approach, spearheaded by Jenny Mitchell, Head of Manuscript Processing at LSU Libraries, is to review the institution’s history of collection restrictions. Self-censorship has long been an issue for collection development in all fields of librarianship. Often this self-censorship takes the form of librarians deciding not to acquire particular books for fear of someone objecting to the title being in the collection.[26] For special collections and archives, self-censorship can mean failing to describe certain portions of a collection in a finding aid or restricting access to material.[27] By investigating historic restrictions on the material held in LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, we can explore the type of self-censorship the staff were imposing over the decades. Did restriction policies uphold racist narratives of white supremecy, or erase racial violence? By reviewing the policies of the past, we’re asking in what way digitization can counteract their racist outcomes. Work in this area is still in its early phase.

By implementing specific steps to explore our own collections and counteract our history, we’re taking the first steps in reaching the goals set forth in our strategic plan. Future steps should and will include looking outside of the library to work with the communities that we hope will see themselves reflected in the collections. Many excellent examples exist of community involvement in collection building.[28] However, there is always a danger that predominantly white institutions lean too heavily on traditionally excluded communities to help us fix our self-imposed racism problems. By beginning this process as a deep-dive into our own history and practices, we hope that when it’s time to reach out for help, our partners will trust our sincerity.


Deciding what to digitize, and in what order, has long been a concern in special collections libraries, archives, and related cultural heritage organizations. As LSU Libraries Special Collections is reevaluating in-house policies related to these decisions, we are following the lead of many institutions by considering a set of criteria including copyright and access restrictions, preservation of source material, research use of the collection, and projected use of digital content. To these considerations we’re adding a criteria that will help us evaluate a collection’s relation to our diversity-oriented strategic plan.

By building this criteria directly into the policy, we hope to take one small, but significant, step toward counteracting a racist history of exclusion. The power of building this into a policy is to make it bigger than the interest of one or two staff members. The history we’re counteracting was possible because of the policies in place; the routine, everyday practice of choosing some collections over others, of describing some parts of collections and not others. It’s our hope that new policies help routinize anti-racism and yield racial equity in our collections.

[1] “Selecting Research Collections for Digitization-Full Report,”; “Scoping the Future of the University of Oxford’s Digital Library Collections,”

[2] “Selection Policy for Digitization Projects.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[3] “University of California Selection Criteria for Digitization (PAG): UC Libraries.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[4] “Selection Policy for Digitization Projects.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[5] Additional examples of selection criteria exist for external partners to suggest digitization. See, for example, the “Digital Project Selection Criteria” chapter in Ochoa, Marilyn N., Laurie N. Taylor, and Mark V. Sullivan. “Digital Collections Assessment and Outreach, SPEC Kit 341 (August 2014),” August 29, 2014. I’m thankful to Molly Bragg for drawing my attention to this resource.

[6] “Call for Proposals – Diversity Inclusion Digitization Initiative.” Accessed June 20, 2019.

[7] Molly Bragg, Head, Digital Collections and Curation Services, Duke University Libraries, conversation with author, June 18, 2019.

[8] Particularly helpful is the bibliography prepared by the Cultural Assessment Working Group of the Digital Library Federation, available here:

[9] Manžuch, Zinaida. “Ethical Issues In Digitization Of Cultural Heritage.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, 4 (2017)

[10] Ibid. p. 13

[11] Robertson, Author Tara. “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should.” Tara Robertson (blog), March 20, 2016.

[12] The literature on indigenous communities and library digitization is large; see, for example: Christen, Kimberly A. “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Communication 6, no. 0 (November 30, 2012); Carpenter, Brian. “Archival Initiatives for the Indigenous Collections at the American Philosophical Society.” American Archivist, Case study,

[13] “Code of Ethics | Zinelibraries.Info.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[14] “Black at Bryn Mawr | Past as Legacy and Project: Re-Remembering Black Experiences at Bryn Mawr College.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[15] “Umbra Search African American History.” Umbra Search African American History. Accessed June 10, 2019.

[16]< “In Her Own Right.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[17] “Providing Computational Access to Records of American Capital Punishment.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[18] “Deep Learning and Historical Collections.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[19] “LSU Libraries Strategic Plan, 2017-2022.” Accessed June 10, 2019.

[20] Ibid. p. 6

[21] See, for example, Berman, Sanford. 1971/1993. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow; Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (April 2013): 109.; Koford, Amelia. “Engaging an Author in a Critical Reading of Subject Headings.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 1 (2017). DOI: 10.24242/jclis.v1i1.20. Rinn, Meghan R. “Nineteenth-Century Depictions of Disabilities and Modern Metadata: A Consideration of Material in the P. T. Barnum Digital Collection.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 5 (2018): article 1.

[22] See, for example, Robinson-Sweet, Anna. “Truth and Reconciliation: Archivists as Reparations Activists.” The American Archivist 81, no. 1 (March 2018): 23–37. Poole, Alex. “The Strange Career of Jim Crow Archives: Race, Space, and History in the Mid-Twentieth-Century American South.” The American Archivist 77, no. 1 (April 2014): 23–63. Sutherland, Tonia. “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional and Restorative Justice.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. 1 No. 2 (2017). Accessed February 27, 2019.

[23] Kendi, I. X. (2018, December 6). This is what an antiracist America would look like. How do we get there? The Guardian. Retrieved from

[24] See, for example, Sofia Leung. “Whiteness as Collections.” Sofia Leung (blog), April 15, 2019.

[25] Berry, Dorothy. “Digitizing and enhancing description across collections to make african american materials more discoverable on umbra search african american history” The Design for Diversity Learning Toolkit. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2019, from

[26] See, for example, Andrea Jamison. “Librarians Beware: Self-Censorship.” Intellectual Freedom Blog (blog), May 8, 2018.; School Library Media Research Vol. 13 (2010); Yorio, Kara. “Diverse Characters Impact Decisions To Buy Books.” School Library Journal. Accessed July 22, 2019.

[27] By way of example, see “Precious and Adored: Reading Victorian Love Letters, Writing Queer History.” Autostraddle, June 12, 2019. This article tells the story of love letters between Rose Cleveland, a sister of Grover Cleveland, and her lover Evangeline Simpson. These letters were discretely moved to a different box in the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. To counteract this erasure, an edited volume of the letters is now available.

[28] Many initiatives related to indigenous communities are ongoing. See, for example, Blackburn, Fiona. “An Example of Community Engagement: Libraries ACT and the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.” Australian Academic & Research Libraries 45, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 121–38.; Patterson, Lotsee. “Indigenous Librarianship: A Global Perspective.” Text. About ALA, March 29, 2007. As well as The American Philosophical Society’s Center for Native and Indigenous Research,

About the Author

S. L. Ziegler is the Head of Digital Programs and Services at LSU Libraries, where they develop strategies for digitization and preservation operations. Ziegler has an MLS from Drexel University and a MA in Philosophy from LSU.

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