Issues around the histories of colonialism and dispossession and how they are enacted in public monuments and language are in the news a lot lately. In the United States, and now here, the questioning of monuments to white colonial men and the language used to describe their activities (and highlighting the silences around their activities, too); and renaming places which have racist language in the name is ongoing.

We have been doing some thinking about language on the Find & Connect web resource too. Following archival principles, the web resource has always used the original language connected to a photograph, document or archival item when titling and describing this material. This is for two reasons:

  1. To make it easier to link back to the archive or library where the material is from, as the title is often a key identifier; and
  2. To highlight historical attitudes of the time.

We’ve asked ourselves if it is better to remain in line with archival standards, or whether we should instead privilege those who were in out of home ‘care’ (and their families and support services) who use our site – and for whom the attitudes about people in ‘care’ are not merely historical, but were lived experience.

Admission register where residents are called 'inmates'

An admission register describing children as ‘inmates’, from evidence submitted to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

We also reflected on the use of the Find & Connect web resource: it is a different experience to visit a library or archives catalogue and find offensive titles in there – these are clearly historical. However, due to the way material is displayed on the web resource, it was less clear that the titles were using the language of the time. Indeed, we have previously received feedback from people who were shocked at the language being used – it was not clear these were historical titles and in some cases even seemed that the web resource staff used this language!

We have decided that we will no longer adhere to archival principles at the expense of those who use our site. We will no longer reproduce offensive and outdated terms in our titles for archival collections, photographs and documents listed on the web resource. Instead, this information will be displayed with other identifying information in an “archival reference” field so the original material can be tracked back to the archive or library where it is held.

The aim of this is not to censor, or to sugar-coat the history of ‘care’ – it is instead about us making more conscious choices about the language we use when we publish content. We acknowledge that language is not neutral or ‘historical’, and in reproducing offensive language we are endorsing or perpetuating systems that have caused great injustice and harm. It is also about acknowledging more fully the reality of those actions in the past, and the impacts of those that are ongoing.

 

Newspaper article from 1939 titled "Unwed Mothers Unashamed"

This newspaper article from Smith’s Weekly, 20 May 1939, highlights attitudes towards unmarried women who had children

Where offensive terms appear in the names of institutions or Homes, we won’t be changing them – that is how the Homes were known, and how people will search for them. We will provide much more context about the use of this language in the entry about the Home.

We have developed a policy about our use of language which you can read on the website. We are currently working through content on the web resource to put the policy into action – renaming and contextualising the historical language.

We recognise that this is a small step to take in the broader history of injustices perpetrated through legislation and policies which drove the out of home ‘care’ sector in 20th Century Australia, which were in turn driven by beliefs and judgements which are unacceptable today. But it is something we can do to ensure that we are not normalising those beliefs and judgements ourselves. It is something we can do to ensure that those who visit our site looking for answers about their childhood in ‘care’ are not confronted by the same damaging language and attitude they experienced as children.

Read our language policy here.