Critical Cataloguing and Reparative Descriptions

One of the first steps towards addressing how the CCA, as a cultural institution, has been replicating or perpetuating colonial dynamics is to identify and foreground voices and subjects that have not been recognized. And we believe that this entails reviewing and revising the longstanding practices we have used to describe our collection. These descriptions affect and even determine how collection objects are discovered and interpreted, both within and outside the CCA walls. Any bias embedded in the language and scope of descriptions, potentially including inequity and systemic racism, will therefore have an impact on the work they might help to generate. Descriptive practices are not neutral: what information is included in and excluded from collection descriptions is influenced by professional biases, national and international standards for creating metadata, and terminology that often conveys a particular world view.

Our review process began in September 2020 and focused on inclusive and just language, involving not only the people that produce, update, and share collection descriptions, such as archivists and librarians, but also those curating and producing projects in which collection objects are used. We are not experts on all the subjects and contexts that the objects in the CCA Collection address, and so revising these descriptions calls for research and reaching out to both our peers and impacted communities to expand our knowledge. For example, as part of The Association of Research Institutes in Art History (ARIAH)’s Careers in Art History Internships program, the CCA welcomed ten students in April 2021 for a month-long collaboration, during which they critically reviewed and identified absences in the descriptions of objects in the photograph collection. In addition, we have conducted consultation meetings with peer institutions that are also revising their collection descriptions, including the Chicago History Museum, the Morgan Library, the Clark Art Institute, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute.

To begin to examine and review object descriptions and to test what such a critical cataloguing project could look like, we decided to focus on the Photography collection. More specifically, we reviewed the descriptive terms and keywords used in it—or absent from it. In doing so, we recognized a predominant concentration on European and North American histories of architecture ideas, and while the CCA Collection was never intended to be encyclopedic, we identified substantial gaps in the consideration of different perspectives. We also gathered and reviewed a list of harmful language used and have begun to discuss how to change the language, particularly in constructed titles (a title given by a cataloguer or archivist).

It is important to distinguish between describing an object and classifying it. Systemic and personal biases are both often evident in how information is classified—what subject headings are applied or how an object is catalogued in relation to other content. Inappropriate language in an object description, in the title for example, may be due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the person who formulated the title, or simply because language has evolved, or from the inheritance of problematic description practices. To this end, we expect not only to identify harmful language but also to address absences and inadequacies of information. What we learn from reviewing biased, inappropriate, and harmful descriptions and classifications in the Photography collection will be applied as we review other CCA holdings, including Prints and Drawings and library collections, even if description and management standards are distinct in each case. And though (object) records and descriptions are typically the responsibility of librarians, cataloguers, and archivists, those working on exhibitions, public programs, and publications will join the endeavour to investigate, review, and revise the language of object descriptions and captions.

In fall 2022, we began a complementary review of our archival holdings. After a period of research, we are currently (2023-2024) in the process of developing new strategies and workflows to describe and contextualize the CCA archival holdings in a more inclusive and equitable way. We intend to challenge and upend our current standards across all aspects of the archival management lifecycle, from acquisition through to description to how we make our archives accessible.

The first part of this process is our examination of past practices at the CCA through a finding aid audit. A finding aid is a tool written by archivists during processing that allows users to understand the complex relationships between groups of records and to locate the material they are looking for. We use a mix of international standards and our own institutional standards to write finding aids for our users. While they are conducive for discovery, like cataloguing and classifying, finding aids are deeply subjective and can perpetuate inequity and harm.

We are currently reading our finding aids and using automated tools to gather data about the use of harmful terminology, lack of contextual information, and absences in our existing finding aids. This initial work will allow us to highlight the most urgent issues in our descriptions, so we can prioritize which edits must be made. In spring 2023, we generously received a $50,000 grant from Library and Archives Canada’s Documentary Heritages Communities Program to support this work. The next step will be to find meaningful approaches to redescribe our archival holdings to reduce harm for our public and reveal hidden voices within our archives. We hope this project will illuminate the shortcomings in our current workflows and standards and we can integrate our learning into more inclusive and equitable daily practices for the CCA archives.

Since the end of 2021, the Critical Cataloguing Working Group has reviewed, edited, or replaced about 350 so-called “constructed titles” of objects in the Photography collection that contained sensitive, harmful, or problematic language. Initially, lists of terms compiled by peer working groups in other institutions, such as the Inclusive Description Working Group at Princeton University Library Special Collections, inspired the search for such objects. Increasingly so, we identify objects based on our own assessments of possibly problematic terminology pertaining to the field of architecture and its history. Even though this may sound like an exercise focused on replacing words or rephrasing titles, the efforts of the work group go beyond that. In most cases a measure of research is required to understand the specific historical context of the situation in which a photograph was taken. This has enabled us to re-identify and name individuals and peoples, locations, or uses of buildings. Newly won insights lead to reformulated constructed titles that aim to reflect the care which the CCA gives to a mindful orientation of the viewer towards the conditions and relations expressed in a photograph. Ultimately, we hope that the efforts of the working group will facilitate a more inclusive and accurate discoverability of our holdings.

At the same time, we are not erasing previously harmful titles because we wish to be transparent in our records. Inscribed or imprinted titles are now displayed by default, even if they contain problematic language, because we ought not to deny their presence. Older harmful constructed titles are retained in our collection management system, but not displayed on our website. In addition, we are re-digitizing large parts of the Photography collection to show entire, uncropped objects in their historical materiality. This will enhance the experience of relativity of the position taken by the photographer: the photograph offers one possible view, among many other ones. And these views change, shift, and age over time, much like the photographs themselves. One of the more surprising outcomes for the Critical Cataloguing Working Group has been the realization that geographic denominators often pose the greatest challenges when reviewing titles, because lands are contested over time, borders shift along with names, and more often than not, Indigenous ways of naming and reading terrain had not been recognized. In the future, this is something we hope to address in a more systematic way.

The repeated in-depth engagement with individual photographs and their descriptions that critical cataloguing requires has led to the inescapable impression that harm is not only found in the descriptions themselves but is inscribed in the act of photographing and the historical intentions of the photographer and/or their commissioners. This is a weight that cannot be relieved by changing the words in which we dress them and will require a very different effort to acknowledge.

The experience gained by the working group will be consolidated in a new and updated version of our Guide for Cataloguing Photographs, which will incorporate critical cataloguing as part of the standard practice of museum object cataloguing for the Photography collection. It is our intention to make this Guide shareable via GitHub, to publish our findings and, in general, to make our research methods open for consultation by colleagues and institutional peers.

We intend to be transparent about this work by updating these pages every six months on progress or hiccups, speed, or delays, and to credit those involved in the work.

If you wish to contact us with any comments, questions, or concerns, please write to

Past and present contributors: Justine Couture, Louise Désy, Jillian Forsyth, Elisabeth Genest, Mary Gordon, Anna Haywood, Catherine Jacob, Alexandra Jokinen, Hester Keijser, Nina Patterson, Céline Perreira, Sara Pimentel, Jennifer Préfontaine, Shukri Sultan, Flo Vallières, and Martien de Vletter.


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