Reparative Cataloging

Q&A: Potentially Harmful Content in the Rosenbach’s Catalogs and Databases

What is the Rosenbach Museum & Library?

The Rosenbach Museum & Library was founded in 1954 as a testamentary gift by its founders, prominent Jewish Americans Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf (A.S.W.) Rosenbach (1876-1952) and his older brother Philip Rosenbach (1863-1953). Included in this gift was their home in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood and both personal collections and objects that remained from their business, the Rosenbach Company. The company traded in rare books and manuscripts, and fine and decorative art from 1903 to 1953. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach is widely regarded as the most significant rare book dealer of the 20th century and contributed to shaping many prominent collector-founded libraries in the United States.

Today, the Rosenbach uses its collections to support research and present public programming and exhibitions to an ever-broadening audience, both on and off-site.

Our holdings have increased by a third since the museum was founded. It is important to grow and refine our collections so that the stories we share address contemporary issues even as most objects in our collections date to the past. We build on the strengths of our collections, and now aim to highlight new interpretations, people, and topics that have been overlooked, and works that have been underappreciated. As part of the Rosenbach’s Commitment to Equity, we are building on our collections’ areas of diversity and enhancing our programming and research through new acquisitions.

What potentially harmful or difficult content may be found in the Rosenbach’s collections?

When engaging with Rosenbach catalog records, viewers may encounter words transcribed from titles and textual contents of objects that reflect a history of language norms that is now widely recognized as harmful. In catalog descriptions, they may also encounter subject headings in general use among libraries and museums, as well as other descriptive information, created by Rosenbach catalogers over time, that reflect outdated and/or insensitive professional practices. Viewers may also see digital images of objects, which may contain harmful content. Words, images, and descriptions of past events contained in catalog records may reflect attitudes and opinions that are racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist, xenophobic, religiously intolerant, classist, ableist, ageist, and/or prejudiced in other ways. While the Rosenbach cannot change the content of objects in its collections, we can and will work, over time, to update outdated and harmful descriptions.

Why does the Rosenbach make potentially harmful or difficult content available?

The Rosenbach’s collections span thousands of years of human history, documenting the wide range of human activities and achievements, as well as the power dynamics between individual peoples and cultures that continue to shape our society today. Objects that reflect past injustices help our audiences understand the history of inequity and oppression. Aligned with our museum’s interpretive mission, the Rosenbach uses these objects in exhibitions, public programs, research, and tours. We ask visitors to consider the historical origins of contemporary challenges and to empathize with people and cultures different from their own. In our interpretive work, we commit to presenting unvarnished but highly contextualized narratives of our shared history, which help us work together toward a more just and inclusive future.

How does the Rosenbach describe its collections in its catalogs, and why are some terms used in the catalogs potentially difficult or harmful?

Currently, the Rosenbach is updating and expanding its online library and museum catalogs. This involves converting its card catalog and other collections records into a more accessible format. The Rosenbach staff is using this ambitious cataloging project as an opportunity to collaborate with community partners and to review and address the language that has been used in the past to describe our collections.

The Rosenbach’s records contain text summarizing the content of books and manuscripts, and descriptions of images and objects written by catalogers. Like other museums and libraries, we use standardized terms to describe our collections and to make them accessible to researchers. While such standards provide consistency, some catalog descriptions may feature language that is insensitive and/or harmful.

There are terms used by catalogers that were considered acceptable in a particular time but are recognized as harmful today. Moreover, terms used by groups to describe themselves change over time. Words used in the past may still exist in older catalog records. To make the collections easily searchable, the Rosenbach includes the original language from books and manuscripts, such as titles.

Librarians and catalogers who describe materials, both in the past and in the present, are also fallible and may make judgements and decisions in cataloging that reflect their own personal biases or ignorance. The Rosenbach proactively engages in opportunities to learn and apply best practices with respect to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion and will always work to improve records.

How are library and museum professionals working to address this problem and help users engage with such content through reparative cataloging?

Reparative cataloging is a process through which libraries, archives, and museums review and address harmful language in descriptions of their collections. The goal is to create accurate and inclusive records that are informed by community input and collaboration. It is an evolving practice in the museum and library fields. The resources at the end of this Q&A define reparative cataloging in more detail and have been helpful in our work. The Rosenbach is engaging with ongoing professional discussions, as we review titles and descriptive summaries in the catalog, and work to update this information.

What is the Rosenbach’s plan for pursuing reparative cataloging?

The Rosenbach acknowledges the need to address harmful and/or outdated language used to describe our collections, and we are experimenting with how best to proceed with reparative cataloging. We know it is vital to identify language that is insensitive, biased, harmful, or difficult, and are committed to prioritizing inclusive descriptions of people represented by or documented in our collections. We do not wish to erase our institution’s earlier actions or data, but instead to mitigate the presence of harmful content, and continue making our collections accessible for research and discovery.

As language and best practices evolve over time, we recognize that reparative cataloging is complex, ongoing work, and we are dedicated to continuously educating ourselves and improving our process. We strive to maintain transparency around our actions and share our reparative cataloging efforts with other library, museum, and archive professionals, as well as the broader community. Though we aim to review and address harmful content in our records, we acknowledge that, in our work, we regularly describe people or communities that may not be our own. We may not always make the right decisions and, in fact, may sometimes fail, so we not only welcome, but encourage your feedback and suggestions.

How can I share feedback and ideas on the Rosenbach’s collections descriptions?

Please submit your feedback regarding collections descriptions by emailing us at [email protected]. Please include links and quotes if possible. The Collections Department will acknowledge receipt of your inquiry in a timely manner and provide a timeframe for response.


This document was inspired by, and uses language from, the statements of many institutions in the library, archives, and museum fields that are working to create more inclusive catalog descriptions for their audiences. The Rosenbach thanks our community partners and advisers for reviewing earlier versions of our reparative cataloging statement and providing thoughtful feedback:

  • Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia
  • Michael Lear, State Library of Pennsylvania/PACSCL DEI Committee
  • Monet Lewis-Timmons, Department of English, University of Delaware
  • Simon Ragovin, Drexel University Archives/PACSCL DEI Committee
  • Katie Samson, Art-Reach
  • Inaara Shiraz, Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation
  • Mariam I. Williams, Black Womanhood (Re-)Affirmation Project

Select Resources