DPLA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a portal to millions of freely available items from thousands of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations across the United States.

DPLA contains some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. Our cultural heritage partners collect materials from history, as well as artifacts from many cultures and time periods, to preserve and make available the historical record. As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions due to pervasive systemic intolerance. In addition, some cultural heritage institutions collect and preserve materials relating to violent or graphic events which are preserved for their historical significance. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Where does this content come from?

Digital Public Library of America collects and makes freely available materials from more than 4,000 libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations across the United States. Each institution or contributor shares materials with the DPLA according to its specific policies and objectives. DPLA aggregates this digital content, which means the portal points back to partner’s organizations websites where the items are hosted.

What harmful or difficult content may be found in DPLA?

Some items may:

  • reflect white supremacist and American imperialist ideologies, which include racist, sexist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes.
  • be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, ableism, religion, and more.
  • include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, post mortem photography, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more.
  • demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.

Why does DPLA make potentially harmful content available?

DPLA and its partners collect, preserve, and present these materials as part of the historic record, which does include depictions and records of people experiencing trauma and harm. Librarians and archivists working in conjunction with DPLA seek to balance the preservation of this history with sensitivity to how these materials are presented to and perceived by users.

How is this material described, and why are some of the terms used in the descriptions harmful? 

  • Librarians and archivists choose what language to use when describing materials. Some of these descriptions were written many years ago, using language that was accepted at the time.
  • Librarians and archivists often re-use language provided by creators or former owners of the material. This can provide important context, but can also reflect biases and prejudices.
  • Librarians and archivists often use a standardized set of terms, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, to describe materials.  Some of these terms are outdated, offensive, or insensitive.
  • Communities with less access to and privilege within libraries and archives have had less control over how they are represented and described.
  • Librarians and archivists sometimes make mistakes or use poor judgement.
  • DPLA is committed to working with its partners to assess and update descriptions that are harmful.

How are librarians and archivists working to address this problem and help users better understand such content?

Examples include:

  • Working directly with misrepresented and underrepresented communities to improve the ways they are represented.
  • Informing users about the presence and origin of harmful content.
  • Revising descriptions and standardized sets of descriptive terms, such as Library of Congress Subject Headings, supplementing description with more respectful terms, or creating new standardized terms to describe materials.
  • Researching the problem, listening to users, experimenting with solutions, and sharing our findings with each other.
  • Evaluating existing collecting and digitization policies for exclusionary practices and institutional biases that prioritize one culture and/or group over another.
  • Making an institutional commitment to DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility). Examples of this work can be found in the DPLA Network Council’s Statement on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Social Justice (IDEAS).

How can I report harmful content?

  • You can help us understand this issue and find solutions by reporting harmful content.
  • DPLA will forward your report to the institution(s) that are responsible for the content and make it available through DPLA.  It is up to each individual institution to determine whether or not they will change or remove the content.  Institutions weigh potential harm against considerations such as accurate preservation of the historical record, professional best practices, and allocation of scarce resources.
  • DPLA will use all reports of harmful content to better understand the issue and educate other librarians and archivists.

We welcome your feedback on this statement and encourage you to use or modify this statement. Please feel free to share your examples of use for updates and revisions to this document. Contact DPLA at info@dp.la.