Statement on Potentially Harmful Content

The University Libraries provides access to millions of items through its physical and digital collections from Pattee Library and Paterno Library, Commonwealth Campus Libraries, subject libraries, consortia memberships, and partnerships with other cultural heritage organizations.

Collections at Penn State University Libraries contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. Librarians, archivists, and subject experts 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 As a result, some of the materials presented in our collections may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions due to pervasive systemic intolerance. In addition, some collection materials relate to violent or graphic events, which are preserved for their historical significance.

Penn State University Libraries is committed to the timely and efficient description of materials while maintaining an awareness of harmful language. When describing resources, we strive to help people find the resources that they seek. It is often necessary to describe communities of which our employees are not members and acknowledge that mistakes may occur. The University Libraries welcomes feedback from all library users so improvements can be made to the catalog and content management systems. Our organization commits to promptly reviewing and responding to every comment received and to updating records wherever and whenever such changes are warranted and feasible. As language and description continues to evolve, ongoing reviews of guidelines will be required. Penn State University Libraries is committed to continuous learning and will revise guidelines as needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What harmful or difficult content may be found in the collections at the University Libraries?

Some items may:

  • reflect or critique white supremacist or imperialist ideologies, which include racist, sexist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions, attitudes, and/or stereotypes;
  • be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on ableism, gender, religion, sexuality and more, or
  • include graphic content such as violence, sexual content, medical procedures, crime, war/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more.

Why does the University Libraries make potentially harmful content available?

The University Libraries 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 technical services and collection development specialists 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 might some of the terms used in the descriptions be harmful?

  • 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.
  • Some information, such as titles or names, are transcribed directly as they appear on the resource. If a title or an organization’s name contains an outdated or offensive term, our organization may retain it in the description.
  • 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.
  • The Penn State catalog and other discovery systems have existed for over 100 years, originating in paper forms and later migrating to online discovery systems. Since language and usage have changed over time, some terms that were once common have become outdated and, in some cases, are now deemed pejorative or demeaning.
  • Most catalog records originate with other libraries, publishers, or third-party vendors, and are batch loaded using automated processes. The size of the Penn State University Libraries' collection -- several million volumes -- makes the manual examination of every record infeasible.
  • Librarians and archivists sometimes make mistakes or use poor judgment.
  • Penn State University Libraries is committed to working with its partners to assess and update descriptions that are harmful.

How is the University Libraries 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, supplementing description with more respectful terms, or creating new standardized terms to describe materials.
  • Submitting requests to the Library of Congress for new or updated topical terms when existing terminology is found to be outdated, harmful, or both.
  • Researching the problem, listening to users, experimenting with solutions, and sharing our findings with each other.
  • Evaluating existing policies for exclusionary practices and institutional biases that prioritize one culture and/or group over another.
  • Collaborating with other institutions and organizations engaged in this work to broaden the reach of our efforts.
  • Making an institutional commitment to DEIAB (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging). Examples of this work can be found in the University Libraries Strategic Plan.

How can I report harmful content?

You can help us understand this issue and find solutions by reporting harmful content. Penn State University Libraries regularly updates information, fixes errors, and improves phrasing based on feedback.

Your response will be reviewed and sent to the librarian(s) and archivist(s) who are responsible for the content and make it available through the University Libraries’ website and associated webpages. Penn State University Libraries will weigh potential harm against considerations such as accurate preservation of the historical record, professional best practices, and allocation of scarce resources. These considerations will assist in determining whether to change or remove the content.

The University Libraries will use all reports of harmful content to better understand the issue and educate other librarians and archivists.

For harmful content in our digital collections please direct comments to

For harmful content in our catalog use the red “Report an Issue” button in the top right corner of any catalog record's page to send a comment about how that record might be improved.

Please include your email if you would like a response. You can also email feedback directly to For harmful content in our archival collections please complete this short survey.


This statement has been adapted from Digital Public Library of America’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content. In addition, the University Libraries acknowledges the Cataloging Lab and its extremely useful list of examples of harmful language statements from other libraries’ catalogs. The University Libraries also thanks several of our peer institutions, whose harmful language statements have guided us in crafting our own, specifically the Emory Libraries, Michigan State University Libraries, the Penn Libraries, Temple University Libraries, UCLA Library, University of Maryland Libraries, University of Michigan Library, University of Virginia Library, and the University of Washington Libraries.

Ad hoc improvement of our description has always been a part of our work, but in 2019, we began a more systematic approach to assessing and updating language, including topical terms, notes, and other places where we are able to replace the language. Our work to identify and remediate harmful language in our catalog is in line with the Penn State University Libraries Strategic Plan 2020-2025, 4.1, Metadata remediation and digitization and with the Cataloging Code of Ethics.

For information on our archival collections, see also Statement on More Inclusive Archival Collections.