I was approached recently by colleagues who’d received a complaint about ethnic slurs in material they’d transcribed, asking for guidance on what to do. We don’t have a firm answer to this question, so I looked around at projects on FromThePage and among the documentary editing and archives communities to see what they’re doing.
In traditional print publications, one must either present the text verbatim or emend it. I just finished reading a letterpress edition that takes this approach, The Southern Journey of Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley, edited by Edward Cotham.
This replaces racial slurs with "[Negroes]" or "[Italians]" within the text, and discusses the matter within the editorial preface. In addition to explaining the emendation, the editor uses the opportunity to comment on the author's changing views of race and emancipation within the Note-Book, which is a really nice contextualization of the text.
By contrast, the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition records racial slurs verbatim as part of its policy of not modernizing spelling or capitalization of correspondence from the semi-literate public whose experience the project explores.
This is a project that has thought long and hard about issues of race and racism, but has chosen to retain the slur in its transcripts. When we chatted with the editors of that project, they pointed out that it is a challenge: you don't want to perpetuate the violence of language, but you don't want to prevent communities from being discoverable. Furthermore, if you have material written by nasty people, you don't want to make them look less nasty -- emendation can turn into an apology for the authors.
If I search across projects in FromThePage.com, the “n-word” appears verbatim most commonly in materials by civil rights leader Julian Bond, and by African-American literary figures Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In those projects, one assumes that the context is reasonable, and I'd be surprised by anyone requesting a change.
But what about a reader stumbling across slurs taken out of context?
Someone browsing the material hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will encounter massive amounts of anti-semitic writing, but one presumes that they are prepared for it -- the institution itself provides context. A long racist rant or an offensive joke may not be something a casual reader anticipates in a collection of European folklore, however.
Kirsten Wright’s article, “Archival interventions and the language we use,” goes deep into this problem from the perspective of an online discovery service for Australian archives of mental institutions, orphanages, and residential schools attempting to serve Care Leavers (survivors of those institutions and their descendants). The Find & Connect project did not consider censoring original records, but did want to address potentially offensive metadata--like document titles--created by previous generations of archivists.
They accomplished this by moving obsolete language from primary fields into “archival context” fields in their system, and by contextualizing the sources through warning statements and other documentation. One interesting point Wright noted was that users arriving at a record via a web search are likely to miss any contextualizing information presented at a site’s home page. (There is a comprehensive directory of example warning statements at The Cataloging Lab’s list of statements on bias in library and archives description.)
If one is already emending the text by normalizing orthography and expanding abbreviations, it seems reasonable to replace racial slurs with acceptable variants in square braces within the emended version and to document that in the transcription conventions. If insisting on verbatim et literatim transcription, retaining the slurs while adding context generally and warnings on particular documents seems best.
We certainly don’t have all the answers, so we’d be interested in hearing from you on the subject. Feel free to contact us here with any questions or suggestions on this topic.