TRLN Publishes Guidelines for Language Used in Exhibitions

A team of communication experts, exhibit specialists, and librarians from across TRLN institutions have published guidelines for producing exhibitions that are inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible. “Exhibition Language Guidelines: A Working Document for Academic Library Exhibit Professionals” was developed in response to increased awareness of the role of  academic libraries in dismantling racism. 

 “Building on the momentum of the conscious editing work being conducted by our colleagues in Technical Services and against a backdrop of IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Access) initiatives in our libraries, we saw a common need for a document to guide us, and the curators we work with, when making decisions about ethical descriptions,”  explained Rachel Reynolds, Special Collections Exhibitions Coordinator, at the Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The document includes guidelines on language related to gender orientation and sexual identity; disability; social class and socioeconomic status; age; race, ethnicity, and nationality; and religion and spirituality. The guide is intended for anyone working on library (or other types of) exhibits who aims to write copy that is inclusive and non-offensive, including library staff and campus and community collaborators.

The staff who lead exhibit programs at TRLN member institutions have had collegial relationships for at least a decade, but their collaboration and communication were intensified during the pandemic, as staff wanted to discuss exhibit work and how programs were adapting to pandemic-related challenges and other societal events. 

“As the staff responsible for exhibit-related outreach, we helped to increase the number of exhibitions focused on communities or individuals who had been underrepresented or overlooked,” noted Linda Jacobson, Keeper, North Carolina Collection Gallery, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We wanted to make sure that the language we use in our exhibits is current, respectful, and without implicit prejudices and stereotypes.”

From the outset, the group knew that a simple “cheat sheet” with suggested edits would not be sufficient, which led them to produce the more comprehensive and contextualized document. They recognized that even members of particular groups do not always agree on how they want to be described, so a simple glossary was not sufficient; and, they were aware that preferred nomenclature changes overtime.

Each member of the exhibits group took on research and writing responsibilities for different sections of the document, meeting twice per month throughout 2021 to discuss their progress. They consulted and expanded on language guides from other professional disciplines, many of which have been appended to the Guidelines. The group hopes that their guide will benefit not only TRLN institutions but smaller organizations that may not have the resources to develop such a resource. The authors welcome feedback and input on the Guidelines, which will be revised as needed.

The authors of the Guidelines presented their work at the 2022 TRLN Annual Meeting. The recording of that presentation is available at

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