Latin Americanists Worldwide Unite to Decipher the Benson’s Spanish Colonial Archive

By Albert. A. Palacios, PhD

It is no secret that the Benson Latin American Collection preserves one of the most important Spanish colonial archives in the United States. Within the pages of hundreds of volumes and archival boxes in its stacks are countless historical gems documenting the lived experience of colonized people, colonizers, and everyone in between. However, these perspectives are largely inaccessible: archaic penmanship and obscure writing conventions encode these histories on brittle paper.

Detail of a document listing the instances in which Mixquiahuala’s corregidor, the district’s royal administrator and judge, defrauded the Tepatepec Pueblo, circa 1570–1572, Genaro García Manuscript Collection.

For years, the LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Office has been experimenting with digital technologies to transform this “unreadable” Spanish colonial archive into accessible humanities data for scholars. However, we tried something new this past year and reversed the equation: We convened colonial Latin Americanists online to transform handwritten words on pages into digital text that they could then use to make the digital humanities (DH) more accessible. This resulted in the “Spanish Paleography and Digital Humanities Institute,” a free online program that provided scholars with practical training in the reading and visualization of 16th- to 18th-century manuscripts in Spanish. The program’s syllabus and logistics were designed by Abisai Pérez Zamarripa, LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate in history, and myself. Anyone with advanced Spanish-reading proficiency was invited to apply.

“I found this institute thoughtful, generative, and inspiring. The coordinators made every effort to show the participants relevant tools and encourage our progress. It was uniquely helpful to identify DH methods and tools that would make sense in an early modern context and to discuss questions that relate to our field.”Fall 2021 participant

Geographic distribution of 2021–2022 institute participants

Colonial Latin Americanists from all over the world applied. While we were only planning to lead one institute, the overwhelming response to our call for applications prompted us to offer two, one in the fall (November–December 2021) and another in the spring (January–March 2022). In all, we accepted 60 participants, including 35 graduate students, eight junior faculty, eight tenured professors, five archive and library professionals, and four independent researchers. By the end of the academic year, we had trained scholars in 11 countries and 18 U.S. states who had varying experience in Spanish paleography and the digital humanities.

“The facilitators were very supportive, and the workshop itself was an invaluable opportunity to meet scholars from across the U.S. and Latin America despite not being able to travel, and to experience a variety of digital humanities tools relevant to our work.”Dr. Mallory E. Matsumoto, Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin

Various Early Modern Spanish handwriting styles represented in the Benson Latin American Collection

One of our main objectives was to help participants obtain and hone Spanish paleography skills. We invited experts from Germany, Portugal, France, and Mexico to provide introductions on specific colonial institutions and their records to expose students to specialized writing conventions and abbreviations. Each Friday, we would break the cohort into groups so that they could collaboratively read and transcribe the week’s case study in a shared Google Doc, which enabled us to give them live feedback and corrections on their transcriptions.

“The group transcription sessions every Friday were invaluable as they allowed us to decipher and discuss doubts with colleagues throughout the [transcription] process, while learning from those with greater knowledge.” — Spring 2022 participant

The spirit of collegiality during these sessions was truly inspiring. We witnessed how scholars, especially those with advanced Spanish paleography skills, actively supported each other in deciphering the texts. After the institute ended, some commented that they considered this group work as “one of the most enriching experiences from the institute.”

A corrected document transcription in FromThePage

After the collaborative transcription sessions, participants continued to hone their paleography skills through assigned weekly homework. Each scholar transcribed two to four pages in various handwriting styles using the University of Texas Libraries’ instance of FromThePage, a platform that enables collaborative transcription work and version tracking. Once they were done with a page, Abisai and I reviewed and corrected the transcriptions, which FromThePage documented and showed, as seen above, to further the students’ understanding of the scripts and abbreviations. 

Published institute transcriptions in the Texas Data Repository

Besides learning how to read the archaic penmanship, scholars were simultaneously helping us enhance the accessibility of the Spanish colonial collection. One the one hand, the cohorts transcribed, and consequently made intellectually accessible, over 90 documents (1,000+ pages) preserved in the Benson Latin American Collection. We are currently publishing them in the Texas Data Repository and will soon ingest them in the University of Texas Libraries’ Collections portal with the images of the original materials to broaden access.

Training of a handwritten text recognition model for a Spanish colonial handwriting style in Transkribus

On the other hand, participants also helped us leverage machine-learning technologies to automate this work in the future. As part of the “Unlocking the Colonial Archive” NEH-AHRC grant project, we are reusing these transcriptions to train handwritten text recognition (HTR) models for each of the handwriting styles we commonly find in Spanish colonial documentation. We are then running these models on untranscribed materials at the Benson and in other digital archives to obtain usable automatic transcriptions. To see a list of participants who made a significant contribution to this effort, visit the project website.

Annotation of the “Genealogy of the descendants of Nezahualcóyotl,” circa 1550–1580, Ex-Stendahl Collection, in Recogito (https://recogito.pelagios.org/document/yere0vydklv9s4/part/1/edit)

With transcriptions in hand, students then used them to learn several free and open-source digital humanities tools. Each Monday, we demonstrated how to extract, visualize, and analyze data from these transcribed texts in different platforms, including Recogito, Voyant-Tools, ArcGIS, and Onodo. As a capstone experience, we asked participants to develop and present a pilot digital humanities project using these tools and texts relevant to their research.

“I honestly did not know what to expect going into this institute. My focus was to improve my paleography skills with the digital programs as a benefit. Now, not only am I more confident in my paleography skills, but I have a plethora of digital tools to use for my projects.”Spring 2022 participant

Network visualization developed by a spring cohort member, Francisco Javier Fernández Rivera, Universidad Iberomexicana de Hidalgo, who considered the DH workshops “a great opportunity to learn about our documentary past through technological advances.”

Given the positive reception and subsequent demand for such training, we will be leading another round of institutes this fall, August 15–September 30, 2022, and next spring, January 23–March 10, 2023. So if you are interested, check out the call for applications and join the collaborative “unlocking” of the Spanish colonial archive!

“I think it is a very complete and ambitious program. You taught me many tools that changed my way of doing history, of thinking about the social sciences and the humanities. I am very grateful to you. I hope you continue to be very successful and that this project continues to grow.”Fall 2021 participant

These institutes would not have been possible without the support of these individuals:

  • Dr. Manuel Bastias Saavedra, Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin (Germany)
  • Dr. Berenise Bravo Rubio, Researcher-Professor at the National School of Anthropology and History (Mexico)
  • Brittany Centeno, Preservation Librarian, UT Libraries
  • Dr. Guillaume Gaudin, Researcher-Professor at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès (France)
  • Dr. Lidia Gómez García, Researcher-Professor at the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla (Mexico)
  • Ryan Lynch, Head of Special Collections, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
  • Dr. Kelly McDonough, Associate Professor at the Spanish and Portuguese Department, The University of Texas at Austin (United States of America)
  • Dr. Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Professor in Digital Humanities and Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Centre at Lancaster University  (United Kingdom)
  • Dr. Javier Pereda, Senior Researcher at the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at Liverpool John Moores University (United Kingdom)
  • Theresa Polk, Head of Digital Initiatives, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
  • Dr. Miguel Rodrigues Lourenço, Researcher at the Center of the Humanities, Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal)
  • Susanna Sharpe, Communications Coordinator, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)
  • Katherine Thornton, Digital Asset Delivery Coordinator, UT Libraries (United States of America)
  • Krissi Trumeter, Financial Analyst, LLILAS Benson (United States of America)

This initiative was generously sponsored by:

  • National Endowment for the Humanities (United States of America)
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (United Kingdom)
  • LLILAS Excellence Fund for Technology and Development in Latin America

Albert A. Palacios, PhD, is the Digital Scholarship Coordinator at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin.

Texas ScholarWorks Marks a Milestone

UT Libraries is excited to announce that Texas ScholarWorks (TSW) has crossed the 100,000 item threshold!

The 100,000th item to be added was the minutes from a meeting of Student Government on May 3rd, 1988. This item is part of a larger collection of over 3,000 documents related to UT Student Government. Gilbert Borrego, Digital Repository Specialist, has been managing this long-term project in cooperation with Student Government.

Texas ScholarWorks (formerly the University of Texas Digital Repository) was created to provide open, online access to the products of the University’s research and scholarship, preserve these works for future generations, promote new models of scholarly communication and deepen community understanding of the value of higher education. TSW went into production in September 2008, and the process of making content available online has been a team project from the start. The launch of TSW was the work of Project Institutional Repository Implementation (IRI) which started in early 2008. Over the course of approximately one year, the Project IRI team contributed 4,505 hours of work towards the launch and promotion of TSW. At the conclusion of the project in January 2009 there were 5,961 items in TSW.

The current TSW team includes our Digital Repository Specialist, Head of Scholarly Communications, a student worker, several catalogers, staff in digitization, librarians who refer faculty and students to us, and staff at Texas Digital Library who host TSW.

It’s really exciting to see the usage of resources shared in TSW. As of earlier this month, there have been over 39,000,000 total downloads of TSW materials. Top countries using TSW materials include:

  • United States
  • Germany
  • India
  • United Kingdom
  • China
  • Russia
  • Canada
  • France

Some of our most highly used items include:

We know how much amazing research and scholarship is happening at UT Austin, and being able to offer remote access to that content is really important. We’ve gotten so many comments from researchers around the world who have found relevant materials in TSW and are thankful for online access. We’ve also gotten rave reviews from faculty and staff on campus who have shared their research in TSW and seen immediate results.

  • Thank you so very much. I have already downloaded the dissertation and love being able to read it here at home!
  • You ROCK! Dr. [redacted] was thrilled to get access to [redacted] thesis. Many thanks to you and your team for keeping us in the hopper while traversing all things COVID. It was greatly appreciated.
  • Thanks for your help in finding this paper.  In these Covid times, lots of groups, including my local library, have discontinued research services.
  • Thanks a lot. It really means a great deal to me.
  • I am extremely grateful! Thank you for acting so quickly. You have brightened my day.
  • We are so excited—I uploaded the report to TSW yesterday and it already has 25K views!

We are so thankful to everyone who has contributed to the success of TSW: the Project IRI team, current UT Libraries staff working on TSW, staff, faculty, and students at UT who upload their research, and our partners at Texas Digital Library for helping us reach this impressive milestone! Here’s to the next 100,000!

Read, Hot and Digitized: More is less? Less is more? Minimal computing in South Asian Lexicography

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.

I had the lucky opportunity recently to catch Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara’s presentation on the University of Colorado’s Digital El Diario project at the UC San Diego Digital Initiatives Symposium wherein she advocated for the use of “minimal computing” to achieve “archival justice.” Deeply inspired by her comments but woefully ignorant of the corpus on minimal computing within DS/DH (what seems a combination of activist- and digital-turn on the “less process, more product” concept in archival work), I took it upon myself to learn more as I struggle with the constant nagging tension between achieving the immediate task at hand (“will a simple Google chart effectively communicate my point?”), exploiting technologies to their fullest extent (“boy, I sure bet I would impress folks if I used a sexy Tableau dashboard”), and justifying resources (“this will cost how much??”).  When, I wondered, is less actually more in DS/DH, when is more actually more, and how should we negotiate those differences?

Way back in 2017, Roopika Risam and Susan Edwards argued (in “Micro DH: Digital Humanities at the Small Scale”) that the fixation of everything “large” is not conducive to justice across our institutions, our staff, nor our data:

“Digital humanities practices are often understood in terms of significant scale: big data, large data sets, digital humanities centers… This emphasis leads to the perception that projects cannot be completed without substantial access to financial resources, data, and labor… While this can be the case, such presumptions serve as a deterrent to the development of an inclusive digital humanities community with representation across academic hierarchies (student, librarian, faculty), types of institutions (public, private, regional), and geographies (Global North, Global South).”

I found their argument compelling and wondered where I had seen these tensions in practice.  As a South Asianist, I had to look no further than the uniquely colonial way of knowing—lexicography–and the uniquely 21st century way of access–digital reformatting. 

For over 20 years, the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia (part of the Digital South Asia Library at the University of Chicago) has arguably been the gold standard for online South Asian language dictionaries.  Recognizing the inadequacies of OCR tools to convert images of most South Asian scripts to accurate text data, the DDSA has utilized strategies such as “double blind keying” to produce highly accurate digital editions of established and respected dictionaries.  The process is time-consuming and expensive but produces trusted full-text data that can be used and manipulated in a variety of ways, including those beyond dictionaries.  The institutional positioning of the University of Chicago has allowed for many successful grants over the years to fund DDSA, including those from the US Department of Education, the Mellon Foundation, the Association for Research Libraries and others.  The DDSA is truly extensive in scope and in impact.

At the other end of the spectrum is the DigitalRoses project.  In this pilot, an individual researcher, Gil Ben Herut, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, presents another approach to digital dictionary making.  Rather than seeking a fully searchable, text-mineable dictionary, Herut suggests that simple encoding that operationalizes headwords alone (rather than the full-text) for navigation within a dictionary is sufficient for most user applications.  Using target words, the DigitalRoses approach “resolves a common problem in OCR text ingestion through the utilization of manual indexing of the first entry word on each page in physical media, [thereby… ingesting dictionaries at a fraction of the time and cost of full digitization,… streamlining searching by allowing partial, wildcard and fuzzy searches, and maintaining the richness of the printed layout.”

In comparision, then, we have two approaches to the same problem and therefore two solutions.  See, for example, a search for the Kannada word for “book,” Kitaba/ಕಿತಾಬು, in the DDSA version of Kittel’s Kannada-English Dictionary and in the Digital Roses version.

The thoroughly meticulous approaches used in the DDSA model produce a robust and unique digital experience built on fully manipulatable, multiscript data while the simple imaging and only partial inputting of the DigitalRoses project produces a quick digital surrogate to the analog counterpart. 

Turning back to “minimal computing,” these two projects offer up models to complicate our understanding of who gets to do what and how in our technologically informed research.  Grant funding allows for big data and big research at big institutional levels.  Minimal computing allows individuals and less resourced cohorts to also meaningfully contribute to the field.  Both approaches have the potential to positively impact users and the creation of new knowledge. 

I encourage you to consider where you fall on this debate: is less more? Is more more?  And when does it matter?


For more on minimal computing, justice through DS/DH, lexicography, and Kannada, see:

Constance Crompton, Richard J. Lane and Ray Siemens, eds.  Doing digital humanities: practice, training, research (London; New York: Routledge, 2016)

Howard Jackson, ed. The Bloomsbury Handbook of Lexicography / [edited by] Howard Jackson. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022)

Ferdinand Kittel and Mariappa Bhatt. Kittel’s Kannaḍa-English dictionary. (Madras: University of Madras, 1968-1971)

Roopika Risam. New digital worlds: postcolonial digital humanities in theory, praxis, and pedagogy (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2019)

Read, Hot, and Digitized: Adventures in Data-Sitting

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.

It will come as no surprise that I, the English Literature Librarian, was a nerdy little bookworm as a child. I actively participated in the Book It! reading program, a literacy initiative sponsored by Pizza Hut. The premise of Book It! was simple: After completing five books and getting the sign-off from my teacher, I would “earn” a coupon for a personal pan pizza. When I was in 5th grade, I read enough Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) books in a single week to earn three pizzas. I felt a tinge of guilt because I had skipped early chapters in each book where the text was reused, word-for-word, from previous books in the series. It was always Chapter 2!

Every devoted Baby-Sitters Club fan knows the text was reused to introduce the characters and the premise of the series. There were over 200 books published in the span of 13 years – of course some of it would be repetitive! But let’s take it a step further. What if we could quantifiably demonstrate the reuse of Chapter 2 text, while also comparing stylistic and narrative changes across multiple ghostwriters and cultural trends? And how would you do this kind of analysis of 200+ novels, spin-offs, and graphic novel adaptations? Well, a feminist collective of scholars called the Data-Sitters Club (DSC) is attempting to do just that. 

Cover art for the Data-Sitters Club, by artist Claire Chenette

The Data-Sitters Club describe their project as “a fun way to learn about computational text analysis for digital humanities”. They created a corpus of Ann M. Martin’s influential young adult series and have analyzed it using a variety of DH methods and tools (Python, R, TEI, Voyant, just to name a few). The Baby-Sitters Club has had a long pop culture shelf-life for Gen X and Millennial readers, with the recent Netflix reboot (which was sadly canceled after two seasons) and the podcasts Stuck in Stonybrook and the Baby-Sitters Club Club. According to the publisher Scholastic, the series has been in print since 1986 and has sold more than 190 million copies. Given the series’ immense popularity and continued pop culture influence, the books are a gold mine for researchers interested in gender, race, class, and sexuality, but, like much of girl culture, the books haven’t been the subject of serious research.

So the Data-Sitters Club saw opportunity for new research, while also making DH more accessible, especially to women and other marginalized groups often sidelined in DH projects. The DSC does this through a series of 16 blog posts on their GitHub site, written to mimic the narrative style of the book series, including titles that riff off the originals. Each blog post covers a use case for the BSC corpus and features a different tool, coding language or technique. Two of my favorites are DSC #2: Katia and the Phantom Corpus and DSC #5: The DSC and the Impossible TEI Quandaries. (A running joke throughout the blog is that later posts refer the reader back to “Chapter 2” to explain the corpus and how it was created, an intentional reference to the Chapter 2 in the original series that reused text to explain the series’ premise.)

Cover art for DSC #2: Katia and the Phantom Corpus, which parodies an original Baby-Sitters Club book cover that I’m pretty sure I read in 3rd or 4th grade. Image courtesy of the Data-Sitters Club

One thing you won’t find on the DSC GitHub site is the corpus itself. The team scanned print books to create a legal corpus, but as of right now, it’s not available publicly online. The DSC has used the project as an advocacy tool to promote the loosening of ebook copyright restrictions to build literary corpra for private research. In partnership with the non-profit Authors Alliance, they wrote to the Librarian of Congress asking for exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to access the full BSC corpus. Of all the DSC blog posts, I found DSC #7: The DSC and the Mean Copyright Law to be the most fascinating – and frustrating.

I would recommend the Data-Sitters Club blog to any emerging DH scholar or librarian looking to try a new tool or method. Much of the content is highly technical, but the fun, approachable tone of each blog post makes the content accessible. I hope they are able to get legal access to the full ebook corpus so we can see more research on the Baby-Sitters Club books and better understand their cultural impact on a generation of women and girls.

You can find print copies of the original Baby-Sitters Club series in the PCL Youth Collection, and I highly recommend the recent essay collection We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork from Grown-up Readers, available at the PCL.  

Preserving Endangered Languages

“When you lose a language and a language goes extinct, it’s like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” –Linguist Michael Krauss

Language is so central to humanity that it frequently takes on the involuntary characteristics of breathing or eating—words seemingly form in our minds and fall effortlessly from our mouths or onto a page in a way that can go without notice or concern. It’s only when we lose our ability to communicate that we realize how important a shared language is to our collective experience, and a better understanding of ourselves.

Such is the inspiration at the heart of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a digital repository of multimedia resources in and about the indigenous languages of Latin America, founded in 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin and located today at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.

The archive’s mission is the preservation of the wealth of recordings of natural discourse in the indigenous languages of Latin America made by native speakers of the languages, frequently in collaboration with linguists and anthropologists, during the past fifty to sixty years. Most of these languages are endangered, and all of them are at risk of being replaced by dominant languages. Some of them, in fact, like Tehuelche, a Chonan language of Patagonia, have lost all speakers since the recordings housed in the archive were made.

According to the World Bank, there are some 560 different languages spoken in Latin America, most of which are spoken by Indigenous Peoples. Some, like the Mayan languages K’iche’ (Guatemala) and Yucatec Maya (Mexico), have speakers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But there are examples that more fully demonstrate a need for preservation, such as Guató (Brazil) and Kawésqar (Chile), each having fewer than 10 living speakers.

AILLA’s collections represent over 420 Indigenous languages, and include audio and video recordings, some with transcriptions and translations in Spanish, English, and to a lesser extent Portuguese, as well as photographs, maps, charts, and written works of all kinds. The recordings include narratives, songs, conversations, prayers, ceremonies, oral histories, interviews, and grammatical elicitation. Written materials include grammars, dictionaries, word lists, ethnographies, field notes, journals, correspondence, theses and dissertations, published and unpublished academic articles, essays, and manuscripts, as well as original literary works in indigenous languages, such as poetry, short stories, and novels.  There is ongoing work to incorporate textbooks and teaching materials for bilingual and ethno-education and for language reclamation programs into the archive,

“Every language is like a cosmos, containing vocabulary, stories, songs, spiritual beliefs, ceremonies, games, jokes, food ways, and patterns of thought which form a worldview that is unique in the history of humanity,” explains AILLA Manager Susan Kung.

AILLA collaborates directly and indirectly with Indigenous communities to archive their linguistic cultural heritage and coordinates the digitization of fragile analog materials in Indigenous languages so that they can be added to the archive. The archive accepts any material that was written or spoken in one of the indigenous languages of Latin America by native speakers of that language, on any topic, in any style. AILLA also collects materials of cultural and academic interest that are written about the indigenous languages of Latin America, and especially values items of interest to indigenous communities, like teaching materials and literary works.

An essential focus of the work at AILLA is to make these resources available to a global audience via unrestricted online access. Rapid technological development and an expanding internet has increased the reach of resources that were once kept in private offices and homes so that they can now be shared with speakers of the languages, scholars and interested audiences worldwide. By building out a broader global audience for these resources, the hope is that expanded access will extend and/or guarantee the life of at-risk languages.

“We want to support indigenous efforts to reclaim their languages and develop [their] literatures,” says Susan Kung. The archive makes it easy to publish indigenous works to a wide audience. It also serves as a medium of collaboration and communication, in addition to providing a repository for resources.

AILLA was founded in 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin by Dr. Joel Sherzer, Professor of Anthropology, and Dr. Anthony Woodbury, Professor of Linguistics, working in collaboration with a group of their graduate students, and with technical support from Mark McFarland, the former University of Texas Libraries Director of the Digital Library Services Division. AILLA’s pilot site was funded with seed money from the College of Liberal Arts, and the first online digital repository was built with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, AILLA’s primary support comes from the University of Texas Libraries and the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, and AILLA is at the heart of the LLILAS Benson collaboration and its Indigenous languages initiatives.

Over AILLA’s 20-year history, staff have worked to make academia and the general public aware of the importance of archiving priceless and irreplaceable linguistic cultural heritage and to develop and promote best practices in this field.  These endeavors, along with AILLA’s efforts to digitize and archive significant collections of indigenous language documentation materials, have been generously funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

To explore AILLA’s collections, visit ailla.utexas.org. The catalog information is open access, but you must register for a free account to stream, view or download media files.

If you are a speaker of an indigenous language and are interested in creating an archival collection for  your language, please write to us at ailla@ailla.utexas.org.

Keeping Tabs on Campus Trends

The only constant is change, as the old saying goes. As technological and social change affect how we interact and engage with one another, it’s critical that libraries continually seek information about the evolving expectations of our community. Observations and usage trends provide valuable data that help orient our direction, but sometimes the best way to surface user expectations is to just ask

At the end of February, the Libraries launched a campus-wide survey to a random sample of students, faculty, and—for the first time—staff. If you happened to be among those who received an invitation and responded, we offer our thanks. If you didn’t get an invite, maybe we’ll catch you next time. The Libraries typically undertake a survey every 2 or 3 years to make sure we’re keeping tabs on how we are doing—it’s a great way to see what’s working well, what we might consider changing and in some cases, what we might stop doing. 

The 2022 survey is particularly important because it is the Libraries’ first survey since prior to the pandemic. The original plan was to implement the survey in fall 2020, but things felt too different, too anomalous at that time to get an accurate picture. Many of us were not on campus, and many of our circumstances were strained or unusual. We wanted the survey to represent longer-term trends—inasmuch as those exist anymore—rather than a snapshot of perceptions during the campus’s most restrictive COVID-related policies. The last time we surveyed the campus was in spring 2018, so there’s an eagerness to see what has changed and what has stayed the same over the last four turbulent years. 

For the first time, we developed and wrote our own survey instrument. This has long been a goal of mine, not because there aren’t great survey instruments available to libraries, but because we wanted to be able to tailor our questions to our unique population and circumstances. Past industry-standard instruments that we’ve used such as those created by LibQUAL and Ithaka S+R allowed us to compare trends at UT to national trends—which is a valuable exercise—but this time we wanted to focus on the perceptions, experiences, and needs of the Longhorn community. With support from folks around campus (especially the staff in IRRIS) and a seasoned assessment team, we took on the challenge of writing, administering, and analyzing our own survey, designed to provide us with actionable feedback. 

In the coming months, we’ll be using this space to share some of the findings from the survey as we work through our analysis, and eventually, we will have full results to share with the public. Topics that you can expect to see addressed here include longitudinal insights (i.e., where we see trends and perceptions evolving over the long term), spotlights on insights gleaned about different demographic groups, and other interesting tidbits. We won’t just tell you what we find interesting, though—we want to highlight what we’re doing with the results. Expect to read about areas that we want to investigate further with focus groups and interviews, and changes that we’re putting in place based on what we learn. 

A sneak peak of a survey item focused on satisfaction shows that for the most part, folks are pretty happy with us…in particular, happy with the Libraries’ services.  But there is more still to be learned from a thorough review of the data:

  • Does that hold true across all demographic groups?  
  • What can we learn about those who aren’t satisfied?  

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking ourselves and our users, as we sift through the results. We invite you participate in an ongoing exploration of the data we’ve collected so that we can learn even more from the process of analysis as we seek to improve the work of these Libraries.  

The Libraries’ roadmap for success depends largely on hearing both the praise and criticism of our users, so take an opportunity to help improve your UT Libraries by providing your own input, feedback and observations as we plan together for the best possible future. 

New Benson exhibition celebrates “El gaucho Martín Fierro”

The Benson Latin American Collection recently inaugurated Martín Fierro: From Marginal Outlaw to National Symbol in the Rare Books Reading Room. Co-curated by Graduate Research Assistants Melissa Aslo de la Torre and Janette Núñez, this exhibition examines the Argentine epic poem El gaucho Martín Fierro and its legacy on the 150th anniversary of the poem’s publication.  Ryan Lynch sat down with Aslo de la Torre (MA) and Núñez (JN) to talk about their process. 


Related: Listen to “An Argentine Gaucho in Texas” on the Benson at 100 podcast. Escuchar este episodio en español.


You write that the Benson has over 380 copies of El gaucho Martín Fierro and La vuelta de Martín Fierro. How did these books come to the Benson?  

JN: A big part of this collection came from two collections that the Benson purchased. One would be the Martínez Reales Gaucho library, purchased in 1961. That contained about 1500 books, pamphlets, and articles and literature of the Argentine cowboy, and more than 300 editions. The other one was the Simon Lucuix library, purchased in 1963. The collector had over 21,000 volumes on Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata area.  

Portrait of author Jose Hernández from a 1937 Martín Fierro–themed calendar with illustrations by Mario Zavattaro, published by Argentine textile company Alpargatas.

Why do you think Martín Fierro has remained so popular?  

JN: The book was published nineteen years after the Argentine constitution of 1853. In that constitution, there was a government policy that encouraged European immigration as an effort to “clean ” races and also populate Argentina. The gaucho became a representation of this struggle of people who were feeling threatened and feeling the consequences of European immigration. 

MA: [Martín Fierro] was not the only poem that was written in the voice of a gaucho, but one of the differences is that this one really makes the gaucho the hero in a sort of tragic tale. It was therefore taken up by different groups of people as a symbol of someone who stands for freedom, someone who was oppressed by the government, sort of a hero of the people.  

It transitioned from mass popularity to being used by the literary elite to create a political national identity. And in that way, it got really inscribed into popular culture. There are images of a popular tango musician [Carlos Gardel] dressed as a gaucho. These two cultural products [tango and gauchos] are very, very different, but we can see as the gauchos diminished in number, they were used as a symbol of Argentine identity. 

A color lithograph by Carlos Alonso depicting the unnamed Black characters who later face violence at the hands of Martín Fierro, from a 1960 edition of El gaucho Martín Fierro y La vuelta de Martín Fierro.

The exhibit focuses largely on the work’s legacy in Argentina. Can you talk about its influence outside of Argentina, such as in Brazil and Uruguay?  

MA: Gauchos existed in the Rio de la Plata area, it wasn’t just these artificial borders—it spanned the entire region. A gaucho in Argentina was very similar to a gaucho in Uruguay. 

One thing that I thought was interesting was that during the period when José Hernández was alive, there was a lot of political turmoil and he was exiled in Uruguay and Brazil; he started writing the poem in Brazil. There was this movement across these borders. 

Who should visit this exhibition?  

MA: Everyone! 

Exhibition curators Melissa Aslo de la Torre (left) and Janette Núñez.

What was the most interesting thing you learned in the course of doing this project?  

JN: For me, it was how heavily the government was involved in spreading the poem. When I found out that we had this poem was translated into over 70 languages, I had an idea that it was really popular internationally, but they were all published in Argentina. Something we’ve mentioned before is how it became so popular. I think it was really a true combination of both the mass public and the government. If either one wasn’t on board with this particular poem, I am not sure it would have been as popular as it was. 

A comic strip adaptation based on a theatrical adaptation of Martín Fierro by José González Castillo from Intervalo, October 1960. Drawings by Miranda.

What is your favorite item in the exhibition?  

MA: One of my favorite items is a version that was written for a juvenile audience that is annotated. I appreciated the annotations because there’s so much gaucho language in the poem that was part of what made it successful, but part of what makes it difficult to understand even if you’re a Spanish speaker. It is interesting, one, because you can see how the poem is taught to young Argentines, and two, it makes it understandable for us as readers. 

We’ve talked a lot about how we chose to frame this and what we chose to focus on. All of it was driven by the holdings, but there are gaps. This is a very masculine, ideal image of this national identity. I would have loved to have more about who were the female subjects in the poem, how they were treated. 

Do you think this experience will inform your careers in archives and libraries in any way? If so, how?  

MA: For me, I think it definitely will. This was my first time creating an exhibition and I really had to think about how there are so many access points to materials in archives and rare books.  

Previously, my work has been in providing reference, so I had to think about instruction in rare books and archives. How do I teach someone about these materials? How do I help tell a story? What kind of framing am I providing to this knowledge? That’s really one of the reasons that I chose this program and that I am interested in for my career—how is cultural knowledge framed by archives and museums, and what is it communicating to audiences? 

JN: I agree. Creating an exhibit is so different from providing reference. It’s putting it out there and then hoping it conveys the messages that we want it to convey. 

Also, it was my first [time] to put my experience of working in libraries and archives and my Latin American academic experience together. I do that when I do reference or processing, but putting an exhibition together is really thinking, what is my previous knowledge of Argentine history and politics? And what are my gaps, and how do I use my background to build on that? 

Another point is working collaboratively. We were able to bring both of our different experiences to put this one project together. Librarianship is very collaborative work—that is what they teach us at the iSchool. Being able to put that on something that wasn’t just a class project was a great experience as well. 


Ryan Lynch is Head of Special Collections and Senior Archivist at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.

Melissa Aslo de la Torre is a master’s student at the School of Information at UT Austin (iSchool).

Janette Núñez is a dual-degree master’s student at LLILAS and the iSchool.

Read, Hot and Digitized: New Era of Post-Pandemic Photo Exhibitions 

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship.  Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.

This post was written by Sarth Khare, the Global Studies Digital Projects GRA at Perry-Castañeda Library and a current graduate student at the School of Information.


Josef Koudelka is one of the most respectable names in documentary photography. To many photographers like me, his work is as perfect as it gets. His enigmatic images immortalize the slivers of rare moments, spaces, and events that he witnessed in his extraordinary life. Whether they are of Warsaw Pact troops marching in Prague, of Roma Communities in Romania and Spain, or the large panoramas of landscapes across cities, his photos have the mystical power to transport the viewer into the time and world the photo was taken in.   

Ever since I got to know about his work, I would go online and look for his photos. I would easily spend hours, looking for the shades of grays, the composition, angles and emotive expressions that made his work so rare. But I never got the clarity or satisfaction that one would get by looking at a physical print up-close. The materiality of the paper, the grains shining through and the rich gradience in the tones always seemed to be absent in the digital scans of his work that were available online.  

In the middle of the global pandemic, the National Library of France announced an exhibition “Josef Koudelka. Ruins” which ran from September 15, 2020 to December 16, 2020. The exhibition highlighted panoramic landscapes taken by Josef Koudelka over 28 years across various archeological sites across the world.  

What was most exciting about the exhibition was the accessibility it provided during the pandemic. The physical curation of the exhibit was translated to an online tour using 360° shots. Anyone in the world could access the exhibition and travel through sixty points of view, including, through zooming tools, the ability to look at prints from close and far. One can read the texts on the picture rails along the prints, but more than that, from within the 360° shots itself, viewers can click to view high-resolution scans of the prints.   

This online experience completely changed the idea of exhibitions for me: I could simultaneously experience the detailed nuances of Koudelka’s photographs while  I could also enjoy moving in a world that was designed around them.  

I felt elated with this experience—that galleries and curators alike are striving to reproduce a similar sense of awe online. The push towards this novel approach was two-fold. Firstly, the need of making the exhibition reach people during the pandemic, and secondly, the current tools and technologies that can make this dematerialization of space possible across the internet. 360° virtual tools have been used in real estate and architecture for a while now but have only recently become sophisticated enough to get realistic renderings of spaces. Overlaying such 360° visualizations with high-resolution scans of the static images was a missing piece of the larger puzzle—and what makes this tour so engaging and memorable. 

Although the tour mimics the exhibition in all mannerism, and I believe it is one of the most perfect renderings yet, I can’t say that it was ideal in all means. To physically be in a space with such larger-than-life panoramic images and seeing their juxtaposition is an extraordinary experience. It teleports the viewer from the gallery into the space of the image and has the power to change the viewer. 

 Traveling within the computer screen, however, can become repetitive. But these are current limits of our technology. Within these limitations, this digital exhibition is a milestone. With the growth of virtual reality, I feel that future reproductions that build on this exhibition would become more integrated and holistic.   

I witnessed the exhibition, from my home in India, without having to go to France, and experienced the details and depth of the work of a master whom I truly admire. I must have already spent more than 10 hours roaming digitally along the exhibition spaces of the National Library of France. And I continue doing so now: long after its physical counterpart has ended the digital exhibit is still on display.  

I invite everyone reading this to click on the link below and experience this extraordinary event themselves.  http://expositions.bnf.fr/koudelka/  

UT Austin is also very lucky because the Harry Ransom Center is the home to about 200,000 original prints of Magnum Photos. Magnum Photos is the world’s most influential international photographic cooperative of which Josef Koudelka is a part of. One can access their archives and see the collection details at the following link:  https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=00502

One can also access Koudelka’s photobooks at the Fine Arts Library here at UT Austin. All of his major publications are available here including the forementioned project “Ruins” – https://search.lib.utexas.edu/permalink/01UTAU_INST/9e1640/alma991058227980106011

His seminal work “Exiles” can be found here as well- 
https://search.lib.utexas.edu/permalink/01UTAU_INST/9e1640/alma991021857199706011 

Tocker Librarian Ashley Morrison on the First year+

With the arrival of Vice Provost and Director Lorraine Haricombe, the Libraries leaned into Open Access as a strategy for equitable access to resources and as a budgetary countermeasure in a the face of skyrocketing publishing costs. A facet of the work that has gotten extra attention is Open Educational Resources – OERs – defined by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition as “teaching, learning and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OERs can be textbooks, full courses, lesson plans, videos, tests, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.”

In the fall of 2019, the Tocker Foundation provided $355,000 for a collaborative project between the UT Libraries, the Austin Public Library (APL) and Austin Community College (ACC) to promote the adoption, development and distribution of OERs. Funding from the gift subsidized the hiring of a dedicated librarian to develop and execute a plan for broad adoption of OERs at UT, as well as for the award of open education grants, education and training on OERs and joint promotion of open education with partner institutions APL and ACC.

In fall 2020, the Libraries hired Ashley Morrison – a former UT iSchool alum and GRA who had landed a permanent position at the North Carolina State University Library, but whose interest in open education called her back to Austin – to become the first Tocker Open Education Librarian at the university.

A little over a year after pioneering the position at UT, Ashley talks with us about her love of open access and OERs, the foundation she’s building and perceptions of the enterprise so far.


Tex Libris: How did you become interested in Open Access and OERs?

Ashley Morrison: I first learned about open access and open education as movements in graduate school, but conceptually, democratized access to and production of knowledge is something that always spoke to me (and was a big part of why I wanted to become a librarian!). As a first-generation college student who was responsible for most of the cost of my education, it’s easy to understand the power and potential of OER to transform course material access and have a positive impact on the financial well-being of students. While textbooks and course materials are just one factor contributing to the rising expense of higher education, it is a tangible and addressable obstacle through the availability and adoption of OER and other OA materials.

TL: What is your assessment of the OER landscape at UT? In what ways can OERs benefit students/faculty/researchers at the university?

AM: There is a small but growing community of UT instructors, staff, and students who already use and advocate for the adoption of OER, and they are my partners in driving awareness of OER on campus. Through my personal interactions and through more scaled survey-based outreach, we know that faculty at UT are largely receptive and willing to consider OER as required course materials. We also know that they often need more support to make such a big change to their curriculum, and I love being able to offer some of that support as they search for, evaluate, and adapt OER for use in their classrooms.

The most obvious benefit of OER for students, and what gets most people interested in OER, is the eliminated or significantly reduced financial barrier to access course materials. Most OER is available at no cost, and printed materials are generally available at the cost to produce them. But what I’ve heard others say and I definitely observe to be true is that with OER, you come for the free access, but you stay for the pedagogy. The open licenses conferred to OER by their creators allow anyone who uses them to make copies and customize the resources freely. That means they can be translated into new languages, modified to better reflect the student body of a particular institution or classroom, updated with new research or case studies, and more. It also enables faculty to engage students as editors and creators in the production of OER. Students can contribute to open textbooks, create open websites, and more. Students are not just knowledge consumers but knowledge creators, and that’s a really transformative concept for many of them.

TL: What projects have you undertaken since you took on the job?

AM: This year has been a busy one! There are a few projects that have been especially fulfilling, including a partnership between UT Libraries and students in Natural Sciences Council and the Senate of College Councils that produced our first faculty recognition program, the Affordable Education Champions. Through this campaign, we invite the student body to nominate faculty whose choices to assign free or low-cost materials have had a real impact on them.

I also really enjoyed working with colleagues from the OER Working Group to launch our first OER-focused instructor learning community, with grant funding from the Faculty Innovation Center providing small stipends to our participants. We spent six weeks with the ten selected instructors discussing OER and other affordable course materials as tools to foster inclusion in their classrooms, and we hope to offer more communities like this in the future.

Finally, one I’m very excited about this year is the Open Education Fellows pilot program. This program is designed to offer our small cohort of faculty fellows financial and programmatic support in their effort to adopt or adapt existing OER or develop new resources to fill gaps in the OER landscape.

TL: What sort of reception have you received from potential stakeholders on campus?

AM: It’s been a very encouraging reception! From students to staff to faculty to administration, open education is generally received with curiosity and interest. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some concerns expressed, but most stakeholders I’ve spoken with are open to learning more about the financial and pedagogical benefits of using OER in the classroom.

TL: Do you coordinate with institutions outside of UT? If so, how does that influence your local strategy?

AM: Yes! I’m very lucky that the open education community actively seeks collaboration, which makes a lot of sense given that connection is a principle of open education. I am regularly in touch with a small group of librarians called the OER Ambassadors, which is a program facilitated by Texas Digital Library. More recently, I’ve also helped convened an informal group of practitioners across the UT System, which aligns strategically with the Momentum on OER (MOER) effort sponsored by the System. Each of these groups is really valuable because they give me a chance to connect with colleagues doing similar work, though each of our OER programs may be in different stages of maturity. I learn a lot from hearing what’s worked well for others, what’s been challenging, and how they’re implementing best practices and in some cases mandates from legislation related to OER. These colleagues are incredibly generous, and their insights have directly informed the development of many of our OER programs at UT.

TL: How did the health crisis impact your work? You came on in the middle of the pandemic, at a time when OERs would’ve been really beneficial, but I imagine that you were also limited in opportunities to hit the ground and start building networks.

AM: While the pandemic did inhibit my ability to knock on doors and host physical programming that was central to UT’s OER advocacy efforts in previous years, my experience was that it engendered a great sense of empathy between faculty and students that opened them up to conversations about OER in a way that they may not have been before the pandemic. There is a heightened sense of awareness of the struggles we’re each facing right now, and for many members of our UT community and their families, financial vulnerability has been a really evident challenge. I have seen faculty go to great lengths to mitigate any of the struggles that they can for their students – from being more flexible about assignment deadlines to revising testing procedures to reevaluating course materials that cause financial burdens for some students. While faculty continue to have so many of their own challenges to address during this health crisis, I have seen them prioritize the well-being of their students repeatedly. OER has been one tool for doing this.

TL: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve recognized since you arrived? What’s the biggest opportunity?

AM: One of the biggest challenges I’ve observed is that while so many faculty are interested in using OER, the right OER isn’t there for every class just yet. This especially comes up in my conversations and searches with faculty teaching upper-division courses. It’s not surprising since most of the large-scale, funded OER projects are aimed at introductory level courses, but it’s still disappointing when someone is really excited about adopting OER and just can’t find what they need. In those cases, we explore other free and affordable options, like searching UT Libraries’ vast collections to identify licensed materials that would be free for students to access. These faculty are also often interested in developing their own OER to address these gaps in content, which I see as one of UT’s greatest opportunities to impact not only our students but anyone, anywhere who wants to learn. However, developing OER takes a lot of time that our faculty often don’t have, and the work is not always recognized through the existing reward structures of the university (such as promotion or tenure). The Open Education Fellows pilot program is our first step to seeing what it would take to support faculty authors and OER publishing projects, and I’m very excited to learn and identify opportunities to scale that program in the future. With funding, I’m optimistic that we can enable UT community members to create more open, public knowledge.

TL: What do you hope to achieve in the short-term – next couple of years – and what about the long-term?

AM: I mentioned already my hopes for scaling OER adoption and development through the Open Education Fellows program, but beyond that, another short-term goal I have is to support faculty who are interested in assessing the impact of adopting OER and other free resources in their classrooms. Studies outside of our institution overwhelmingly show that students enrolled in courses using OER perform as well or better than students enrolled in courses using commercial textbooks. Some studies are even able to demonstrate that the impact to outcomes like final grades are outsized for historically underserved groups like first-generation students, students with financial need, and BIPOC students. I’m eager to partner with faculty interested in replicating or expanding on these studies and contributing to the scholarship of teaching.

A longer-term goal is really more about a cultural shift, and I believe we’re at the start of it now. I want OER (and affordability, more generally), to be a key part of the University’s strategic priorities. It makes sense to have the UT Libraries guide our campus OER efforts as a thought leader and programmatic coordinator, but open education won’t be a formidable movement on campus without administrative support outside the Libraries. It is critical, for example, that faculty contributions related to OER – adopting, adapting, developing, and co-creating with students – are formally recognized and valued in promotion and tenure guidelines. I am optimistic that the work of the Sustainable Open Scholarship Working Group will advance this conversation and lead to more institutional support for OER, but the shift we need will take time at a university of our size.

TL: Given user familiarity with traditional publishing, how do you change minds about the fairly novel concept of OERs?

AM: It’s definitely easy to think of OER as the wild west of publishing – no peer review, no quality control, no graphic design value. But that’s not the case! So far, the most effective way to ease minds has been to actually show people high-quality examples of OER in the wild. I often point to examples from OpenStax, though they aren’t the only publisher of beautifully-produced, peer-reviewed OER with the ancillary materials that instructors often value. (And to be clear, not all OER is like this, just as not every commercial textbook is.) The point is that OER can look a lot like the proprietary textbooks they may already be using, and doing hands-on exploration is the only way to determine if any kind of course material is right for you, whether it’s published openly or commercially.

Hartness Reading Room Opens

The Benson Latin American Collection dressed up and campus lit up for the opening of the newly-named Ann Hartness Reading Room.

On Thursday, March 24, the Benson hosted a dedication ceremony for the renovated space in recognition of former head librarian Ann Hartness, who is renowned for her 38-year career at the Benson and her contributions to Brazilian studies. The space naming is the result of a generous gift by Hartness’s son Jonathan Graham and daughter-in-law and Elizabeth Ulmer, who are both graduates of UT’s School of Law,

The couple is directing a portion of their gift to establish the Jonathan Graham and Elizabeth Ulmer Fund for Library Materials on Brazil, an endowment to enhance the Benson’s Brazilian studies collection. The remainder of their gift will match other donors’ gifts to new or established endowments in any area at the Benson.

“My mother raised three boys in two different countries, moving back and forth while balancing her family, her education and her work,” says, Graham. “I’m just so proud of her, because when I think of the arc of her life, at a time when women from her background essentially followed their husbands, she made her own very distinctive career.”

The reopening of the Hartness Reading Room extends the Centennial Celebration of the Benson, which began last year. In honor of the Benson centenary and the occasion of the reopening, the UT Tower was lighted orange.

Hartness joined the Benson in 1970, working as a cataloger of Latin American periodicals. She helped with the transition as libraries moved towards digital services and resources, and eventually worked her way up to director. Throughout her tenure, she increased the depth and breadth of the library’s holdings in Brazilian materials. She retired in 2008 at age 73.

“Ann Hartness is synonymous with Brazilian collections at the Benson,” says Benson Director Melissa Guy. “It was through her tenacity, in-depth knowledge, and personal relationships that the library built a strong foundation for the study of Brazil at The University of Texas at Austin.”

The Benson’s main reading room is frequented by students, faculty and scholars from around the world, and it is the very room where Jon Graham spent countless hours studying as a teen and later as a Texas Law student.

“It was a refuge to study in one of the graduate student carrels in the Benson Collection. It was a quiet place to read, wander and collect my thoughts. This is a perfect way to honor my mother,” he says.


To learn more about the Jonathan Graham and Elizabeth Ulmer Fund for Library Materials on Brazil and other giving opportunities at the Benson Latin American Collection, contact Hannah Roberts at h.roberts@austin.utexas.edu.

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