Category Archives: LLILAS Benson

21 Years of Peace, 21 Million Documents: Revisiting the Digital Portal to the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional

Working with documents at the AHPN. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.
Working with documents at the AHPN. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

BY HANNAH ALPERT-ABRAMS

How can we process 80 million pages of historical documents?

The question is a philosophical one, about the ability of our minds to conceive of such a large number of documents. The Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive, AHPN) in Guatemala City contains about eighty million documents, or about 135 years of records from the National Police of Guatemala.

According to one estimate, that means the collection requires about three-quarters of a mile worth of shelf space. In comparison, the Gabriel García Márquez collection at the Harry Ransom Center takes up about 33.18 feet of shelf space. The Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers at the Benson Latin American Collection take up about 125 feet.

The question is also a technical one, about the difficulty of gathering, organizing, and providing access to an inconceivably large collection. For over a decade, archivists at the AHPN have been racing to clean, organize, and catalogue these historical records. In 2010, the University of Texas at Austin partnered with the AHPN to build an online portal to a digital version of the archive.

Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.
Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

As the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in data curation and Latin American studies at LLILAS Benson, I have been tasked with the challenge of figuring out how best to support this ongoing partnership.

I visited the AHPN last November, just before Guatemala celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended the country’s decades-long armed conflict (1960–1996). Together with Theresa Polk, the post-custodial archivist at LLILAS Benson, I went to Guatemala to learn about the digitization efforts at the AHPN, and to celebrate a major milestone: when we arrived, the archive had just finished digitizing 21 million documents.

Many of the documents in the archive are in fragile condition. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.
Many of the documents in the archive are in fragile condition. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

Digital Access to Historical Memory

The AHPN hard drives may fit in a carry-on, but hosting and providing access to the 21 million digital documents they contain is not a trivial task. When the University of Texas launched the digital portal to the archive in 2011, it was a bare-bones service with minimal browsing or search capabilities. Since then, the collection has doubled in size and grown exponentially in complexity. Our challenge—and the reason we were in Guatemala City—is to figure out how to represent that complexity online.

According to the web analytics, the majority of visitors to the website are based in Guatemala. These users are largely looking for two kinds of information. Some are members of human rights organizations conducting research related to police violence spanning over three decades of internal conflict in Guatemala. The rest are people trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, victims of violence during that same period. That’s why the anniversary of the peace accords matters to the collection. Organizing these records and making them available to the public has been one of the many ways that Guatemalans are reckoning with their country’s past.

There is an urgency to serving these research communities, and our top priority is to provide easy access to information. Easy searching of the archive, however, remains elusive. The archival documents are organized according to the baroque structure of the police bureaucracy. To find documents requires an intimate knowledge of that organizational structure.

Searching would be easier with richer descriptive metadata. If we could extract names, locations, and dates from the archival materials, it would make it easier for a person to search for their loved one, or a researcher to learn about specific neighborhoods or historical events. But extracting information from 21 million documents is a resource-intensive task, and the technologies for automating those processes remain imperfect.

Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.
Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

Search is not our only priority, however. As I learned firsthand, to visit the AHPN is to be immersed in the context of its construction and its size. The dark, narrow corridors, concrete walls, and grated windows are a testament to the building’s history as a police prison. The violence of the archive is always close at hand, despite the hope it represents. One of our challenges is to recreate that experience for users of the digital archive.

Furthermore, as I learned from talking to the head of the Access to Information unit, the process of searching for information at the AHPN has been designed in a way that allows the archivists to bear witness to the memories of the researchers. Each visit begins with a question: Tell us what happened to your loved one.

The question has a practical purpose. It allows the archivists to glean the information that will make it possible to locate the necessary records from among the millions of files. But in answering this question, families are also sharing an intimate story with an archivist, an act of strength and also, often, of courage. Can a digital archive create similar opportunities for those who are unable to make the visit in person?

Imagining Digital Futures

The partnership between the University of Texas and the AHPN is an extraordinary opportunity for our institution to create new paths to historical research, and to support the international preservation of historical records. It allows us to honor and support the vital work of the archivists at the AHPN, while working at the forefront of digital collecting.

A scanned document appears on the screen as part of the digitization process. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.
A scanned document appears on the screen as part of the digitization process. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

This partnership has also encouraged us to rethink our assumptions about digital archives. We often imagine a digital archive as a simple reflection of a material collection. But 21 million digital pages have very different infrastructure and support requirements than their material counterparts. The needs and expectations of online users are different, too.

In many ways, in imagining the future of the AHPN portal, we are imagining the future for digital collections at the University of Texas more broadly. The size and complexity of collections like the AHPN push the limits of our understanding of the role of libraries, and librarianship, in the digital age. They draw us into a future where scholarship, community-building, and access to information are inextricably linked.

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Hannah Alpert-Abrams is a CLIR postdoctoral fellow in data curation at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at The University of Texas at Austin.

Indigenous Language Archive Unveils New Tool

The staff of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America unveiled its new self-deposit tool at the first AILLA Archive-a-thon, a two-part event that was held on Friday, October 27, and Sunday, October 29, in conjunction with the eighth Conference on Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA VIII).* The Archive-a-thon was led by Susan Kung and Ryan Sullivant, AILLA’s manager and curator, respectively, and it was attended by a group of language documentation researchers made up of 25 professors and graduate students from the US, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Argentina, Switzerland, and France.

AILLA

These researchers work to document some of the 800 or so indigenous languages spoken in Latin America, from the US–Mexico borderlands to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of South America. Language documentation and conservation is a field that has emerged in the last 25 years in response to the worldwide language endangerment crisis that began in the late 19th century and became evident in the later part of the 20th century.

AILLA Archive-a-thon

Language documentation researchers work alone or in teams to collect and preserve audio, video, textual, and photographic records about endangered, understudied, and under-resourced languages and their related cultures. Most language documentation projects seek to record as many different speech genres as possible (e.g., conversation, oral history, myths and traditional stories, prayers, recipes, jokes and riddles, speeches and other oratory events, etc.), while other projects target very specific aspects of language (e.g., how location and direction are expressed in a language). Some language documentation projects include a language revitalization component, in which the data that are collected are used to further support the transmission of the language from one generation to the next through language learning programs for both children and adults; these programs might include classroom education, summer camps, mentor-mentee partnerships, or language nests. Language documentation work is often done under critical time constraints as many of these languages are highly endangered, having only a few elderly speakers left (and in some cases only one or two), and children are no longer learning them in either the home, community, or school environments.

Continue reading Indigenous Language Archive Unveils New Tool

Collections Highlight: Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal at the Benson Latin American Collection.
Ernesto Cardenal at the Benson Latin American Collection.

The Benson Latin American Collection recently announced the acquisition of the archive of poet, politician, priest and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal, and in celebration of the partnership, hosted an event to honor the man and his legacy.

Roundtable discussion of Cardenal at the Benson.
Roundtable discussion of Cardenal at the Benson.

LLILAS Benson director Virginia Garrard-Burnett led a discussion of Cardenal’s impact with novelist and former Nicaraguan vice president Sergio Ramírez, scholar Luis Cárcamo-Huechante, historian Douglass Sullivan-González and political scientist Eric Selbin, and Cardenal followed with readings from several of his poems for an overflow crowd.

The archive features rare editions of Cardenal’s writings, translations of his poetry, interviews, photographs, videos, newspaper clippings, documentaries about his life and work, and hundreds of letters to and from key protagonists of Nicaraguan culture and politics.

View an interview with Cardenal conducted by Benson librarian José Montelongo, here.

Post-Custodial Preservation and Latin America

Source: Colección Conflicto Armado del Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen
Source: Colección Conflicto Armado del Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen

The Benson Latin American Collection has established itself as a leader in the area of post-custodial archives — a systematic approach to preservation that places emphasis on providing for original materials to remain in the possession of its creators or cultural parentage. Such notable examples of the practice by the Benson are the projects that make up the Human Rights Documentation Initiative — including the Genocide Archive of Rwanda and the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive — and Primeros Libros, a project to digitize the first books printed in the New World.

Most recently, though, staff from LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the Libraries have been building upon a project — initially funded from a 2014 Mellon grant award — that takes a more comprehensive approach to preserving the culture and history of Latin America.

The Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) repository, currently represents the collaborative efforts of LLILAS Benson with three Central American organizations on four distinctive projects:

Initial work was completed and the website for LADI was launched last November, and recently, the site (and the team that built it) was awarded the Excellence in Digital Libraries Award from the Texas Digital Library.

Theresa Polk, post-custodial archivist at the Benson and one of the project’s leads, is gratified by the success of the project, and looks forward to its future potential.

“It was tremendously exciting to see how the metadata facilitated these disparate collections talking to one another and to other Benson digital collections,” says Polk. “As the site continues to evolve, new collections are added, and researchers begin to actively engage it, we hope it will facilitate new insights into human rights scholarship in the region.”

The Libraries and García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez working on “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Credit: Guillermo Angulo/Harry Ransom Center

As the university wraps up this year’s Fleur Cowles Symposium “Gabriel García Márquez: His Life and Legacy,” it’s worth noting the Libraries (specifically the Benson Latin American Collection and LLILAS Benson) involvement in support of the noted Colombian author’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center.

The Benson’s Mexican materials bibliographer Jose Montelongo accompanied Ransom Center director Stephen Ennis on a trip to Mexico City, where García Márquez spent his final years, to review the archive materials, and upon the announcement of the acquisition, Montelongo responded to media inquiries providing perspectives on the importance of the archive to the university and researchers, and on the author’s station in the literary canon.

As the premiere Latin American special collection in the western hemisphere, the Benson will provide the complementary resources and support for researchers who come to Austin to utilize the García Márquez archive, further strengthening the partnership between the two institutions.

An article by the Austin-American Statesman on the recent opening of the archive drives home the importance of the relationship between the Ransom Center and the Benson.

Listen to a Public Radio International interview with Jose Montelongo on the acquisition of the archive of Gabriel García Márquez:

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Agrasánchez Collection of Mexican Cinema

Film poster for "Romeo y Julieta" (1943) from the Agrasánchez Collection of Mexican Cinema at the Benson Latin American Collection.
Film poster for “Romeo y Julieta” (1943) from the Agrasánchez Collection of Mexican Cinema at the Benson Latin American Collection.

Film producer and cinephile Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., has amassed the largest collection of Mexican movie materials in private hands which he maintains in Harlingen, Texas.

The Benson Collection acquired from him a large selection of materials including original posters, lobby cards, still photographs, flyers, and broadsides advertising Mexican films from the 1930s to the 1990s.

These resources have supported publications on the development of Mexican film production including the “golden age,” 1936-1956, and specialty subjects such as posters, fantasy, and horror. Genre films on comedy, history, folklore, mysteries and so on are well represented.

Partnering to Preserve and Persevere: The Genocide Archive of Rwanda

Photos of victims of the Rwandan Genocide.

On June 9 — International Archives Day — the Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) partners Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre launched a new, greatly updated and expanded online Genocide Archive of Rwanda (http://www.genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw).

One of the most important resources online documenting the causes, processes, and consequences of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, GAR demonstrates the generative impact that the Libraries’ programming can have. The HRDI project, begun in Rwanda in 2008, engaged staff and volunteers at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a museum and documentation center for education and memory in Rwanda, to combine their personal experiences, deep knowledge, and historical resources with the technical expertise at UT Libraries in order to preserve and provide access to the fragile record of the Genocide that was daily being lost.

T-Kay Sangwand and Christian Kelleher meet with Rwandan officials.The first version of GAR, developed by the Libraries’ Technology Integration Services, Information Technology Architecture and Strategy, and Digitization Services departments using Glifos media software, was installed on a laptop and hand-carried by me and human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand to Rwanda, where it spent the next year demoing the project to build local community, government, and international support.

Launched online in 2010, GAR enabled people in Rwanda and around the world to hear testimonies from Genocide survivors as well as perpetrators and elders in Rwanda about their experiences of Genocide, its root causes, and the lives and society that it destroyed. Photographs and historical documents were collected and digitized by Aegis Trust’s Rwandan staff to be added to the Archives at the Kigali Memorial Centre.Archive and preserved digitally by UT Libraries, and soon UTL was consulting on construction of a climate-controlled physical archive in Kigali in addition to the online digital archive.

The new Genocide Archive of Rwanda moves the archive to the cloud and integrates new mapping features, improved access to documents and photographs, and interactive tours of memorial sites around the country. The new site also includes features to engage youth in peace-building, and highlights important community renewal and reconciliation programs.

When recently retired Vice Provost Dr. Fred Heath and I attended the Kwibuka 20 commemoration ceremonies marking 20 years since the Genocide, Rwandan president Paul Kagame stated that, “Historical clarity is a duty of memory that we cannot escape. Behind the words ‘Never Again’, there is a story whose truth must be told in full, no matter how uncomfortable.” Born in the basement at Perry-Castañeda Library, and now managed in the cloud by a team of new information professionals in Rwanda, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda is a resource that preserves and gives clarity to the 1994 Genocide in support of memory, reconciliation, education, and scholarship in Rwanda, Texas, and around the globe.

The global impact of the University of Texas Libraries is made possible in large part to the financial support of individual, corporate and foundation donors. To contribute to projects like the Human Rights Digitization Project, please contact Natalie Moore or visit our online giving page today.

Plaques Unveiled to Honor Lozano Long and Benson

LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections celebrated the memory of Dr. Nettie Lee Benson and the achievements and generosity of Dr. Teresa Lozano Long at the unveiling of two bronze plaques in Sid Richardson Hall honoring the influential women on Friday, March 6.

LLILAS Benson director Charles Hale provided a warm introduction to attendees, and UT president Bill Powers followed, remarking with admiration of the late Nettie Lee Benson, a librarian and a scholar, whose vision and tenacity built the Benson Collection into one of the world’s premiere collections of Latin American materials. Powers also spoke to the significant contributions — material and intellectual — that Lozano Long and her husband Joe Long have made to Latin American scholarship and to The University of Texas at Austin.

The Longs shared the ceremony with family and friends, and Benson was represented in attendance by her three nephews, Bill, Doug and Joe Benson.

See more photos of the event from the Austin American-Statesman.