Category Archives: Collections

Journey into the Archive: The McFarland Cuban Plantation Records

BY KATIE COLDIRON

The Benson Latin American Collection is a beacon for Latin Americanist scholars the world over. It has drawn researchers to examine its archival gems, particularly its strength in holdings that shed light on Mexico and Central America. Over the past few years, the Benson has further diversified its collection to better represent other parts of Latin America and strengthen its holdings on materials from the Caribbean as well as Latinx and African diasporas in the United States. Its well-deserved status as the top Latin American and Caribbean-focused collection in the United States is what drew me to UT Austin in the first place.

Before I was an Information Studies student at UT, I was a first-time graduate student diving into academia at the University of Florida. Having found employment in UF’s Latin American and Caribbean Collection, I was soon inspired by the wide variety of unique Cuban holdings present, such as autographed first editions of works by Cuba’s national hero and author José Martí. The mentorship of scholars of Cuba like historian Lillian Guerra further drew me into Cuban Studies. Five years and many trips later, Cuba continues to capture my interests, particularly now that I live and work in Miami, where the highest number of Cuban Americans in the United States reside.

Postcard from Holguín, where J.F. McFarland noted details from his trip to Cuba.

It should come as no surprise that the collection I am reviewing relates to Cuba. With the assistance of the Benson’s Caribbean Studies liaison librarian Adrian Johnson, I came across the McFarland Cuban Plantation Records. It is a bilingual collection of correspondence, company records, legal documents, news clippings, and personal photos relating to the Cuban Plantation Company of Nueces County, Texas. The company was originally organized and incorporated in New York State by twenty Pennsylvanians who came together to buy a 1000-acre plantation near Holguín, a city in eastern Cuba. The date of the incorporation, October 1, 1902, is important, as it came less than five months after the end of the four-year U.S. military occupation of Cuba following the conclusion of the Cuban War of Independence. During this turbulent period, Cubans negotiated with the legacies of Spanish colonialism as well as the neo-imperial presence of the United States at all levels of society.[1] Following the formal end of the occupation, U.S. interests did not disappear, but rather intensified, with 13,000 North Americans having bought land in Cuba by 1905.[2]

Of those twenty Pennsylvanians mentioned previously, nineteen eventually stopped paying the interest on their loans and thus ceased to be a part of the Cuban Plantation Company. The only original investor who remained was one J.F. McFarland. McFarland would eventually pass ownership of the company to his two sons, and in 1953, they officially changed the business’s name to the Cuban Plantation Company of Nueces County, Texas. During this period, their landholdings became entangled with a brewing revolutionary fervor against the brutal dictatorship of military strongman Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by multiple U.S. public and private interests. However, the story of the Cuban Revolution and the eventual agrarian reform that would affect U.S. interests like the those of the McFarlands is not a simple one.

Agrarian reform was on everyone’s minds, both inside and outside of Cuba. In June 1959, then–Prime Minister of Cuba Fidel Castro told the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsal that agrarian reform was “a matter of life and death.” U.S. landowners like the McFarlands and the United Fruit Company, which was the single-largest landowner in Cuba, found the prospect of agrarian reform worrisome. As the McFarland records show, they like many others assumed that Cuba’s revolutionary experiment would not last long. For example, in a 1959 letter from J.R. McFarland, the secretary-treasurer of the Cuban Plantation Company, to lawyer Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba, McFarland wrote, “We also feel that the dictatorship of Castro will sooner or later terminate because of lack of finances, because he has alienated the people or governments from which he might have obtained finances.” In the same letter, McFarland also notes that the company felt they would be paid “a price below the actual worth of the land” or “in bonds of uncertain value.” As the years passed and Cuba found economic stability through a relationship with the Soviet Union, these assumptions turned into legal efforts to secure some form of compensation for expropriated properties. In the McFarland records, one can see that their efforts to receive compensation for their land continued as late as 1971.

Letter from J.R. McFarland to Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba, employee of the Cuban Plantation Company who was given power of attorney on the company’s behalf. The letter notes that the company considered the Cuban revolutionary project to be temporary.

The culture of the U.S. plantation in Cuba was one in which North American custom reigned supreme, with many plantations having their own police forces subject only to the laws set by the landowner.[3] This detested system, and the poverty it created in the Cuban countryside, were so unpopular that agrarian reform was overwhelmingly supported by Cuba’s middle classes. As Lillian Guerra shows in her pivotal work on the first decade following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban middle classes supported agrarian reform via monetary donations, donations of agricultural machinery, and some even opening their homes to visiting guajiros (Cubans from the countryside) in a government PR initiative to open the luxuries of the city previously unavailable to them.[4]

While agrarian reform was wildly popular at its initiation, certain instances during this period foreshadow what would become an authoritarian regime. Fidel Castro directly controlled the agency tasked with instituting agrarian reform, the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria, or INRA, along with a host of other government entities.[5] As he expanded his personal popularity and power, he also put his allies in positions that they were not always qualified for. For example, the medical doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara was appointed as the head of the national bank. Urban underground activists, commonly known as “la clandestinidad,” who had fought on behalf of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, were displaced by those of the Partido Socialista Popular, a covertly Stalinist party and the not-too-distant allies of Fulgencio Batista during his first presidency and later dictatorship.[6]

Copy of letter sent to J.R. McFarland, then-secretary/treasurer of the Cuban Plantation Company, by Cuban company lawyer Dr. Pedro Ferrer y Coba. In the second-to-last paragraph on this page, Ferrer y Coba acknowledges the popularity of the then-provisional government.

The McFarland records provide little insight into life on their farm, but the collection includes a brief memoir about a family/company trip to Cuba written by J.R. McFarland, son of J.F. The farm is romanticized as a quaint country estate, but the tenants, like other facets of Cuba in the eyes of the author, are portrayed as primitive. Furthermore, racist imagery is present throughout, with most Cubans encountered labeled as “negroes.” This label also does not take into consideration the diversity of racial identifications in Cuba, where like other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, a variety of racial identifications exist apart from the dichotomy of “black” and “white.”[7] These instances provide important context for the plethora of social ills that arise when foreign entities control the land and people of an independent country. The agrarian reform in its infancy was a noble cause that enjoyed support from the Cuban masses and was a glimmer of hope for those seeking a more independent and egalitarian nation. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss what came after this period of hope.

The principal crop of the Cuban Plantation Company was sugar, a hugely important product in Cuban history. Early revolutionary ideals of crop diversification and self-sufficiency were displaced for more of the same. Instead of supplying the bulk of its sugar harvest to the United States, Cuba would instead provide its cash crop to the USSR. In the Soviet era, Cuba functioned as a quasi-colony of the USSR in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, failed agricultural initiatives like the Ten Million Ton Harvest (Zafra de los Diez Millones), which emptied other professional sectors of personnel in the name of carrying out a hefty sugar harvest, created ration shortages and the corruption of the ration system itself.[8] With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Cuba faced a massive decrease in food supply, with a 50% decrease in overall food production within its own borders.[9] This food insecurity has not been overcome to this day, with increasingly difficult U.S. economic sanctions, failed state agricultural policy, dependence on a limited supply of imports, and a stagnant economic structure where success is often determined by race, gender, lucrative familial connections abroad, and geographic location.[10]

Postcard depicting a home characteristic of the Cuban countryside. On his family trip to Cuba, J.R. McFarland thought that the image closely resembled that of a home on his company’s farm.

My time at UT Austin taught me much about amplifying voices that have been historically absent from the archive. At the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab of Florida International University, we are seeking to do just that, with strategic community partnerships around South Florida to document oral histories and create a more all-encompassing archive of the region and how different groups have experienced it. About archiving Cuban themes in South Florida, the tradition has been to almost exclusively preserve the stories of pre-1959 Cuba, prominent members of the exile community, and dissidents. While these stories are important, they should nonetheless be complemented by those of individuals who were brought up in Cold War–era and post–USSR collapse Cuba, as well as the more quotidian stories of Cuban exile life in South Florida from recent decades. As someone who has lived in and researched Cuba, I learned early on that the hyperpoliticization of the subject of Cuba leads to anyone willingly diving into post-1959, in-country themes being met with suspicion. However, for the sake of engaging research, preservation, and ultimately positive change in Cuba, these themes must not be pushed to the side.

While the situation I have described is unique, the Benson nonetheless offers a great example for these goals. The Benson’s historic holdings, like the Genaro García Collection and the Joaquín García Icazbalceta Manuscript Collection, are being complemented by newer, digitally based initiatives like the Voces Oral History Archive and post-custodial digitization in the region with partners like the Colombian Proceso de Comunidades Negras, or PCN. My hope is that one day, the archives in South Florida that more closely resemble the McFarland Collection can coexist with those of Cubans who lived through the turbulent decades of the Revolution, and those who came to Florida in later decades seeking libertad.

Throughout my professional and personal life in Florida and Cuba, I have seen both sides of the partisan battles surrounding Cuba and its contested future. On one side are those academics and activists who celebrate the successes of the Cuban Revolution without acknowledging the extent of its failures. On the other side, many in the Miami exile community, as well some U.S.  politicians, are unable to see the dire human costs of the trade embargo and toughening U.S. sanctions. The lack of room for critique leads to Cubans being nothing more than symbols to justify one view or the other, while also leaving Cubans—to borrow the words of cultural anthropologist Noelle Stout—“to make the long, hot walk back to their normal lives” when they are no longer on the radar of foreigners or the exile community.[11] In this moment, a climactic and potentially transformative one for the people of Cuba, they must be seen as more than props in a partisan battle, but agents in their own destiny.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published September 16, 2021, in the series Journey into the Archive: History from the Benson Latin American Collection, a collaboration between the Benson and Not Even Past. View the original here.


About the Author

A native of Kentucky, Katie L. Coldiron moved to Florida in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies, and she undertook her thesis research in Cuba under the advisement of Dr. Lillian Guerra. She was also introduced to library and archival work at UF, and parlayed different roles held during her time as a student into a position digitizing Cuban Judaica items and periodicals on the ground in Havana, all part of a post-custodial digitization project undertaken by the UF George A. Smathers Libraries. Following this experience, Katie enrolled in a library and information science master’s program at The University of Texas at Austin. During her time at UT Austin, Katie served as a graduate research assistant for digital projects at the UT Libraries, where she assisted area studies librarians on various facets of their digital projects. She also was a FLAS fellow at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Katie is currently working as the Digital Archivist and Project Manager for the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab at Florida International University. She can be found on Twitter: @katielcoldiron.

Notes

[1] Mariel Iglesias Utset, A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[2] Louis M. Pérez, On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lillian Guerra, Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959–1971 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Devyn Spence Benson, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[8] Guerra, 2012.

[9] Pérez, 2019.

[10] Hannah Garth, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[11] Noelle M. Stout, After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

Diversifying Library Collections

We recently talked in specific about a project to work on a proactive strategy to diversify our collections. That piece focused on the expansion of Black Lives Matter materials in our holdings, and was a great practical introduction the sort of work being done by professional staff to account for past inequities in how we acquire materials. The umbrella effort for that project was spearheaded by Carolyn Cunningham, the Libraries’ Head of Collection Development, who shares her perspectives on the comprehensive work to diversify the Libraries’ collection here.

As the diversity and inclusion work done on UT campus continues to grow and gather steam, it has been helpful to have UT Libraries commitment to inclusivity, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) as a guiding star for our work in the Scholarly Resources Division (SRD). 

The liaison librarian team in SRD recently had the opportunity to talk with library colleagues about how IDEA informs our collection development work, and how we support others in their collection development work. Our team members are Carolyn Cunningham, David Flaxbart, Corinne Forstot-Burke, Bill Kopplin, Susan Macicak, Katy Parker, and Shiela Winchester. The team is committed to using an IDEA lens in all of our work, beyond special projects or short-term initiatives. This means that we approach every request for a book, every new product offer, and every decision about how to use collection funds with the frame of mind that we will strive to include diverse voices in our collection and orient ourselves toward finding and making available resources that include the many experiences and perspectives of our campus community and beyond. The team describes this work as a group effort, and we continuously learn from each other. 

This embedded IDEA orientation is important because the academic publishing landscape does not necessarily represent all the voices that we want to include. The team recently looked at the results of the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey together. This survey looked at diversity in the publishing industry, which included academic publishing participants. The respondents to this survey were 76% white, 97% cisgender, 81% heterosexual, and 89% non-disabled. For a quick point of comparison, 38.9% of UT students and 75.7% of UT professors are white. As the creators of the survey point out, “If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?”

Publishers are not the only influencers of what we add to our collections. User requests and emerging research areas are an important source of data for us. One exciting area of focus this past year has been strengthening our holdings related to the Black Lives Matter movement, civil rights, and anti-racism topics. Bill Kopplin, social sciences librarian and coordinator, has compared our collections against peer libraries, kept an eye on campus reading clubs and resource lists, and worked directly with vendors to do a wide-ranging scan of publications in these areas to consider adding to our collection. I can also point to the strong interdepartmental work of facilitating selection and discovery of important resources via catalog notes and subject headings. Folks from across UT Libraries work together to select and make available the U.S. Latinx LGBTQ Collection and Black Queer Studies Collection with local notes in our library catalog. This kind of focused attention is found throughout the work of our subject librarians, and our team is here to help get new efforts off the ground. 

One programmatic aspect of collection building that our team works on closely is the major approval plans. These plans are arrangements with large vendors to automatically send us certain types of books published by essential publishers. We keep an eye on those plans to make sure they are bringing in the right material. By describing this process with words like “arrangements,” “large,” and “automatically,” I want to illustrate that it is easy for up-and-coming authors and small publishers to get left out. This is where the expertise of our knowledgeable subject librarians, as well as input from our users, comes in. While we aim to collect books that our researchers expect us to have from major publishers, we pay close attention to the requests we get from users through interlibrary loan, through our Suggest a Purchase form, and via our library colleagues. Those data tell us which things are missing from the collection. We also use these requests to update ourselves on new terminology, new classes being offered, and new and enduring research topics that are finding an audience on campus. 

This work takes a village, and we will continue to learn from each other and respond to new opportunities to make our collections meet the needs of our current and future users.

Discover more of the diverse collections at the Libraries through our Instagram series, Highlighting Diverse Collections.


This post originally appeared at the blog of the Diversity Action Committee.

Scant Communications, Devastating Impacts

Dale J. Correa is the Middle Eastern Studies Librarian and History Coordinator for the UT Libraries, and she regularly teaches on research data/citation management for the humanities at The University of Texas at Austin.

Hannah Chapman Tripp serves as the Biosciences Librarian and has provided research help with a variety of citation management programs at The University of Texas at Austin and previous institutions.

Where Did My Data Go?

In Fall 2020, registered Mendeley users received a message via email titled “Improving Mendeley to Better Support Researchers,” regarding some intended updates to Mendeley’s service model. These changes included the removal of several Mendeley library features, including the Public Groups feature that allowed for large groups to share references and notes openly. These groups were particularly appealing to some scholars as they represented a method to share resources openly, publicly, and free of cost in both invited and open group settings (without a limit on membership to the group). Under the Public Groups umbrella, both the invite-only and the open groups were included in Mendeley’s feature-removal plans. Unfortunately, Mendeley’s email did not explicitly state the intention to delete the Public Groups from individual Mendeley users accounts with the coming update — which went into effect in March 2021, and meant that individual users found their locally-stored files from these groups deleted on their own machines.

Researchers who used this feature were somewhat unlikely to have encountered that email message or have read it through thoroughly. After all, many emails from services utilized by researchers contain information about updates, but much of it goes unread. And, of course, some email systems would automatically detect messages like this one as spam or junk, and so would send them directly to a folder that, unless checked, frequently goes unnoticed and unchecked.

As “announced,” Mendeley went ahead with the plan and began removing certain features, including Mendeley Feed, Mendeley Profiles and Mendeley Funding in December 2020. In March 2021, Mendeley began retiring Public Groups. It does not seem that there was further, specific communication regarding the Public Groups retirement in the lead-up to this change in March.

While we fully acknowledge the need for commercial companies to pivot priorities, continue development of what’s working and in some cases remove features that are less popular and see less return on investment, the awareness campaign for these changes clearly did not reach enough of the affected audience to warrant the deletion of features from an individual user’s Mendeley library. The failure of this important information to reach registered Mendeley users is evidenced by many, many, many reactions on Twitter from the scholarly community. While most scholars understand the need to make changes to a platform and continue to improve the services offered, they are also outraged at the lack of effective communication prior to deleting this feature.

Mendeley has acknowledged that there was not enough time or communication involved in this plan to remove features, and has since re-enabled the invite-only groups, a subset of the Public Groups, for a brief period of time so users can retrieve their data. It is a significant concern of many researchers that all of the content in the Open Groups (which was the other option under the Public Groups umbrella) is not going to be restored and that the data has been lost permanently. For many academics, this is a devastating realization, as years of research and references have been erased with deficient notice. Although Mendeley has apologized for the handling of these changes, the fact remains that some scholars — including those in the more vulnerable categories of PhD student, post-doc and non-tenured faculty — are left without vast quantities of their research.

Lessons Learned, Principles to Practice

While this is an unfortunate situation, we hope that some takeaways can be gained from the experience. For researchers, the importance of backups, knowing your product and an awareness of the fact that changes are quite likely, are a few of the points we hope to address.

Backing up research data is important, regardless of the type of data or original format. A best practice in data retention habits is the 3-2-1 rule, wherein three copies of research data are maintained, in two separate formats locally, and one copy offsite. Some researchers wrongly assumed that with Mendeley’s storage and syncing they were achieving at least a portion of this best practice; however, they learned in practice that when data is deleted from the Mendeley web version, that deletion can be synced down to any local copy of Mendeley connected to the web. In order to have the 3-2-1 rule appropriately in practice with Mendeley data, researchers must back up a copy of their data to an external hard drive location and an online cloud storage solution separate from Mendeley. What makes this situation trickier is that, starting in 2018, Mendeley began encrypting researchers’ local data folders, making it very difficult to access one’s own data when not using the Mendeley interface (although some researchers have identified workarounds to the encryption). What should be backed up, rather, is data exports from Mendeley in open file formats and PDFs, including notes, to ensure that researchers will be able to access, use, and rebuild their reference libraries if their Mendeley data itself becomes corrupt or a change in Mendeley services affects their access.

With RIS (Research Information Systems bibliographic citation file format) files and PDFs backed up to the local machine as well as to a back up option like UT’s Box, researchers would have the option to continue using Mendeley, or move their data to another citation management software such as Zotero or EndNote. For those who are continuing to use Mendeley, incorporating a backup system as described above is the recommended option for ensuring long term access to integral research references, notes, and files (particularly annotated PDFs).

It is also important to keep abreast of changes in the software. As librarians, we are just as guilty as the next person of not reading terms of use or new update details before initiating a download. We could all make a better effort to read through the software’s terms of use.

Mendeley — owned by a for-profit company — will continue to optimize the most attractive, state-of-the-art, and revenue-generating features and functionality in their product. This process inevitably means refocusing efforts and making tough decisions about what features to no longer support. However, the realities of software changes and obsolescence are not confined to Mendeley or, for that matter, to for-profit companies. For example, the backups you made decades ago to a floppy disk are likely no longer retrievable due to hardware changes and potential software obsolescence.

So, whether you have lost your data with this change in Mendeley services or you are one of the lucky ones who was not relying so heavily on the free Public Groups features, we strongly recommend that you use a sensible back up system; back up in open formats from which you can easily retrieve your data no matter what system you’re using; and keep an eye on the crucial changes that come with software updates. We are here to assist with data and citation management best practices — please see the Research Organization with Citation Managers LibGuide for more information.

WHIT’S PICKS: TAKE 9 – GEMS FROM THE HMRC

Resident poet and rock and roll star Harold Whit Williams is in the midst of a project to catalog the KUT Collection, obtained a few years ago and inhabiting a sizable portion of the Historical Music Recordings Collection (HMRC).

Being that he has a refined sense of both words and music, Whit seems like a good candidate for exploring and discovering some overlooked gems in the trove, and so in this occasional series, he’ll be presenting some of his noteworthy finds.

Earlier installments: Take 1Take 2Take 3Take 4Take 5Take 6, Take 7, Take 8

Acetone / Cindy

Available at Fine Arts L​ibrary Onsite Storage

Criminally-overlooked and ultimately doomed L.A. stoner garage-roots trio Acetone droned away in near obscurity during the 1990’s “alternative” heyday, but one can hear their influence on today’s wealth of indie pop and Americana music. Cindy, their first full-length, rocks hard throughout and is built upon overdriven guitars rather than the mellow Gram Parsons-esque atmospherics that would color their subsequent psych-country records. Here’s that time-travelling, road-tripping, couch-surfing soundtrack you’ve long been waiting for. 

Conrad Herwig Nonet / Sketches of Spain y mas

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Trombonist and bandleader Conrad Herwig takes mucho Latin Jazz liberties with this classic Miles Davis work, plus three other pieces (y mas). His New York-based nonet parties hearty in an Afro-Cuban style live at the Blue Note on Davis’ Solar, Seven Steps to Heaven, and Petits Machins, but it’s the majestic 25 minute-long epic Sketches of Spain that stands out admirably here. With highlights from trumpeter Brian Lynch, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and especially the shock-and-awe back and forth between drummer Robby Ameen and conguero/percussionist Richies Flores. 

Amadou & Mariam / Wati

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Stretching the boundaries of traditional north African music, Amadou & Mariam unabashedly mix in healthy doses of rock, blues, pop, and funk into their full band’s hypnotic groove. Having met as students at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, the two became a couple, and musically involved as well. Wati leans more in a Western direction – production and instrumentation-wise – but the heart and the soul of the record comes straight from Bamako. A mesmerizing and exuberant Afro pop celebration. 

Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham / Sonic Souvenirs

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Another musical couple here (Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham of indie rock royalty Luna) spices things up nicely with this short and sweet six-track EP. Enlisting famed Bowie producer Tony Visconti for these revamped versions from an earlier album, the duo grooves in a downtown underground style a la Velvet Underground & Nico. Warehams’ low energy slacker vibe is baked in, but it’s Phillips’ coy and coquettish vocals icing this delightful dream pop cake. 

Shirley Scott / Memorial Album

Available at Fine Arts Library Onsite Storage

Always somewhat in the shadows of other Philadelphia B3 organ legends (Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff), Shirley Scott’s exquisite soul jazz chops were nevertheless second to none. The subtitle to this collection, “Queen of the Organ” is no hyperbole, as any experienced hepcat listener can attest to. Culled from her Prestige (and other labels) recordings, these tracks showcase Scott’s solo artist virtuosity as well as her steady grooving backup session work with the likes of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and her husband at the time, Stanley Turrentine. Talk about Philly soul? Then you’ve got to be talking about Shirley Scott.

[Harold Whit Williams is a Content Management Specialist in Music & Multimedia Resources. He writes poetry, is guitarist for the critically acclaimed rock band Cotton Mather, and releases lo-fi guitar-heavy indie pop as DAILY WORKER.]

“IT IS DULL, SON OF ADAM, TO DRINK WITHOUT EATING:” ENGAGING A TURKISH DIGITAL TOOL FOR THE STUDY OF ISLAMIC THOUGHT


Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new 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.

Over the years of my involvement in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (MEIS), I have become something of an advocate for learning modern Turkish. The necessity of facility with Turkish in order to conduct research in MEIS, and more importantly, to carry on scholarly communication in MEIS, grows clearer every year. I would not hesitate to argue that non-Turkish scholars ignore Turkish scholarship at their own peril—it is that central, plentiful, and informative. An excellent example of a scholarly development out of Turkish academe that would be quite useful for MEIS pedagogy and research is İslam Düşünce Atlası, or The Atlas of Islamic Thought. It also happens to be an incredible digital Islamic Studies scholarship initiative.

İslam Düşünce Atlası (İDA) is a project of the İlim Etüdler Derneği (İLEM)/Scientific Studies Association with the support of the Konya Metropolitan Municipality Culture Office. It is coordinated by İbrahim Halil Üçer, with the support of over a hundred researchers, design experts, software developers, and GIS/map experts. The goal of the project is to make the academic study of the history of Islamic thought easily accessible to scholars and laypeople alike through new (digital) techniques and within the logic of network relations. İDA has been conceived as an open-access website with interactive programs for a range of applications. Its developers intend it to contribute a digital perspective to historical writing on Islam: a reading of the history of Islamic thought from a digitally-visualized time-spatial perspective and context.

İDA features three conceptual maps that aim to visualize complex relationships and to establish a historical backbone for the larger project of the atlas: the Timeline (literally time “map,” which is a more signifying term for the tool, Zaman Haritası), the Books Map (Kitaplar Haritası), and the Person Map (Kişiler Haritası). It also proposes a new understanding of the periodization of Islamic history based on the development of schools of thought (broadly defined) and their geographic spread. İDA endeavors to answer several questions through these tools: by whom, when, where, how, in relation to which school traditions, through what kinds of interactions, and through which textual traditions was Islamic thought produced? Many of these questions can be summed up under the umbrella of prosopography, and in that arena, İDA has a few notable peer projects: the Mamluk Prosopography Project, Prosopographical Database for Indic Texts (PANDiT), and the Jerusalem Prosopography Project (with a focus on the period of Mongol rule), among others.

One of my favorite aspects of İDA is the book map and its accompanying introduction. The researchers behind İDA do their audience the great service of explaining the development and establishment of the various genres of writing in the Islamic sciences. Importantly, they also link the development of these genres to the periodization of Islamic history that they propose. The eight stages of genre development that are identified—collation/organization, translation, structured prose, commentary, gloss, annotation, evaluative or dialogic commentary, and excerpts/summaries—share with the larger İDA project their origin in scholarly networking and relationship building. By visualizing the networks of Muslim scholars, as well as the relationships among their scholarly production and the non-linear, multi-faceted time “map” of Islamic thought, İDA weaves together the disparate facets of a complex and oft willfully misunderstood intellectual tradition

I encourage readers not only to learn some modern Turkish in order to make full use of İDA (although Google translate will work in a pinch!), but also to explore threads throughout all of the visualizations: for example, trace al-Ghazālī’s scholarly network, and then look at that of his works. What similarities and differences do you notice? Is there a pattern to the links among works and scholars? Readers who are interested in the intellectual history of Islam should check out my Islamic Studies LibGuide, as well as searches in the UT Libraries’ catalog for some of their favorite authors (see here for al-Ghazālī/Ghazzālī, Ibn Sina/Avicenna, and Ibn al-Arabi).

New Biography Sheds Light on the Work and Internal Life of María Luisa Puga

“How does one become a writer, and how does she go about building a body of creative work?”* These are questions that author Irma López seeks to answer in her latest publication, a biography of the late Mexican writer María Luisa Puga (1944–2004) titled Extraño no-amor el tuyo: María Luisa Puga, historia de una pasión.   

Author Irma López with her new biography of Puga

This is the second book on Puga by López, a professor of Spanish and interim dean at Western Michigan University. For this volume, López relied heavily on a collection of 327 diaries kept by the award-winning writer between 1972 and 2004. The diaries make up the bulk of the María Luisa Puga Papers at the Benson Latin American Collection. They are “an existential logbook of body and identity” writes former Benson librarian José Montelongo in a Spanish-language essay about Puga’s diaries. It was López who originally brought the collection of diaries to the attention of the Benson; the writer’s sister, Patricia Puga, donated them to the collection in 2017.

Biography of María Luisa Puga, by Irma López

In Extraño no-amor, López builds on her previous work on Puga and, with the aid of the diaries, probes deeply into the writer’s life in order to better understand her work. The resulting biography is a portrait of Puga that lays bare her strengths and weaknesses, her artistic and existential struggles, similar to the way in which Puga relentlessly examined herself on the pages of her diary.


Read “María Luisa Puga: A Life in Diaries” by José Montelongo

Read “Una vida en 327 cuadernos: El archivo literario de María Luisa Puga” by José Montelongo

The Royal Inspection through a Digital Lens: Interactive Exhibit Examines Spanish Colonial Bureaucracy

By BRITTANY ERWIN

For almost three hundred years, the Spanish monarchs ruled over an expansive empire stretching from the Caribbean to the southernmost tip of South America. World history narratives situate Spain within a centuries-long clash between major powers over territory, resources, and authority in the Americas that ended with the wars of independence. However, these histories tend to devote less attention to the day-to-day processes that sustained imperial rule. My dissertation explores this question through an analysis of the underlying mechanisms that bound the people to their faraway king. A LLILAS Benson Digital Humanities Summer Fellowship helped me to create an online exhibition that demonstrates what the bureaucracy of empire looked like on the ground. (Visit the Spanish version of the exhibition.)

This interactive website serves as an interface with a section of the vast holdings of the Benson Latin American Collection: the Genaro García Collection. Through the exhibition, teachers, students, and community members can explore the events that unfolded when the king ordered a visita—or royal inspection—for New Spain (roughly, modern Mexico) in 1765. The inspection allowed the monarch to keep up to date on local happenings while also identifying areas that could be reorganized. This visita involved approximately seven years of examinations and reforms carried out through a cooperation between the monarch’s appointed visitador—or inspector—and local government workers.

Cover page for this collection of visita documents. G206-01.

The website offers high-resolution images of the thirty documents from the Genaro García Collection that pertain to this procedure, in addition to brief content descriptions, full transcriptions, information on the individuals involved, and maps of prominent regions mentioned in the sources. All of this information appears in an interactive timeline so that users can experience the process of bureaucracy at work.

The TimelineJS chronology features high-resolution images of the documents included for each date.

This project benefited from the use of several digital humanities tools, including TimelineJS, FromthePage, and Transkribus. TimelineJS allowed for the creation of an interactive chronology containing the step-by-step process that the visitador followed as he inspected and reorganized the government of New Spain. For users looking to examine the documents beyond the site’s overviews, FromthePage and Transkribus generated full transcriptions of the sources.

This screen shot illustrates the transcription process in Transkribus.

These texts provide opportunities for further exploration, such as data analysis. For example, by feeding the transcriptions into the Voyant Tools website, I was able to generate a word cloud of the most commonly appearing words and phrases in the documents.

Voyant Tools allows for the creation of word clouds, like the one featured above.

The Benson Latin American Collection holds documents covering many regions of the Spanish world across the sixteenth through the twenty-first centuries. During this time, Spain’s hold over its American territories required the constant interaction between royal officials and local populations, and that crossover was often messy. The 1765 visita of New Spain sheds light on the complexities of this process. My hope is that this online exhibition will expand the ways in which people can interact with these sources without having to visit the University of Texas campus in person, and learn from them about the day-to-day experience of imperial management.


Brittany Erwin is a PhD candidate in history. She was a LLILAS Benson Digital Humanities Summer Fellow in 2020.

Read, Hot and Digitized: Braceros Tell Their Stories

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new 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.

A twenty-two-year program that began during World War II and is still relevant nearly sixty years after its conclusion in 1964, the Bracero Program was an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments to permit short-term Mexican laborers to work in the United States.

In an effort to stem labor shortages during and after the war years, an estimated 4.6 million workers came to the USA with the promise of thirty cents per hour and “humane treatment.” Of course, we know that loosely defined terms like “humane treatment” present a slippery slope that can erase and omit stories. Fortunately, through the collaborative efforts of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute of Oral History, many of those once-hidden stories have been preserved and made accessible through the Bracero History Archive (BHA).  

The BHA offers a variety of materials, most notably over 700 oral histories recorded in English and Spanish. While the metadata fields for each oral history could be more robust, the ability to hear first-hand accounts and inter-generational stories is a dream come true for primary source-seekers. All audio is available to download in mp3 format for future use.  

Apart from oral histories, other resources are also available. Images, such as photographs and postcards, provide visuals of the varied environments that hosted the Braceros as well as portraits of the Braceros themselves.  

Again, further detail on these resources would benefit the archive. For example, the photograph above, titled “Two Men,” demonstrates a lack of context needed for a more profound understanding while also acknowledging the potentially constant transient nature of Bracero work. In fact, the very word bracero, derived from the Spanish word for “arm,” is indicative of the commodification and dehumanization of the human body for labor. Workers lived in subpar work camps, received threats of deportation, and lacked proper nourishment, especially given the arduous work conditions.  

Additional BHA resources include a “documents” section in which offspring share anecdotes about the Bracero Program and track down information about loved ones. Finally, the site offers resources for middle school and high school teachers to use in their curriculum. Here again is an opportunity to further build out the site for university-level instruction.  

The digital objects in the BHA are worthwhile for those looking to recover an often-overlooked subject in American history that still resonates with themes relating to immigration today. Indeed, farmworkers continue to be exploited and underappreciated despite their contributions to society. This has led to a number of movements, marches, and boycotts in efforts to improve living conditions and wages. 

For those interested in oral history collections at the University of Texas Libraries, look no further than the Voces Oral History Project and Los del Valle Oral History Project, both housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. Similarly, collections related to farmworkers, and undoubtedly influenced by the legacies of the Bracero Program, include the Texas Farm Workers Union Collection and the María G. Flores Papers.  

Opportunity in Crisis to Build on the Platform

If there’s a single lesson to take away from this year, it’s that libraries are a lot more malleable than their long history may have given them credit for.

We’ve previously covered the Herculean effort by University of Texas Libraries’ staff to pivot from their natural in-person work environs to a distance service, then a subsequent limited return to the former, but a lot of that agility was due in no small measure to underlying efforts that were already underway when the health crisis washed over campus and the country.

Strategically, this institution has been focusing on the idea of the library as a platform: not just a storehouse for books or website of searchable journals, but an active ecosystem where resources, tools, services, spaces, expertise and community intermingle with a constantly variable presence of users to spin off scholarship and innovation back into the world. This idea factory of ever-evolving components works at its best when it creates opportunities for discovery through constant interaction of the various parts.

With the pandemic creating greater physical distance between the parts, though, it’s become essential that we focus on those tools that could best allow us to reach our users where they are, be that in an apartment in West Campus, or on the other side of the globe.

Last year, we announced the launch of a pair of systems designed to organize, preserve and create accessibility for digital iterations of physical materials that otherwise would only be available to people who could visit the Forty Acres. Our Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) was deployed in September, 2019, and in November, we published the Collections Portal on the Libraries’ website. The culmination of these two projects proved to be far more fortuitous than we could’ve imagined.

A couple months later as leadership at the Libraries was fleshing out a new strategic plan that placed special emphasis on the concept of Libraries as platform, the first case of coronavirus was discovered in the Pacific Northwest. Then, in March as the spread of the pandemic began to accelerate, The University of Texas at Austin announced first the delay of spring classes, followed quickly by a directive to move all but the most critical staff to remote work away from campus, and to shift to online learning for the remainder of the semester.

More than ever, the adaptability of the Libraries to changes in user behaviors was the institutional characteristic that needed to be positioned in response to the extraordinary situation that fell so quickly upon us all. And refocusing our collective energies on tools with the greatest potential to serve the largest number of people while considering the long-term goals of the Libraries made these new systems a natural priority for applying institutional resources.

The DAMS

At its most basic, a Digital Asset Management System is a locally-developed digital repository designed to store, describe and manage digital assets of the Libraries. Digital assets are comprised of a primary digital files like scanned images, book pages, audio or video recordings, with varying component parts: metadata, or data about the data that includes information about the origin of the file, specifications and descriptive data used for locating the asset; additional secondary files that can be machine-readable and/or provide additional technical information; and derivatives, such as thumbnail images, other file versions, and PDFs. 

The DAMS serves as the central preservation and management hub for Libraries’ digital assets, built by the Libraries Information Technology Support (LITS) team in coordination with staff library professionals, who also manage the operations of the system. The DAMS project began in 2016, and in an effort to prioritize two of our most notable collections, staff at the Benson Latin American Collection and the Alexander Architectural Archive began preparing digital collections for the system.

“The digital asset management system was many years in the making,” says Jennifer Lee, Director of Discovery and Access. “And for many, many years before that it was just an idea, like an item on a collective wish list. Now, it’s become a reality. And over the past seven months in particular, we’ve made excellent progress on adding content.”

The Collections Portal

The Collections Portal serves as an access point on the Libraries’ website allowing users to undertake remote research and study utilizing rich resources that have previously only been available in person or through more time-intensive digitization on demand processes.

Developed in 2018-19 by LITS in close coordination with other Libraries professional staff as a logical progression from the DAMS, the Portal provides students, faculty, researchers and the broader public access to collections that have not been directly available in the past, and the project’s infrastructure creates a framework for a more consistent stream of new digital content in the future. Each item in the portal also contains contextual data – drawn from the DAMS – in order that users may learn underlying information about the material, locate physical counterparts and determine reuse rights for digital files.

The Relationship

The relationship between the DAMS and the Portal can create confusion since both systems deal with the same assets, but it’s useful to think about the interrelationship between the parts. The DAMS is the back-end storage and management environment, where preservation, description and accessibility of the resources are controlled. The Collections Portal draws on the information contained within the DAMS to make some of the content that exists there discoverable and accessible for remote use through a public web interface. The dual structure allows for our staff to determine what is suitable for partial or full public access based on issues like copyright or embargo status.

“These two are separate but closely connected software systems,” explains Mirko Hanke, Digital Asset Management System Coordinator, who has been one of the driving forces behind efforts to refine and build out the systems. “This overall architecture of having two separate systems allows the curators to choose which of the content they’re managing in the DAMS they want to make publicly available.”

Both systems were implemented by LITS staff using open source software components and they built software to bridge the two systems from scratch.

The Processes

The basic workflow for getting items from the shelves into the systems involves digitization, file management, metadata creation and ingestion.

The Libraries has been digitizing physical materials for decades, including thousands of items that were digitized previous to the development of the DAMS, and those files can be retrieved and processed for inclusion in the new systems. Accessing the digital forms of materials can extend the life of fragile special collections and makes near-immediate global access possible. Physical materials are often reformatted as digital files in their entirety to minimize handling and ensure future access to unrequested sections at a later date. Additional processes in digitization allow for the enhancement of usability of the digital iterations, as well, including optical character recognition, making scanned documents searchable and information contained within more easily findable. The automation of many digitization processes makes pagination and file structuring more manageable and speeds up ingestion and thus accessibility of content.

Requests for digitization are made either through a formal submission or directly to Libraries’ Digitization Services, with special priority given to our two notable special collections – the Benson Latin American Collection and the Alexander Architectural Archive – both of which are heavily used by the public and thus have significant back catalogs of digitized materials, making them fertile resources for populating the DAMS and Collections Portal. Special consideration has also been extended to time-sensitive projects, such as those slated for exhibition loan or items that are being or have been retired from other access points.

Once files have been digitized, they are passed through specialized workflows based on the type of content and its historical origin that add and/or enhance metadata, secondary files and derivatives to create singular digital assets that can then be ingested into the DAMS and potentially projected out to the Collections Portal.

Staff professionals working with LITS professionals have developed scripts and processes that can help to speed up the packaging of digital assets both for newly digitized items, but also from previously digitized materials that exist from earlier Libraries efforts. There is ongoing work to track digitization, management and ingestion processes to create ongoing improvements to the workflows.

Hitting the Gas

Realizing the important potential of the two systems for remote users in response to the health crisis, the Libraries reconfigured workflows and redirected staff to accelerate work already occurring to populate and invigorate the DAMS and by extension, the Collections Portal. The first order of business was to formalize workflows to prioritize the digitization and processing of materials.

Resources at the Benson and Alexander Archive proved to be low-hanging fruit for their outsized use in research and because of existing expertise in digital preservation, so projects originating from those collections received significant attention.

Staff at the Benson Latin American Collection have been working on a project to digitize the Genaro García Collection – the Benson’s massive foundational collection, acquired in Mexico City in 1921 by university representatives on a diplomatic visit. The Libraries will next year be celebrating the 100th anniversary of that acquisition as the establishment of Latin American collections on campus, so the effort to provide online access to this important collection made it a priority for addition to the Collections Portal.

“Because we’ve established some good local practices for collection creation and we have a set of well documented requirements on the DAMS ingest side, it becomes much easier to develop batch processing workflows to prepare scans and metadata for upload into the DAMS without manipulating each collection object, one at a time,” says David Bliss, Digital Processing Archivist at the Benson Latin American Collection.

A team-based approach was coordinated by Latin American Archivist Dylan Joy. Staff Photographer and Library Specialist Robert Esparza spent several months carefully digitizing the Genaro García Imprints and Images collections in their entirety, following a process developed locally at the Benson. Concurrently, GRA Diego Godoy compiled item level metadata based on a template developed by Metadata Librarian Itza Carbajal. Bliss then worked to develop a script for ingesting the scans and accompanying metadata from the collection into the DAMS, bypassing hours of monotonous and error-prone work in favor of a process using existing metadata in a hands-off approach that occurs in minutes instead.

La Profesa, No.1: Colección de vistas tomadas en la revolucion, llamada de los Polkos, en Mexico el año de 1847. Genaro Garcia: Imprints and Images. Benson Latin American Collection, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin.

“We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to make our file naming practices more consistent and systematic or suddenly realize that we should be gathering good metadata,” says Bliss. “This kind of scripting work is only possible because significant resources were dedicated to equipment and project staff.”

Benson staff, in coordination with Libraries’ Content Management and Digitization Services teams, have worked prodigiously on the Benson Rare Book Collection, including the high visibility Primeros Libros – the first books published in the Americas prior to 1600; so far, 21 full volumes are published to the Collections Portal, with more in process. Libraries Technology Coordinator Benn Chang worked with Benson Latinx Studies Archivist Carla Alvarez to make newly available several hundred previously digitally-preserved photographs in the George I. Sánchez papers, which are now part of the Collections Portal, as well.

Vocabvlario en lengva misteca. Primeros Libros de las Américas. Benson Latin American Collection, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin.

“This work really does take a village and there is no one singular workflow or approach that suits all collections,” says Benson’s Head of Digital Initiatives Theresa Polk.

At the Alexander Architectural Archive, staff have been working to process both newly-digitized and legacy digital assets. “Architectural collections staff have worked closely with Digitization Services to adjust our workflow to include ingesting assets and metadata into the DAMS,” says Archivist for Access and Preservation Stephanie Tiedeken. So far, over 21,000 assets have been ingested into the DAMS from the Alexander Archives and Architecture & Planning Library’s Special Collections, and over 2,000 of those have been published into the Collections Portal, including 270 publications and over 1,800 digitized drawings or photographs.

Archive staff are also working to move legacy assets into the DAMS. The Alexander’s GRA, Alyssa Anderson, recently completed a project to ingest 262 legacy images of scanned drawings and photographs from ten sites, primarily missions, in Texas and Mexico images and create MODS metadata. Now that these items are in the DAMS, they are more usable and visible to researchers.

Head of Architectural Collections Katie Pierce Meyer worked with Mirko Hanke and staff from Digitization Services to develop a process for ingesting legacy digitized photographs from the David Reichard Williams collection, a regionalist and architect who documented vernacular architecture in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. Colleagues from Libraries’ Branch and Borrow Services transferred data from finding aid, added descriptions of photographs, bringing expertise and fresh eyes to these historic images of buildings and places across the state.

Building on transformation processes and documentation work previously done by David Bliss and Benn Chang, and working closely with Mirko Hanke, Pierce Meyer was able to take the data, map it to DAMS metadata fields in the data editing tool OpenRefine, then export it and create individual metadata files for each image. The image and the metadata files could then ingested and published in large batches.

White Elephant Saloon (Fredericksburg, Tex.). David Reichard Williams collection, Alexander Architectural Archives, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

After materials were ingested from the David Reichard Williams photography collection at the Alexander Archive and became available via the Collection Portal, colleagues in Content Management conducted quality assurance on the ingested data and enhanced the metadata. Finally, Alexander Architectural Archives’ Curator Beth Dodd introduced these published assets to historic preservation professionals and donors to the Alexander Archives, who provided additional information to further describe and enhance information about the buildings in the photographs. Over the course of the project, the crowdsourced assistance of many participants have been instrumental to ingesting assets and enhance the metadata, making for a more robust and discoverable resource for future researchers.

“The Williams project has been a particular example of a collaborative, iterative process to transfer our legacy assets to the DAMS and publish them to the collections portal. It has also been a great learning opportunity and we are taking what we have done here to inform future collaborative work with our collections and metadata transformation” says Katie Pierce Meyer.

Another extremely visible digital collection has also played a significant role in the growth of DAMS and Collections Portal content. The PCL Maps Collection – which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – is perhaps the most heavily used of our collection, largely due to the 70,000 items that are available through the Libraries’ legacy website. Visitation to the online maps has accounted for over 50% of all Libraries’ web traffic at points, and has exceeded 5 million views with consistent frequency. The Libraries’ launched a new website in 2018, and have begun to migrate the Maps Collection into the DAMS where it will be available through the Collections Portal. The legacy website remains active largely to maintain access to the collection, so ingesting the digital content from the Maps Collections is another high priority for the overall project.

Etain-A. 201 : tirage de 3 Aout 1918 Groupe des canevas de tir. Field Maps of Colonel Roland T. Fenton. Perry-Castañeda Library Maps, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

The migration of the collection into the DAMS is providing the opportunity to greatly improve upon the associated metadata and, in some cases, to provide even higher quality digital scans for use by researchers. “In the DAMS we can store and serve larger format images, which is a great improvement and there are established organization standards, where the legacy site grew organically from its early adoption roots,” says Maps Collection Coordinator Kat Strickland. “Many of the maps in the collection have made their way here without any context. So being able to show somebody the image and describe with more robust metadata is also going to improve discoverability for people.”

“The DAMS is going to benefit users because collections can be organized in a way that will help users find the context of individual maps by linking to a subcollection of related maps.”

When the university shuttered operations in March and physical access to the Maps Collection was halted, only 77 items had been migrated to the DAMS. A short seven months later, there are over 14,000 maps in the system and Libraries’ staff are currently working on metadata for another 11,600 to make those available.

That experience mirrors the shift in focus since remote work has become the prevailing mode of service at the Libraries and online content has become the primary resources for users. In March, there were approximately 2,500 digital assets available through the Collections Portal. Today, there are over 20,000 assets available through the Collections Portal, and those numbers are expanding apace as more resources are committed to the work and staff adapt innovative approaches to their processes.

“There’s been an eightfold increase in content since March, which is just amazing progress and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many colleagues,” says Mirko Hanke.