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.
Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America lets users visualize the maps of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) on a scale that is unprecedented. The HOLC was created in 1933 to help citizens refinance home mortgages to prevent foreclosures. Directed by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the HOLC surveyed 239 cities and produced “residential security maps” that color-coded neighborhoods and metropolitan areas by credit worthiness and risk. These maps and the discriminatory practice they exemplified and enabled later came to be known as redlining.
If you zoom to Los Angeles, CA in Mapping Inequality (I recommend taking a moment to read the short introduction and how to) you will see the historic redline maps overlaid on a web-based map, a color-coded legend that describes areas from Best to Hazardous, and an information panel where you can immediately explore an overview and download raw data. Zoom in further, click a red section of the map, and the “area description” will load in the information panel. The initial view is curated and gives you an immediate impression of how these maps and accompanying documents perpetuated and institutionalized discrimination. You can also view the full demographic data and a scan of the original paperwork.
I encourage you to look at cities you are familiar with, it’s startling how the effects of these maps are apparent today. This is a work in progress so not every city surveyed by the HOLC is represented or complete. Unfortunately, the accompanying documents for Austin are not available, but you can view the entire 1935 Austin map on the PCL Map Collection website. (You can also find a digitized reprint of the notorious Austin city plan from the 1920s at Texas ScholarWorks.)
I chose to highlight this mapping project because redlining maps are a critical example of the power of maps and this interface was beautifully constructed to illustrate their impact.
Four Centuries of Rare Documents Will Be Digitized
August 8, 2018, was an auspicious day for students of Mexican history. An agreement signed between LLILAS Benson and the Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Estado de Puebla marks the official start of a project to digitize a large collection of archival materials from the Fondo Real de Cholula. Funding for the project comes from a Mellon Foundation grant obtained by LLILAS Benson.
The archives in question, which originate in the Mexican town of Cholula, Puebla State, consist of approximately 200 boxes and span some four centuries, from the 1500s to the late nineteenth century. Once digitized, they will be made available to researchers on an open-access platform by the Benson Latin American Collection and the University of Texas Libraries. The materials document, among other things, how Indigenous residents of Cholula navigated colonial judicial structures unique to their special juridical status.
A Rich Trove of Information
The materials will provide a rich trove of information about the colonial period, referred to in Mexico as la época novohispana. Cholula was one of only nine locations to be designated a ciudad de indios (in contrast, there were 21 ciudades de españoles). Ciudades de indios had a different justice system than others. Indigenous people paid their tribute directly to the king instead of to a colonial intermediary; they enjoyed certain privileges, and they maintained a fully functioning Indigenous cabildo, or council, which ruled alongside the Spanish one. “This allowed for a degree of Indigenous autonomy and exercise of special privileges in the new colonial context,” explains Professor Kelly McDonough of the UT Austin Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
LLILAS Benson might never have known about the collection in question had it not been for McDonough, who identified the collection as a good candidate for digitization. She emphasizes that the digitization of ciudad de indios documents has immense historical significance: “It’s the first time we will be able to understand what Indigenous justice meant in place with a very specific juridical designation and relationship with the king of Spain. We believe that the other eight judicial archives from ciudades de indios burned in the Mexican Revolution.”
“The chronological range of the collection will allow scholars to study how Indigenous practices adapted to Spanish rule, how new practices developed over the course of the early-modern period, and how both Indigenous and Spanish practices further adapted to modern political and legal structures in the nineteenth century,” adds LLILAS Benson digital processing archivist David Bliss.
The Digitization Process
A team of three historians from Puebla and Cholula will work in Puebla to digitize the collection, creating two digital copies—one to remain in Puebla and the other to be sent to Austin for preservation and online publication. In addition, all of the digitized materials will be extensively described using a metadata template developed by LLILAS Benson and its Puebla partners. The historians involved in the project are experts in sixteenth-through-nineteenth-century Cholula.
Dra. Lidia Gómez García of Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) was instrumental in keeping interest in the project going amid inevitable delays. Together, she and McDonough helped choose the personnel to carry out the important work of digitization and creating of metadata for the collection. LLILAS Benson Director Virginia Garrard relates that the team working with the archives in Puebla feels a deep and personal connection with the material; the fact that they are rescuing their own patrimony from decay is immensely meaningful to them.
Last June 2018, Bliss and LLILAS Benson archivist Dylan Joy conducted a training workshop in Puebla for the digitization team. The team will carry out the project using a DSLR camera and two laptops, as well as the digital photography program Adobe Lightroom. The equipment, purchased by LLILAS Benson with Mellon grant funds, will be donated to the Puebla archive at the conclusion of the project, which is set for early May 2019. Bliss estimates that the project will digitize some 45,000 pages of documents.
The final, digitized documents will be ingested into the Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) platform, allowing researchers to form connections between the Fondo Real de Cholula documents and other collections on the platform.
A Groundbreaking Collaboration
Director Garrard, herself a historian, hails this project for bringing to light lesser-known historical actors. “This collaboration represents the lives and voices of groups traditionally omitted from the historical record,” she said. “The signing event highlighted the power of close and horizontal relationships between our two institutions, so clearly evident in the presentations of the young Mexican technical specialists and students who described for us their work with the documents, both as material artifacts and as historical sources.”
Quoted in Puebla’s El Popular, Héctor Sánchez Sánchez, presiding magistrate of the Tribunal Superior de Justicia, noted Puebla’s pride in the collaboration: the digitization of Fondo Real de Cholula is the first digitization project at an institution in the Mexican justice system. “Even more so for those of us who are part of this institution,” said Sánchez, “[the rescue of] this archive can achieve a change in the way we understand history.”
Nota editorial: Citamos un reportaje del Archivo de Seguridad Nacional (National Security Archive) de George Washington University: “El renombrado Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala (AHPN) se encuentra en crisis después de que su director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, fue despedido de manera súbita, resultado de una serie de acciones orquestradas por el gobierno guatemalteco y una oficina de las Naciones Unidas. Estas mismas acciones dejaron el personal del archivo, más de 50 personas, bajo contrato provisional, y transfirió la responsabilidad por el archivo al Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, quitándola del archivo nacional, donde ha residido desde el 2009.”
Esta situación materializó el 3 de agosto, una semana después de un seminario patrocinado por LLILAS Benson Colecciones y Estudios Latinoamericanos y el Centro Rapoport para los Derechos Humanos y la Justicia, que tuvo lugar en AHPN. Bajo el título “Archivos y derechos humanos: experiencia de colaboración entre el AHPN y la Universidad de Texas,” el seminario ofreció la oportunidad de reflexionar sobre los siete años de colaboración entre la Universidad de Texas y el AHPN.
Dado las novedades inquietantes sobre el AHPN, la Dra. Virginia Garrard, directora de LLILAS Benson, dijo, “LLILAS Benson afirma su compromiso a AHPN y su apoyo por la preservación de esta colección histórica, la cual es fundamental para la búsqueda de la justicia, el rescate de la memoria histórica en Guatemala y al resguardo de la historia nacional guatemalteca desde el siglo XIX.”
El personal de LLILAS Benson Colecciones y Latinoamericanos y el Centro Rapoport para los Derechos Humanos y la Justicia viajó a la Ciudad de Guatemala para participar en un seminario sobre la alianza entre la Universidad de Texas y varias instituciones guatemaltecas que trabajan con archivos.
El evento tuvo como título “Archivos y derechos humanos: experiencia de colaboración entre el AHPN y la Universidad de Texas,” y se realizó el 27 de julio en el Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN), que se ubica en un hospital inacabado en donde, en 2005, se descubrieron más de ochenta millones de archivos pertenecientes a la Policía Nacional, bastantes de ellos encontrados en estado precario. Durante más de diez años, un equipo de archiveros guatemaltecos ha trabajado intensivamente para preservar, organizar y dar acceso a esta colección en riesgo.
Durante el seminario, los participantes reflejaron sobre la alianza de más de siete años entre el AHPN y la Universidad de Texas. Esta alianza ha permitido la fundación de colaboraciones digitales, académicas y pedagógicas, incluyendo la introducción, en 2011, de un acervo digital alojado por el sistema de bibliotecas de la Universidad de Texas.
Los anfitriones del seminario fueron Gustavo Meoño, director del AHPN, y Anna Carla Ericastilla, directora del Archivo General de Centroamérica. Virginia Garrard, la directora de LLILAS Benson; Dan Brinks, el co-director del Centro Rapoport; y Theresa Polk, la directora del programa de materiales digitales de LLILAS Benson; y fueron quienes expusieron sobre la historia de la alianza internacional y su importancia para la recuperación de la memoria histórica y la búsqueda de democracia y justicia transicional en Centroamérica.
Giovanni Batz, Brenda Xum, María Aguilar, and Hannah Alpert-Abrams—todos ex-alumnos y ex-alumnas de LLILAS Benson—hablaron sobre el impacto del archivo tanto en sus carreras como en su entendimiento de la historia de Guatemala. Especialmente conmovedores fueron los comentarios de ex alumnos guatemaltecos de la Universidad de Texas cuya comprensión de su patrimonio cultural fue moldeada por el estudio del AHPN. Como comentó Brenda Xum, “los archivos cuentan una historia humana.”
Dos socias del archivo, Enmy Morán y Tamy Guberek, ofrecieron una visión para el futuro de AHPN, incluyendo nuevas técnicas en la preservación de los archivos y nuevos métodos cuantitativos para descubrir las historias contenidas en ellos.
Alrededor de 75 investigadores, archivistas, estudiantes y miembros de la comunidad asistieron al evento, que fue abierto al público. Estos participantes tuvieron la oportunidad de hacer preguntas. Entre ellas, hubo preguntas sobre los desafíos de la preservación digital, la dificultad de acceder la información archivística y las cuestiones éticas implícitas en publicar información delicada en línea.
Durante una tarde bastante cálida, los participantes comentaron sobre la manera en que la conferencia reanimó su interés en las investigaciones archivísticas y la historia guatemalteca. Al final, una participante se paró de pié para felicitar a las personas miembras del panel durante el evento. “Antes, realmente no conocía este archivo,” dijo. “Tampoco sabía sobre su importancia en la historia de mi país.”
El seminario “Archivos y derechos humanos: experiencia de colaboración entre AHPN y UT Austin” fue patrocinado por el Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN), LLILAS Benson Colecciones y Estudios Latinoamericanos y el Centro Rapoport para los Derechos Humanos y la Justicia.
Hannah Alpert-Abrams, PhD, es becaria posdoctoral CLIR en LLILAS Benson Colecciones y Estudios Latinoamericanos. Traducido del inglés por Hannah Alpert-Abrams y Susanna Sharpe.
Editor’s note: From the National Security Archive at George Washington University: “Guatemala’s renowned Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) is in crisis after its director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, was abruptly removed in one of a series of recent actions orchestrated by the Guatemalan government and a United Nations office. The actions also placed the AHPN’s remaining staff of more than fifty people on temporary contract, and transferred oversight for the repository from the country’s national archives, where it had functioned since 2009, to the Ministry of Culture and Sports.” (See Guatemala Police Archive Under Threat.)
These actions took place on August 3, a week after LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections joined UT’s Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice in Guatemala City to host “Archives and Human Rights: A History of Collaboration between the University of Texas and the Historic Archive of the National Police.” The one-day seminar was an opportunity to reflect on seven years of partnership between the University of Texas and the AHPN, which preserves records documenting over one hundred years of police activity in Guatemala.
Given the recent alarming developments at AHPN, Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at The University of Texas at Austin, stated, “LLILAS Benson affirms its commitment to supporting the preservation of this historic collection, which is so fundamental to the pursuit of justice, the recovery of historical memory in Guatemala, and to the preservation of Guatemala’s national history dating back all the way to the nineteenth century.”
Representatives from LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice visited Guatemala City on July 27 for a seminar on archival partnerships between the University of Texas and Guatemalan institutions.
The event, “Archives and Human Rights: A History of Collaboration between the AHPN and the University of Texas” was held at the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (Guatemala National Police Archive, or AHPN). The AHPN is located in the unfinished hospital building where over 80 million pages of archival materials were found, in various states of preservation, in 2005. For over ten years, Guatemalan archivists have been working to preserve, organize, and provide access to this vulnerable collection.
During the seminar, speakers reflected on the seven-year partnership between the AHPN and the University of Texas, which has featured scholarly, pedagogical, and digital collaborations, including the 2011 launch of the UT-hosted digital portal to the AHPN.
The one-day event was hosted by the director of the AHPN, Gustavo Meoño, and by Anna Carla Ericastilla, the director of the Archivo General de Centroamérica. Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson; Dan Brinks, co-director of the Rapoport Center; and Theresa Polk, director of digital initiatives for LLILAS Benson, spoke about the history of the partnership and its importance for reconstructing historical memory and the pursuit of democracy and transitional justice in Central America.
LLILAS Benson alumni Giovanni Batz, Brenda Xum, María Aguilar, and Hannah Alpert-Abrams discussed the impact of teaching and learning with the archive on their professional careers and their personal understanding of Guatemalan history. Especially moving were personal stories from former UT students whose understanding of their cultural heritage was shaped by studying the AHPN. As Brenda Xum remarked: “los archivos cuentan una historia humana” (“the archives tell a human story”).
Longtime AHPN affiliates Enmy Morán and Tamy Guberek offered visions of the future of research with the AHPN, including new approaches to archival practice and new quantitative methods for uncovering archival histories.
About seventy-five scholars, archivists, students, and community members attended the conference, which was open to the public. Among the topics addressed in audience questions were the challenges of digital preservation, the difficulties of accessing archival information, and the ethics of publishing sensitive information online.
Throughout the very warm afternoon, participants commented on the ways that the conference had reinvigorated their interest in archival research and Guatemalan history. At the end of the day, one audience member stood to congratulate the panelists on a successful event. “Before this event I didn’t really know about this archive,” she said, “and I didn’t know about its importance to my country’s history.”
The seminar “Archivos y derechos humanos: experiencia de colaboración entre AHPN y UT Austin” was co-sponsored by Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN), LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, and the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice.
Hannah Alpert-Abrams, PhD, is the CLIR postdoctoral fellow in data curation at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections.
Alicia Niwagaba, graduate research assistant at the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), was awarded the Graduate Student Excellence Award by the Texas Digital Library (TDL). She accepted the award during the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries on May 17. Niwagaba is a recent graduate of the Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) program at the UT School of Information.
During her time at AILLA, Niwagaba has worked on developing an open educational curriculum designed to teach language documentation researchers how to organize and arrange their materials and metadata to facilitate their ingestion into a digital language archive like AILLA. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant BCS-1653380, Transforming Access and Archiving for Endangered Language Data through Exploratory Methodologies of Curation.
Niwagaba is a key member of the project team, which additionally consists of AILLA manager Susan Kung and AILLA language curator J. Ryan Sullivant. “Niwagaba contributes valuable insight gained from her training in libraries and digital archives to improve the quality of the curriculum content and to incorporate literature and viewpoints that would not have been considered otherwise,” says Kung. The curriculum she is helping to develop will be taught as a weeklong course at the Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang) at the University of Florida, June 18-22, 2018. Thereafter, the curriculum will be available as an open-access educational resource on AILLA’s website.
During her time at AILLA, Niwagaba developed a series of educational video tutorials about language archiving. These are designed to supplement the written curriculum or to stand alone as individual, shareable resources. Some of these engaging videos have already been widely shared throughout the language documentation community. This includes two that are available on YouTube: Language Metadata in AILLA and Filenaming.
AILLA manager Kung is grateful for Niwagaba’s contribution to the archive’s work, calling her “a critical member of AILLA’s curriculum development team.” Kung adds that Niwagaba “brings unique insight and perspective to the work that AILLA does. In fact, her efforts on this project have improved the level and convenience of service that AILLA is able to provide to our important stakeholders, the language documenters who entrust their precious, irreplaceable language materials to this repository. We are delighted that Alicia Niwagaba has won this award.”
LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections is pleased to announce that Jennifer Isasi, PhD, will join the staff as CLIR Fellow for Data Curation in Latin American and Latina/o Studies. Isasi will work with Digital Scholarship Coordinator Albert A. Palacios to contribute to “collections as data” efforts, educational resources, and digital scholarship initiatives at LLILAS Benson. She will hold her position from July 29 through June 2020.
In her role as CLIR fellow, Isasi will have the opportunity to alter the way in which students, researchers, and affiliated communities access and engage with the digitized historical record.
According to CLIR (the Council on Library and Information Resources) the CLIR postdoctoral position “offers recent PhD graduates the chance to develop research tools, resources, and services while exploring new career opportunities. . . . Fellows work on projects that forge and strengthen connections among library collections, educational technologies, and current research.”
In addition to her work with Palacios, Isasi will work closely with the current CLIR fellow Hannah Alpert-Abrams as well as University of Texas Libraries academic engagement staff and LLILAS affiliated faculty to develop curated data sets, curricula, and workshops centered on digital assets and tools, and open-access resources that support scholarly and public engagement with digital materials.
Isasi will also work closely with the post-custodial archival team and partners in the United States and Latin America to inform the development of forthcoming digital collections and facilitate their use in digital research and pedagogy. As such, she will have the opportunity to alter the way in which students, researchers, and affiliated communities access and engage with the digitized historical record.
Jennifer Isasi holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies with a specialization in Digital Humanities from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her dissertation, “Data Mining Possibilities for the Analysis of the Literary Character in the Spanish Novel: The Case of Galdós and the ‘Episodios nacionales’” (written in Spanish) establishes a computational reading methodology to extract, analyze, and visualize literary character-systems or social networks, noting how they reflect novel genres and degrees of historicity that replicate close readings of the novels. Currently, she is a lecturer of Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where she teaches Spanish, Commercial Spanish, and Foundations of Literacy.
The Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) has received a pilot grant from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This grant will improve access to some of the archive’s thousands of audio recordings in indigenous languages by supporting pilot efforts to crowdsource the creation of digital texts for manuscript transcriptions and translations that accompany recordings already in AILLA’s collections. Specifically, the grant will support the transcription of materials in the Mixtec languages of Mexico that are included in the MesoAmerican Languages Collection of Kathryn Josserand. These materials include a very broad survey of the grammar and vocabulary of the Mixtec languages spoken in over 100 towns and villages of southern Mexico.
Digital transcriptions will improve users’ access to these materials and will also facilitate their reuse for humanistic and especially linguistic research studying the dialectology of the Mixtec languages, which, decades after these materials were collected, is still not completely understood. They will also contribute to research on the prehistory of the Mixtec-speaking people, who today number almost a half-million in Mexico. One component of the project will be the development of educational modules that will use the transcription task to teach lessons on linguistic transcription, language description, and historical linguistics. This pilot project will also allow AILLA to develop transcription workflows that can be applied to other significant collections of handwritten documents in the archive’s collections.
Pilot project will improve access to a collection of Mixtec audio recordings.
The project’s principal investigator is Professor Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. The project manager is Ryan Sullivant, AILLA language data curator.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.
For more information on the AILLA transcription project, contact Ryan Sullivant.
With the generous support of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Center for European Studies I was recently able to travel to Frankfurt and Prague to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair and purchase books for the UT Libraries’ collections. In addition to meeting with vendors and participating in the international community of librarians, booksellers, and publishers at the book fair, I collected materials that continued to grow the UT Libraries’ collection of European zines and artists’ books.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest book fair, and has been held for more than 500 years. The fair consistently has over 7,000 publishers represented, and attracts visitors from all over the world. Each year a country is chosen as the fair’s guest of honor; this year’s guest was France. As such, there was a particularly strong focus on French culture, writers, and publishers, with the aim of highlighting and promoting France’s literary culture to the world.
The book fair offered many opportunities to learn about and participate in the international library and publishing communities. I was able to participate in meet-ups of other librarians, visit with vendors, and view lectures on new technologies on the vanguard of the library and publishing worlds. In addition to attending the book fair itself, I was able to participate in the New Directions for Libraries, Scholars, and Partnerships Symposium organized by the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), in part due to a competitive stipend I received from the funds of the Collaborative Initiative for French Language Collections (CIFNAL) and the German-North American Resources Partnership (GNARP). The symposium was held at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, or German National Library, also in Frankfurt.
The symposium further allowed me to meet with and forge relationships with an international community of librarians, scholars, and publishers. Presenters at the symposium included librarians and researchers from Harvard, the Newberry Library, various German universities, and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, as well as representatives from prominent European publishers. As the European Studies Librarian in PCL, being able to hear presentations from such a broad swath of perspectives was very informative and relevant to my subject areas, and I look forward to continuing to foster a sense of community and collaboration with these colleagues.
In Prague, I visited bookstores and acquired materials with the aim of improving our collection of European artists’ books and zines. The materials I bought will be made available in the Fine Arts Library special collections, and complement similar materials I acquired in Russia while on an acquisitions trip last year. Many of these books are unique to UT Austin’s holdings, meaning they are not available in any other academic libraries.
This trip allowed me the opportunity to represent UT Austin internationally to a diverse group of colleagues and industries, and I’m grateful that I was able to serve in such a capacity. I look forward to continuing to build both our distinctive holdings and our relationships with colleagues in the library and publishing worlds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An ambitious fall semester project in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies provided the opportunity for cross-campus collaborations that brought together the Harry Ransom Center and the Benson Latin American Collection.
The Department of American Studies Ph.D. candidate Amanda Gray’s course “Latina/o Representation in Media and Popular Culture” took students out of the classroom and into special collections to get a hands-on feel for archival research. The course took advantage of the “Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945 exhibition” at the Ransom Center in late September before returning there on October 5th for an instructional session working with collection materials led by Andi Gustavson, Head of Instructional Services. Gustavson’s selected materials featured photographs of Mexican migrant workers from the 1960s, an anthology of early Mexican American literature, and items from the papers of acclaimed Dominican American author Julia Alvarez. However, it was Ernest Lehman’s collection on the film West Side Story that caught the eye of many students who were interested in how Puerto Ricans are represented, especially when many non-Puerto Rican actors played their roles, often in brown face.
On October 10th, the class came to the Benson for another show and tell wherein I focused on archival materials relating to Latina reproductive health, the 1968-1972 Economy Furniture Company strike here in Austin, and the establishment of what has come to be known as the National Chicana Conference. Between the two archival visits, students saw a wide array of Latino representation, whether self-representation or dominant cultural representation, from the 1950s to the present day.
Under the guidance of Latin American Studies Digital Scholarship Coordinator Albert A. Palacios, the students incorporated the show and tell materials, along with their own research, into group digital projects using storytelling tools like StoryMapsJS and TimelineJS. The projects touched on a variety of issues, including class, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and other subjectivities. Scholarly Communications Librarian Colleen Lyon chipped in with a copyright crash course that taught students the best practices for posting academic findings online.
The students showcased their digital projects at one of the PCL Learning Labs on December 15th to the delight of an audience that consisted of UTL and HRC staff as well as faculty from the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. As for the students, they exclaimed how much they preferred working with these tools in a group setting as opposed to writing a traditional final paper. To that end, Professor Gray’s innovative pedagogical approach represents the possibility for integrating the library into courses going forward and in the process, strengthening relationships across campus.
If you would like to view the final projects, click here.