The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a Documenting Endangered Languages Preservation Grant of $227,365 to Patience Epps and Susan Smythe Kung of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) for support of their upcoming project entitled “Archiving Significant Collections of Endangered Languages: Two Multilingual Regions of Northwestern South America.”
The AILLA grant is one among 199 grants, totaling $18.6 million, announced by the NEH on April 9, 2018.
This is a three-year project that will gather together, curate, and digitize a set of eight significant collections of South American indigenous languages, the results of decades of research by senior scholars. The collections will be archived at AILLA, a digital repository dedicated to the long-term preservation of multimedia in indigenous languages. These materials constitute an important resource for further linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnomusicological research, and are of high value to community members and scholars. They include six legacy collections from the Upper Rio Negro region of the northwest Amazon (Brazil and Colombia), and two collections focused on Ecuadorian Kichwa, most notably the Cañar variety.
All of the languages concerned are endangered or vulnerable to varying degrees, and the collections are heavily focused on threatened forms of discourse, such as ritual speech and song. Of the Upper Rio Negro set, the collections of Elsa Gomez-Imbert, Stephen Hugh-Jones, and Arthur P. Sorensen, Jr., include the East Tukanoan languages Bará, Barasana, Eduria, Karapana, Tatuyo, Makuna, and Tukano. The collections of Howard Reid and Renato Athias are focused on Hup, while Reid’s collection also contains a few materials from two languages of the wider region, Nukak and Hotï (yua, isolate). Robin Wright’s collection involves Baniwa. Of the Ecuadorian Kichwa set, Judy Blankenship’s and Allison Adrian’s collections are both focused on Cañar Highland Kichwa, while Adrian’s also includes some material from Loja Highland Kichwa (qvj, Quechua).
The two regions targeted by these collections are highly significant for our understanding of language contact and diversity in indigenous South America. The multilingual Upper Rio Negro region, famous for the linguistic exogamy practiced by some of its peoples, has much to tell us about language contact and maintenance, while Ecuadorian Kichwa varieties can shed light on the dynamics of pre-Colombian language shift. These collections will be made accessible in AILLA in standard formats, and will provide a foundation for further study of these fascinating regions and multilingual dynamics.
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.
“Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard; to act according to our thought is troublesome. Every beginning is cheerful: the threshold is the place of expectation.”
from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by J.W. von Goethe, 1795-96
Goethe’s sentiment borrowed from Hippocrates and distilled in his novel of personal discovery as a charge to the protagonist Wilhelm Meister could equally represent a characterization of the experience of visiting a library — equal parts joy and labor, with the promise of new knowledge as a provocation to learn.
It’s also appropriate, then, that the passage comes from the first ever volume borrowed from a library at The University of Texas at Austin, which occurred just over 134 years ago on March 7, 1884 — a small act of history committed by a person who created a notable history of his own.
John H. Cobb was a member of the inaugural class at this university back in 1883, when the Forty Acres was composed of the original Main Building in its Victorian Gothic splendor and more open land than is imaginable by a modern-day visitor to campus. He studied law, but even beyond the serendipity of being the first library borrower, seems to have had some predisposition toward pioneering. Cobb used his legal training to help draft the constitution for the Ex-Students’ Association, placing him as one of the co-founders to the Texas Exes.
Much like Goethe’s Meister, Cobb wasn’t content, either, to remain comfortably in the confines of his home state of Texas after earning his degree. He traveled to the relative wilds of what was then the District of Alaska in 1897 and by 1899 he had formed a law partnership with John F. Malony in Juneau.
He was active in the formative political and governmental structures in the fledgling District, and when the region was reorganized and renamed the Territory of Alaska in 1912, Cobb was appointed the first Territorial Counsel by the Governor John Franklin Alexander Strong in 1913. He served in that role until 1915 when the 2nd Alaska Territorial Legislature created the Office of the Attorney General, and a successor was appointed.
Cobb argued and won one of his most high-profile cases, Tuppela v. Chichagoff Mining Co., before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1920, reversing a fraudulent land grab by the mining company and returning several valuable gold mines to private citizen and rightful owner John Tuppela.
Shortly after settlement of the suit, Cobb and his family resettled in Santa Barbara, California, where he died on December 23, 1925.
The details of that tome first borrowed by Cobb is in question, though it could be a volume flagged as “missing” in 2013 and now superseded by a digital version in the Libraries’ catalog. The title’s long history on the Forty Acres, however — both in the hands of the first borrower, and with subsequent generations of Longhorns — attests to the idea that the Libraries, too, play an integral part in the belief that “What starts here changes the world.”
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.
The recent succession of weather events provided a rather inauspicious beginning to the new semester, though the main campus and our local branches have been spared all but an abundance of rain. Our family and friends along the coast, however, weren’t so lucky.
For those who attempt to recall the list of branch locations overseen by the UT Libraries, it’s not uncommon to overlook the one library that doesn’t reside in Austin, but rather on a usually pastoral stretch of sand a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. The Marine Science Library serves the faculty and researchers at UT’s Marine Science Institute (MSI) in Port Aransas, which is just across the bay from Rockport, Texas — a city that was the focal point for much of the news coverage surrounding the arrival of Hurricane Harvey on Friday, August 25. Port Aransas actually took a direct hit from Harvey and suffered catastrophic damage, which was also visited upon the MSI, including the building where the library is located.
As a matter of course, the Libraries have a Collections Emergency Team composed of relevant administrators, dedicated facility staffers and outstanding preservation experts, who jump to action in the event of a threat to the resources or infrastructure of the libraries. With any storm of Harvey’s magnitude and destructive impact, staff are paying close attention and preparing for potential issues, but in the case of this hurricane and the position of its landfall, most proactive considerations gave way to planning how to react to whatever damage would inevitably be wrought upon the library and its collections.
Immediately in the wake of the storm, the island and the surrounding areas lost power and, subsequently, most communications were sporadic at best. It wasn’t until Sunday that the Libraries became aware of the extent of damage to MSI, but without specific information about the library, so staff began to prepare for the worst possibilities. Liz DeHart, the Libraries’ liaison at MSL, was contending with the personal effects of Harvey and unable to get to the library, and administrators at MSL were prioritizing assessment of the impact on research assets and infrastructure at the campus, which had suffered severe damage. Representatives from the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) in Austin became the conduits for information about the situation on the ground, and eventually an initial assessment was returned suggesting that the damage to the library was hopeful, with wet floors, but dry books — almost miraculous, since the same building that contained the library had extensive roof damage, flooding and blown out windows. But there was also no air conditioning or power, and as one might imagine, paper doesn’t fare well to exposure to the balmy coastal climate of late summer. As much as the team wanted to rush to the coast on a rescue mission, widespread destruction, impassable roads and a moratorium on travel to the island by non-residents made that seem like an impossibility.
By Wednesday, August 30 — the first full day of the fall semester — staff had worked with CNS to obtain permission for a response team to travel to Port Aransas to assess damage and hopefully, recover the most valuable of the close to $9,000,000 worth of collections, but there was a caveat: they had one day to do it.
A team of Geoff Bahre (Manager), Matt McGuire and Bill Gannon from the Facilities & AV unit along with Joey Marez, a library specialist from the Preservation department, immediately began preparations for all contingencies that could be imagined on a first trip into a storm disaster zone: food, water, tools and equipment, supplies for any mechanical trouble. And gas.
The window was tight, so the team left Austin at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, September 1, agreeing to make sure they refilled fuel on the south side of San Antonio, but discovered that the rush on gas stations had already drained supplies when they stopped to refuel. A fortunate encounter with a kind soul at a local pancake house directed the team to a station with adequate fuel supplies, and the team continued its journey to the coast.
Because the ferry wasn’t yet operational, the team had to travel through Corpus Christi and up the length of Mustang Island to reach Port Aransas in the mid-morning hours of Friday.
Upon arrival, an initial assessment verified earlier information about the state of the library — some wet flooring, but the books were dry, and no apparent mold — and even some welcome evidence that local administrators at MSI had taken measures to mitigate environmental threats with the arrival of fans and dehumidifiers that were powered by portable generators.
The environment in the library, nonetheless, wasn’t at an optimum stability, so the team began to identify items that they would return to Austin for temporary safekeeping and care. Thanks to earlier efforts to identify salvage priorities, the team was charged with bringing back 900 special collection items, and due to conservative estimation, were able to also rescue additional theses, dissertations and maps.
By 8 p.m. that evening, the team had returned to Austin with the most valuable resources from the MSL in tow. The following week, MSL staffer Marg Larsen relocated to Austin temporarily due to the storm, and so was available to process and assist in storing the rescued materials in the Collections Deposit Library at UT to await their inevitable return to their home in Port Aransas.
There are currently no firm timelines for recovery and reopening of the Institute or the Library, but as with a Gulf hurricane or other natural and unnatural disasters, we’ll be prepared when the time comes.
It’s easy to imagine that a library is a simple machine where books fall onto a shelf and then into hands before returning to the shelf again, uncomplicated by the affairs and events beyond its doors and walls. But out of sight and mind, there are an army of loyal people working to build, protect, rescue and share our body of collective knowledge, both in the face of an average day or during extraordinary times.
Jessica Trelogan was brought in last year to fill the new position of Data Management Coordinator in order to build, maintain and enhance the data services deployed by the Libraries.
This February will be the one-year mark for me here at UTL. I can’t believe how quickly the time has flown! Looking back, though, I can see why: our Research Data Services unit has been busy. We’ve accomplished a lot in a year, including a website overhaul, a GIS pilot, a move to a new department, and a bunch of workshops and consultations.
Perhaps most exciting of all is the launch of the Texas Data Repository (TDR), which we are shouting loudly about this month. This long-anticipated new service has been the result of a huge amount of effort by our friends at Texas Digital Libraries (TDL), who have been working toward it since Fall of 2013. After initially identifying a need for a repository service to handle small to medium-sized research data, they settled on the open-source Dataverse platform, developed and used by Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and they decided to roll it out as a consortial service for TDL members. The Dataverse Implementation Working Group (DIWG) were hard at it for over a year, piloting, testing, assessing, and, at last, launching the service this month.
I am especially excited to be managing our local instance of it here at the Libraries. Thanks to the highly flexible Dataverse platform, each local institution that takes advantage of the service gets to decide how much control to give users. We’ve decided to give our users full control, meaning anyone from the UT-Austin community can log in with an EID, deposit data, and decide how much, with whom, and when to share it. I have high hopes that this new service, which complements our publication repository, Texas ScholarWorks, will help our research community comply with funder mandates for data sharing and archiving, get credit by facilitating reliable data citation, and promote open and reproducible research.
I look forward to getting the word out this spring about the Texas Data Repository, along with all our other research data-related services. One way we plan to do so is through a workshop series we’re launching called Data and Donuts. You’ll find us talking about research data every Friday this semester at 3pm at the Libraries (mostly at PCL). Oh yeah, plus there will be donuts!
Choreographer, dancer, artist and teacher Yacov Sharir recently donated his archive to the Fine Arts Library. Sharir moved to Austin in 1978 where he founded the American Deaf Dance Company and was hired on as faculty at UT shortly thereafter. He developed a dance program that has become a model for universities across the country, founding the university’s professional company-in-residence, the Sharir Dance Company, in 1982, which became Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks (SBDW) in 1998.
The lengthy project of processing the collection of materials from Sharir’s professional career required the persistence of graduate researcher Katie Van Winkle, an advanced degree candidate in the College of Fine Arts.
Van Winkle took time to answer some questions about the project and her impressions of the experience.
Tex Libris: How did you get involved in processing the Sharir archive?
Katie Van Winkle: I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Performance as Public Practice (PPP), a program in the Department of Theatre & Dance. When I began my studies in the fall 2013, a fellow PPP student named Cassidy Browning was working with Dr. Sharir as a research assistant. Cassidy moved on to dissertation work, and recommended me as a replacement, just as Beth Kerr (Theatre & Dance Librarian in the Fine Arts Library) and Dr. Sharir established the archive project.
I have found always physical and digital archives invaluable in my work both as a scholar and as an artist–but I have almost zero training in archival work. At UT, I participated in a one-day workshop with the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP), and a theory-based course on “Archive and Ephemera.” Instead, I have some experience in inventing and implementing technological solutions for arts management: for example, as a Dramaturgy Fellow at Center Stage in Baltimore I developed an early prototype of the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange (http://nnpn.org/programs/new-play-exchange) through a Dramaturgy-Driven Grant from the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.
What did the process consist of? What was the scope, and how much in terms of materials and types of materials were there?
KVW:The Sharir/Sharir+Bustamante Dance Collection is a gift archive from Dr. Sharir to UT’s Fine Arts Library. It consists of video documentation of many hundreds of dances between 1977 and 2015, as well as paper documentation (programs, photographs, press clippings, etc.) of the work of the American Deaf Dance Company, the Sharir Dance Company, and Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks. A large selection of this archive has been digitized by Anna Lamphear and Katie Thornton and other staff members of UT Libraries’ Preservation and Digitization Services. The digitized collection is hosted on Texas ScholarWorks.
This symposium celebrates the public launch of the first phase of the digitization process: the videos! The paper archive will be digitized in 2017 as phase two of the project.
Dr. Sharir’s office contained 671 individual video objects. Since the earliest was dated 1977, and the latest 2015, these objects embody four decades of video technology: U-matic (3/4″), VHS, Hi8, Betacam, Digital Video Cassette and Mini DV, DVD, and born-digital files stored only on hard drives: .mov and .mp4.
Some of these 671 objects were labeled with titles and dates and choreographers and other pertinent information; some were not labeled at all. Some of the objects documented multiple dances, some from multiple events with multiple choreographers or dance companies participating; others documented a single dance.
The major challenge we faced was how to balance efficiency and depth of coverage. We wanted to ensure that the digital collection represented as many unique dance works as possible, without wasting time digitizing duplicate tapes, but the inconsistency of visible information made this difficult. Also challenging: there was no way to tell if the physical object had degraded beyond use without playing/digitizing it at the PCL.
Here’s the sequence of my work:
In the fall of 2013, I created an inventory of most of the video items (we discovered more later on). I ordered the items chronologically (as far as possible), gave each a unique number (0001-0671), and made a spreadsheet detailing all “metadata” available at that point. Depending on the item, this could include: unique number, date, item format and brand, event title, individual dance titles, event type (rehearsal or performance), run time, dance companies, choreographers, venues and sites, videographers and their notes, performers, designers, musicians, composers, other collaborators, and notes.
Sharir and I then began selecting “batches” of video items to send to the PCL, 20 at a time. We prioritized based on questions like “how old is this tape?” (older objects got priority); “how significant is this event/dance?” (Dr. Sharir, of course, was the expert of this); and “have we digitized any version of this event/dance before?” (new/unique pieces got priority).
In January 2014, I delivered the first batch of 20 tapes to Anna and Katie in the PCL, where they worked their magic using lots of devices that I do not recognize or understand! I continued to deliver and pick up batches of tapes through the summer of 2016.
Anna and Katie digitized 398 video objects between January 2014 and September 2016. WOW.
After they uploaded each batch to the libraries server as .mp4 files, Dr. Sharir and I watched each digitized video. While he watched the dances closely, reminiscing about his fellow artists and considering the quality of the videography and lighting, I filled in the blanks of my spreadsheet, based sometimes on in-video credits and sometimes on Dr. Sharir’s recollections.
Once he watched the video through, Dr. Sharir decided whether or not to accession it into the digital collection. He based this decision on the significance of the dances represented, the quality of the video (for instance, some videos lacked audio, and some had degraded over time), and whether we had coverage of the event in the collection already. We generally chose to accession subsequent nights of the same dance program, a collection-level acknowledgement that live performance changes in every reiteration.
About halfway through the watching process, Dr. Sharir’s co-artistic director José Luis Bustamante delivered three crates filled with beautifully organized files of programs, press clippings, and season announcements. I am so grateful for this gift! Matched with Dr. Sharir’s files, it has allowed me to create a four-decade production history, and provide extensive credits and notes for almost every item in the digital collection.
Once an item is chosen for the digital collection, I upload its .mp4 file to TexasScholarWorks, and add in all its metadata. On TexasScholarWorks, UT folk and the general public alike can search and browse the collection, view streaming video, and download the videos to their own drives. Each video is protected by a Creative Commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States).
I take the digitized tapes to Beth Kerr at FAL, and she adds them to the physical Sharir collection located in off-site storage. This physical collection contains all digitized video objects, whether accessioned or not into the digital collection. It also contains all the video objects we decided not to digitize (usually because they were clearly duplicates of something we already had accepted).
You worked closely with Dr. Sharir on this project; did he provide any impressions about the digitization/digital preservation of his work?
KVW: I don’t want to speak for Yacov, but I know he is tremendously grateful for the opportunity to share his work with the global public and with future generations. (He is also grateful to regain all that shelf space in his office!)
He has found great joy in “re-view”ing his choreography and dancing over the decades, and in responding again to the work of the many extraordinary artists he worked with and presented/produced here in Austin and elsewhere.
He shared many jokes and memories with me. Certainly the most poignant and somber touched on the lives of his artist colleagues who had died between the filming of the dance in the 1980s or 1990s, and the day we watched it again in 2015 or 2016. The Sharir Dance Company, like so many arts organizations, lost beloved members to the AIDS epidemic. We felt sometimes that we were watching ghosts dance.
How long did the project take?
KVW: 3 years and 2 months since I began my work as (part-time) archivist. (But the project isn’t done yet—we have phase 2 still to complete). Add in more time before that (I don’t know how much) for Beth and Yacov’s work getting the project up and running and funded.
Did you discover anything in the process that was either unexpected (either in the materials or cataloging), and can you reflect on the accomplishment and its value to the broader world?
KVW: My favorite moment in the inventory process was discovering a VHS tape with no labels except two sticky notes reading: “This is the one you’ve been waiting for. UNCUT UNRULY UNHOLY.”
Having never participated in a archival process of this scope, I had no idea just how much time this work takes. It’s a major undertaking.
Yacov is a treasure: of the dance world, of Austin and the UT faculty, of the Department of Theatre & Dance. His career has been hugely significant and influential, from his pioneering, inclusive work with Deaf and hearing dancers; to his artistic and production collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Deborah Hay, David Dorfman, Doug Varone, Margaret Jenkins, Tina Marsh, Allison Orr…the list goes on.
Documenting and preserving dance has always been difficult. Yacov’s work is perhaps particularly suited to a digital life because he was a pioneer of the integration of digital media and live performance, beginning in the early 1990s and continuing in his collaborations with dancers, musicians, computer programmers, and biomedical and wearable-tech engineers today. (Check out [3D Embodied] and AdMortuos for the most recent examples in the collection):
It has been a privilege—and a real pleasure—to help make this important piece of dance history available to the public. I grew up and discovered theatre and dance here in Austin, and I’m proud to contribute to the preservation of the city’s cultural history.
Most recently, though, staff from LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the Libraries have been building upon a project — initially funded from a 2014 Mellon grant award — that takes a more comprehensive approach to preserving the culture and history of Latin America.
The Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) repository, currently represents the collaborative efforts of LLILAS Benson with three Central American organizations on four distinctive projects:
Theresa Polk, post-custodial archivist at the Benson and one of the project’s leads, is gratified by the success of the project, and looks forward to its future potential.
“It was tremendously exciting to see how the metadata facilitated these disparate collections talking to one another and to other Benson digital collections,” says Polk. “As the site continues to evolve, new collections are added, and researchers begin to actively engage it, we hope it will facilitate new insights into human rights scholarship in the region.”
While we’re apt to sound out the world-class general and distinctive materials maintained by the Libraries, these resources are just a single galaxy in a greater universe of extraordinary collections across UT campus.
In the first of its kind accounting, the University of Texas Press has just released a massive assemblage of the rare, unique and exceptional collections that reside on the Forty Acres in the form of The Collections, a necessarily significant tome documenting the various holdings — recognizable and not so — from around UT.
Represented in the book are Libraries mainstays such as the Benson Latin American Collection, the Alexander Architectural Archive, the PCL and Walter Geological Map Collections and the Historical Music Recordings Collection, as well as highlights from discrete collections across the branches.
The book features hundreds of items from more than 80 collections campus-wide, covering a range of subject areas: archaeology, ethnography, fine and performing arts, rare books and manuscripts, decorative arts, photography, film, music, popular and material culture, regional and political history, natural history, science and technology.
Edited by Andrée Bober with the support of more than 350 staff from across the university, The Collections features a foreword by UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves and a historical introduction by Lewis Gould, professor emeritus of American history, whose essay traces the formation of the collections and acknowledges many people whose visions are manifest in these material resources.
There’s no doubt that the embrace of digitization by museums and libraries has significant benefit for the devotees of art history. The preservation of the cultural record from the degrading effects of time is the most utilitarian benefit of the practice, but archival digitization also allows for non-linear consideration of creative works in its ability to allow art to be partnered with other data, information, critical context, etc. Digitization is, though, limited by the sheer volume of historical works that exist and by that which continues to be created. Sometimes, the only sure way for art to be preserved digitally, is for a specific need to arise.
Such is the case with the work of Sandow Birk, a visual artist in southern California, whose art contemplates modern American society with a nod to past masters.
Earlier this year, UT College of Fine Arts Ph.D. candidate Rose G. Salseda began research for her dissertation by interviewing several artists who created artworks in response to five days of civil unrest caused by a jury’s acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers who had been charged with the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black motorist.
“These riots were the first in history to be heavily documented through live news coverage, film, video, and photographs,” says Salseda. “Yet, past scholarship has failed to recognize the potential encompassed within art to speak to the history of the riots.”
“My dissertation seeks to unearth a missing visual narrative. Moreover, it reveals the capacity of art to unhinge and complicate polarizing histories of the 1992 LA Riots.”
Along with Birk, Salseda had interviewed sculptor Seth Kaufman and graffiti artist Man One, only to discover that virtually none of the artists’ work from the 1980s-90s had been digitally preserved.
“It really alarmed me,” says Salseda, “because, since most of these artworks were in private collections or in unprotected public spaces, no one would have the opportunity to see them again.”
In working with the Birk, Kaufman and Man One, Salseda was able to gain access to slides, photos and ephemera directly from the artists themselves.
“Birk was the first of the three artists that I met. He shared slides of his work with me and I was surprised that only a few had ever been digitized,” recalls Salseda. “I knew that if the documentation of the work was not updated, it may continue to be overlooked by scholars, teachers, and others.”
Salseda remembered from previous work with staff at the Visual Resources Collection (VRC) at UT that a library might be able to help her capture the imagery, thus ensuring that it would be preserved for both her use, as well as the use of future researchers. But she needed to find someone close by in Southern California that would be willing and able to assist.
“I contacted the head art librarian at Cal State Long Beach — the university closest to Birk’s studio. She then directed me to Jeffrey Ryan, the CSULB Visual Resource Center staff,” recounts Salseda. “I spoke with Ryan and he volunteered to digitize Birk’s images, as well as that of other artists whose work has not been digitized. Thus far, he has digitized several hundred slides for me and the artists I work with — all of which are now available to CSULB students, faculty and staff.”
Salseda then followed up with Sydney Kilgore, media coordinator for the UT’s VRC — an actively growing collection of some 80,000 digital images of art and architecture located at the university’s Fine Arts Library — to see if it would be possible to ingest a selection of Birk’s work into the university’s digital media repository, the DASE (Digital Archive SErvices) Collection, for the benefit of students, faculty and researchers at UT.
“When Ms. Salseda approached us with the Birk project we knew it would be another win/win situation,” says Kilgore. “In this case, the VRC additions resulted with Rose Salseda wanting to share her research, and artist Sandow Birk being willing to personally choose and share 30 images of his art which he felt were representative of his career.”
Salseda is currently working with Kaufman and Man One to secure digital images of their work for inclusion in the VRC, as well, which are expected to arrive next year.
She believes that there is a larger history to be told by the art that was created in the wake of the unrest, but because of a lack of documentation, the story of the period has an incomplete context.
“Due to the numerous artworks the riots inspired and the surprisingly scant scholarly and curatorial consideration of this work, I am positive there are many more artworks out there that have not been properly digitized and archived,” Salseda says. “In general, the lack of art history on the riots and the unbalanced focus on a small pool of artists means that other artist contributions to this important episode in LA and US history are forgotten or go untold.”
It’s this personal, practical experience that Salseda had in the process of her own research that prompted some realizations about the temporality of art and the necessity of digital preservation.
“I have come to realize even more the importance of digitizing images. These images are essential when original artworks are lost, reside in private collections, and/or are irregularly exhibited,” she says.
“It is also important for artists to update the format of their image archives to ensure that future generations have the potential to access images of their art when viewing equipment for older formats become scarce or defunct,” says Salseda. “However, taking on such tasks are out-of-reach for many artists: the equipment is expensive, as is hiring private companies to do such work, and it can take an extraordinary amount of time if one does not have the proper equipment or assistance.”
“Resources like UT’s VRC and CSULB’s Visual Resource Center are invaluable. From personal inquiries to professional ones, like documenting my exhibitions or archiving images related to my dissertation, I knew I could rely on these resources. I hope more students and faculty realize the important indispensable services they offer.”
An exhibition featuring Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an” is currently on view at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Sydney Kilgore, Rose Salseda and Thao Votang contributed to this article.
Though the Learning Commons is starting to take shape and less imagination is required to envisage the finished space, it is still a construction area, and not the spanking future version of itself quite yet.
Stephen Littrell is Head of Access Services for the Libraries, and an avid fan of the Hipstamatic digital photo app, which allows users to customize mobile-native photography using a variety of lens, film and flash filtering options, creating images with a nostalgic feel. Littrell recently used his digital photography skills to coax some subtle beauty from the otherwise drab, dusty and cluttered space that will soon be the new Learning Commons.
“When the Learning Commons opens in August it will be a lovely and vibrant space,” say Littrell. “But before the space opens to the public, there’s an opportunity to capture some of the construction process in a way that’s less documentarian and more playful…maybe even a little artistic.”
Littrell has posted his work on Instagram, and uploaded selections to Hipstography, a site that features galleries of work by Hipstamatic users.