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.
The project “The Death of Ivan Ilich”: An Electronic Study Edition of the Russian Text, based at the University of Minnesota Libraries, is an openly published resource highlighting how digital media can supplement and enhance the close reading of literature. The project contains the text of Lev Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilich in multiple formats, including the original Russian with an English translation side-by-side, versions with hyperlinked explanatory and interpretive annotations, contextual introductory remarks by the project’s author, and an extensive bibliography. This is an important resource for any serious study of Tolstoy’s work, and it being made available in an open and remixable format is a boon for students and instructors alike.
Tolstoy’s novella is a seminal work of world literature, and is studied broadly both in translation and the original Russian. Useful as a tool for students both of the Russian language and of Russian literature, this bilingual edition bridges the gap between language pedagogy and general literary study. The original Russian text–published in 1886–is in the public domain, as is the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. The introduction, annotations and selected bibliography by Gary R. Jahn, Professor of Russian Language and Literature at the University of Minnesota, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. This license allows users to share and adapt the text–that is, “copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format” and “remix, transform, and build upon the material” as long as the license terms are followed.
The main interface for the project was built in Pressbooks, a platform that allows users to create and share openly published digital editions of books that can also be downloaded as PDFs. The edition includes its own identifying ISBN, allowing for easy citation, and is highly interactive. For example, the glossed version of the text, includes linked annotations that can be clicked on to read as you go through the text. Some of these annotations also include images illustrating elements of the text that may be opaque to contemporary readers; one, for example, includes an image of a funeral announcement from 19th-century Russia. These very helpful annotations can be viewed in both the English and the Russian versions of the text.
This edition is an important contribution both to open scholarship and the study of Russian literature. Allowing students and researchers to easily compare and contrast the original Russian with the translation in an accessible digital format is very helpful, as are the many explanatory notes and annotations included in the project. Furthermore, the bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources in multiple categories allows both the casual reader and the more dedicated student or scholar to explore further. In short, this online edition is a valuable example of the extensive and interoperatible possibilities of digital scholarship and open publishing.
For more information, please consult the UTL resources below:
Every year the United States honors women and men who have served the U.S. armed forces during war and peacetime on the anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11. Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day celebrated and honored the soldiers that lost their lives in World War I. In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, the federal holiday was officially expanded to celebrate and honor all veterans.
The UT Libraries honors veterans by telling their stories, preserving their legacy in our collections, and making the materials that meant something to them available to researchers for generations to come.
This Veterans Day, we are highlighting a collection of field maps and charts that belonged to Colonel Roland T. Fenton, a veteran of World War I and World War II. We are excited to tell part of his story through the maps he used in the field with an online exhibit, the Field Maps of Colonel Roland T. Fenton.
Aside from some basic biographical information, we know very little about Col. Fenton. We know that he spent 28 years of his life serving in the U.S. Army, and in that time, he was infantry and infantry support in both World Wars. And he managed to preserve some essential tools of his deployment, his maps. The fact that these maps survived the treacheries of war is incredible. After Col. Fenton died, his family donated his military effects to the Army Heritage Center who offered UT Libraries the maps to fill in missing maps from our online Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. They exceed our expectations. The field printing and annotations alone make them exceptional, but also many were classified. We are fortunate to be able to preserve and share them with generations to come.
Visit the UT Libraries’ Exhibit to learn more about Col. Fenton and the context of his collection. The images accompanying this post and the exhibit are a fraction of the 84 maps in the Field Maps of Colonel Roland T. Fenton in the UT Libraries Collections portal.
The lion’s share of what libraries do requires a fundamental attention to the experience of the researcher, scholar, student, faculty or patron who engages either in-person or online with resources, services, spaces and expertise. That experience of the user can have a profound effect on the quality and efficacy of the work being pursued. With the growth of personal technologies and the development of user-centered design, there’s been a growing movement to place a greater emphasis on user and customer experience in all manner of industry, and libraries have begun to incorporate this strategy into their own operations with the enlistment of User Experience and Content Management experts.
The UT Libraries recently hired its first User Experience Designer, and we sat down with Melody Ethley to learn a bit more about what she will bring to improve the experience of all who enter the Libraries, be that through a door or a browser.
Tex Libris:What’s your background, and how did you get into user experience (UX)?
Melody Ethley: My background is in computer information systems. I was first exposed to User Experience design during my undergrad years. I was still trying to figure out what I’d like to do. After graduation, I had an opportunity to intern at the Library of Congress (LOC) and that was really such an invaluable experience. It was so hands-on, and I learned from a lot of well-versed UX professionals. And I also appreciated having that exposure in the library, which I had never even known about as an option for a career. After my time at LOC, I did some independent work and sought out small business owners to help them develop their websites with a UX focus. I tried to implement my processes while also considering that they don’t really know much about UX. I was eager to continue to follow the path that I was on in pursuing a career in this field and making sure that I was still moving forward while the world was kind of falling apart. I started at UTL in the summer, so I’ve been here for a few months now.
TL:Tell me a little bit about the law.gov project that you worked on at the Library of Congress (LOC). What was it like being involved in a project that big coming fresh out of out of college into this internship?
ME: It was very intimidating, I will say. And didn’t realize how big the project was until I was working on it. I was on a team of about 12 people all doing UX within their own projects at the library. My direct supervisor was the lead experience designer on law.gov at the time. I was brought in as a user researcher and content strategist to help facilitate usability studies and synthesize data from our findings. My integration into the project was very quick, you know. I did a lot of research on how various topics were found on the law.gov landing page, because there was a concern with important content being buried under the menus. And if you have ever visited the law.gov website – like many library websites – there’s a lot of content to sift through. We wanted to figure out how our novice and power users were navigating the Law.gov website and organize the content in a way that everybody could find the information that they needed.
It was a fun project. I got to sit in the Law Library and recruit participants to do our study, which was really interesting. I had to be very strategic in when and how I approached people. At first, it was a little nerve-wracking, because I didn’t want to interrupt their studies, but I was also motivated to gather as many participants as I could. I am a people person, and I’m comfortable with approaching people I don’t know, so it was right up my alley to just go in there and recruit folks for our study.
Later in the project, I inherited the content inventory, which was a big undertaking. I didn’t even realize until after I was finished with this internship that there were over 30,000 items that I helped to capture for the law.gov redesign. I spent weeks revising the existing content inventory and while it was a tedious task, I found a lot of interest in the artifacts that I uncovered while I was working on it. I captured every piece of content that I encountered – any internal and external pages, pdfs, collections, events, you name it. The Type A personality in me had to make sure any and everything was in that spreadsheet. So, at times it was like, ‘oh man, this is a lot, this is a lot.’ But I feel like I was able to kind of truncate it and break it down in a way that wasn’t too overwhelming. And then I realized that I enjoyed working within the realm of content strategy and it became an area that I wanted to explore more about in UX. It’s just another element under the big umbrella of things that you can do in this industry.
TL:Do you think the LOC experience provided any preparation for coming to work at the UT Libraries?
ME: Oh, definitely. I didn’t have that experience working in a library coming into the UX profession. That was one thing that I was excited about when I applied here. My previous experience in a library helped me realize how meaningful my work could be in this space, and the idea of impacting so many people who are striving to reach their educational goals brings me so much purpose. And having that hands-on experience in a larger organization was great, because if I hadn’t had that experience then I would have been mostly relying on my independent projects with the smaller organizations which might not have served me as well in this role. I think that my experience at LOC gave me the reassurance and confidence in my capability to do the work at the caliber that it needs to be done.
TL:Does the approach to UX differ for an organization like a library?
ME: I would say that UX is fairly the same across all industries. Of course, there are nuances, but the core concept and idea remain the same – to deliver a delightful experience to the user. UX in the library is going to be very similar to UX in a private organization. When I think of UX, I think of how I can bring together the needs of the user, the needs of the organization, and the constraints of a specific product that I’m working on. And when I say users, I’m thinking of all my users – so here at the Libraries that is staff, leadership, our patrons. Then how can the organization benefit from the work that I’m doing, even if it’s just in the smallest way? I think all three of those components are what embody UX at its core. And of course, considering that there are nuances in everything it’s difficult for me to pinpoint right now, but I’m sure I will gather these things as I navigate my first few projects.
I’m excited to spread UX around the organization and to inform everybody about all the possibilities of UX. I feel like there’s still kind of like a foggy notion about it, you know. I’m going to be working a lot on the library website and to make sure that our resources and services are useful, and accessible for not only our patrons but for our staff too, because as I see my role, everybody is my user, not just the students – it’s also my colleagues, leadership, and really anybody who has a stake in the Libraries. I think about how I can make each person or group of people’s lives a little bit easier with the work that I do.
TL:That’s good because I generally just make their lives more complicated with what I’m asking them to do – kind of like this right now.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.
As readers, we often subconsciously craft physical spaces – whether real or imagined – in our minds in an effort to find meaning within or forge a connection with the text. The same can be said of the real-world cities in which different works of fiction take place. London, replete with a rich history of representation throughout the arts, is a standout example of one such city that writers return to time and again to inspire adaptations, reimaginings and original content. One need look no further than recent shows like Sherlock or Penny Dreadful to evince this. Keeping with this interest, researchers have created a tool that allows people to quickly and easily look back at those original texts that helped shape popular conception of London in the form of an interactive map of specific sites.
Mapping Emotions in Victorian London is a digital project created at Stanford University that uses literary excerpts from 18th and 19th century novels to map the emotions associated with different public spaces throughout London. The interactive map, hosted on History Pin, allows users to geospatially visualize data from those passages and read the excerpted passages in one streamlined interface. The map itself was created using Google Maps but features multiple levels of overlaid antique, illustrated maps, which shift depending on the scale selected, lending a visually pleasing touch to the tool without sacrificing utility or data integrity. Using it is as simple as selecting a date range and then clicking through numbered hubs on the map until you arrive at a particular site and the corresponding text.
Originally conceived as a small-scale project using topic modelling to extract geographical information from nineteenth century novels, “Mapping London” later expanded to encompass a collaborative effort between the Stanford Literary Lab, the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), and the Mellon Foundation. Building upon the success of their preliminary efforts (documented in a 2016 pamphlet), the site developers received a grant tied to crowdsourcing that pushed the project to new depths. Anonymous volunteers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace to crowdsource the project by assigning emotions to the thousands of excerpted passages. The crowdsourcing aspect of the project is what took it to another level by allowing researchers to expand both the quantitative and qualitative methods used. Not only were they able to process vastly more information and include more sites and passages in the data set, but humans (rather than bots or AI) were able to accurately ascribe emotions to the text.
While the ultimate goal of the project was to expand possibilities for both close and distant reading research in the humanities, what stood out to me was how accessible and interesting the map would be to everyday readers including those outside of academia. For people new to or unfamiliar with digital projects, this is a very accessible and easy to understand collection. Furthermore, anyone pursuing a personal interest in specific sites in London, a particular author represented in the data set, or just intrigued by the concept of literary geography would have something to gain by exploring the map. It functions as a historical city tour through the eyes of different narrators, and might even introduce you to your new favorite author.
If old books are more your cup of tea, check out the Harry Ransom Center’s extensive eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections with works from many London-based authors, including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, and many more.
Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Since 2009, its purpose has been to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM. The day is named in honor of Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer who is best known for creating the first computer algorithm.
UT Librarians Gina Bastone, Lydia Fletcher, and Hannah Chapman Tripp organized the 2021 Ada Lovelace Day Wiki Edit-A-Thon to build on the success of the 2019 event. The goals of the edit-a-thon were to improve the visibility of women in STEM fields, to teach first-time editors the quirks of Wikipedia editing, and to involve more gender and racial minorities and LGBTQ+ people in the Wikipedia editing process. Due to the continued uncertainty about COVID-19, we opted to make the event this year a hybrid one by offering both an in-person drop-in event where folks could learn something, grab some food, and edit in between classes as well as a Discord-based online version.
As with the 2019 event, we wanted this year’s to be largely self-guided. We emphasized starting the research process and identifying useful Wikipedia-friendly sources by offering a list of potential pages to edit, update, or create. We organized the day through a system of Google Drive links (for those engaging through Discord) and physical sticky notes (for those attending in person) to ensure that only one person would be editing one article at a time, while retaining the ability to have more than one contributor to each article on the day. For example, we had one person begin editing the article on Cora Sadosky’s research before passing it off to a graduate student in mathematics who could better understand and explain Sadosky’s works. We also worked on creating a Wikipedia page for the new Dean of the Jackson School, Claudia Mora.
Once again, we worked with student groups in the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Engineering to promote the event. Hosting the event in a hybrid format presented some new challenges, but ultimately taught us a lot about navigating engagement in the “new normal” and we look forward to the 2022 event!
One of the greatest assets of these Libraries is the dedicated, skilled and expert staff that make the complex machinery of a world-class research library run with such efficacy and care. We’ll use this highlighter as an occasional space to gain some insight into the work and personality of a selected member of this incredible staff.
Today, we meet Anh Holicky, a member of the Content Management team who began her career at the Libraries in 2006.
What’s your title, and what do you do for the Libraries?
My title is Senior Content Management Specialist. I am managed the Receiving and End Processing unit at PCL/Content Management/Acquisition. My team and I handle receiving the acquired materials into our ILS and physical processing each item before items can be shelved and circulated from the libraries.
What motivates you to wake up and go to work?
It is my habit to show up when I am expected. However, I enjoy being at work and feel happy when my team and I work together to accomplish our goal. I also like to challenge myself to getting better at handling tasks.
What are you most proud of in your job?
I am most proud of helping to coordinate the workflow across teams to reduce the backlog in Receiving. And because I enjoy a well-organized work space, I hope to get it done soon.
What has been your best experience at the Libraries?
My best experience has been my first time coming to PCL as freshman to UT. I have never seen so many books in my life and I was totally in love with this place. As you may or may not know, I am from Vietnam and English was my second language. Having access to all kind of books improved my understanding of the language, the culture, and broaden my interests. I learn something new every day since I stared working for the Libraries many years ago. From the Libraries, I discovered the importance of equal access to resources, learned the value of organization, and got to work with interesting, engaged, and service-oriented people.
Which do you prefer: on campus or remote? Why?
Before the pandemic, I would say on campus. Currently, I would prefer the hybrid working arrangement that the Libraries made it possible for the employees this year. Its model enable me to stay in touch with my team and allows for face-to-face interactions. It’s also allow me to have a more work-life balance. And on my telework day, I get to go to work right away and do not have to waste time sitting in traffic.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I don’t think most people know that I am a fan of WWE entertainment. It is such a fun sport to watch. I love seeing the interactions between the wrestlers and the audiences and how engaged the audiences to the wrestlers performance. And it’s best when you can watch the performance in person.
Dogs or cats?
Can I say neither and is having a bunny counted? However, if I have to pick, I would prefer dog because I think my husband would love to have a dog. 😊
Favorite book, movie or album?
My favorite movie of all time is Grease and I do own the DVD. It is such a fun movie to watch. It got singing, dancing, and John Travolta.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert? What’s your favorite food or dish?
Dinner would be my choice because I get to see my family together at the end of the day and everyone shares about his/her day whether it was good or bad. My favorite food is soup and I love to eat Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup that you can eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or whenever you need something warm and delicious.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In ten years, I‘d like to find myself in a position that allows me to continue my work with technical services but also mentor others in the field. I hope to share my experience and technical knowledge that help others who are interested in library technical works.
Working closely with DAC and the Discovery Services Advisory Group, and employing an IDEA lens, Access Systems staff will identify, aggregate, and highlight select resources in Alma, while also coordinating with existing collection promotion efforts where possible to support messaging continuity.
The first three Featured Collections are already existing, discrete collections having bibliographic local notes and online promotional content, enabling Access Systems to readily assemble and highlight them in Primo:
Black Queer Studies Collection
Latinx LGBTQ Collection
Taiwan Resource Center for Chinese Studies
Future Featured Collections will be identified from the wealth of Libraries’ content in Alma and aggregated around IDEA-related themes, and will be available via a new link in the top navigation, of the Libraries search page.
The staff working on this project plan to rotate in three new features each semester. The approach for selection and rotation of Featured Collections comes from close consideration of the work required by Access Systems and Content Management staff, and sustainable capacity for such work going forward.
We’re excited to implement this new functionality in Alma/Primo in support of IDEA initiatives at UT Libraries, and hope to further promote the breadth and depth of UTL’s amazing collections.
Here at the University of Texas Libraries, we have long worked towards expanding access to the information resources we hold – from opening up browsing access to the book shelves in the Tower at the beginning of the last century, to opening up access to an online collection of UT’s dissertations and theses in Texas ScholarWorks at the beginning of this century. We are not alone. More than ever before higher education and research entities, including university presses, academic societies and publishers, want to expand equal access to knowledge.
If one Googles “Open Access” there are over 200 million results. One of the first results is from SPARC, who defines Open Access (OA) as the free, immediate, online availability of research. With our society’s renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI), the transition to making research OA without barriers is imperative. SPARC has collected impact stories to illustrate why this transition is crucial. In short, OA is foundational to advancing DEI.
The UT Libraries (UTL) is committed to advancing the transition of making research OA without barriers. UTL has an OA platform for research authored at UT (Texas ScholarWorks), and an OA platform for research authored outside of UT (Digital Collections). However, much of the online research licensed by UTL (journal articles and ebooks) is not OA and cannot be put on either of these platforms, nor the myriad other OA platforms across the globe. So UTL is working to transition each license we sign towards an OA future.
How does one transition a license for research to OA over time? One inserts DEI principles into the negotiation.
For several years, the campus has engaged with OA issues such as: OA publishing, open educational resources, open data, and licensing & negotiation. Start anticipating a blog post in the future about the Sustainable Open Scholarship Working Group. For now, here is a teaser on the work of the Licensing & Negotiation Subcommittee made up of UT faculty and staff. The group rolled up their sleeves and articulated licensing principles that champion DEI principles, for example:
Diversity – The value and importance of a diversity of published voices to be OA. Incorporate into a license the ability for all research to be immediately available for OA on an online platform.
Equity – The value and importance for all readers to have access to OA research. Incorporate into a license that research will be accessible to readers of all abilities consistent with current legislation and regulations.
Inclusion – The value and importance for all authors to be able to designate their research to be OA. Incorporate into a license the ability for unlimited articles to be designated OA without requiring authors or institutions to pay additional fees.
Therefore, not only is OA foundational to advancing DEI, DEI is also foundational to advancing OA.
With the help of Cambridge University Press (CUP), the University of Texas was able to make these principles a reality. The UT license to the CUP journals includes all the above points. UT authored articles can be immediately made OA on the CUP online platform. The CUP platform does not prevent screen readers from helping readers that use these tools. Unlimited UT articles can become OA without additional fees paid to CUP by UT authors. One license at a time, the UT Libraries is building structural equity to advance DEI and OA.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.
Preserving audio visual materials is one of the biggest challenges for archivists and preservationists. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) has approached the preservation of Texas’ film history in innovative and unprecedented ways for the last 20 years. The non-profit organization solicits any kind of film – home movies, advertisements, local television programs, corporate productions, amateur films and even professional movie productions, and offers to digitize them in exchange for a donation of the digital copy. As a result, TAMI has a digital archive of over 50,000 films by Texans or about Texas. Created by Caroline Frick, currently the Associate Chair of Media Studies in the Radio, Television and Film department at UT Austin, TAMI’s stated goals are to “discover, preserve, provide access to, and educate the community about Texas’ film heritage.” Not only are they preserved for long-term historical and research purposes, but a huge number of those films are accessible online through TAMI’s website.
The casual user can enjoy this site by simply watching videos highlighted on their homepage. They feature a rotating selection of interesting films, with a ‘watch next’ feature and a ‘random video’ selector. I will admit to having fun reminiscing about places I’ve visited and lived in Texas, as well as getting sucked into the fascinating, the weird, and the sometimes inexplicable videos on the site (take, for instance, this baffling 1978 corporate wine industry video from Dallas).
More importantly, TAMI takes their educational mission seriously, with multiple sections that place films within their geographical, historical and social contexts. An education page provides lesson plans on topics from a Texas perspective such as The Cold War, The Dust Bowl and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Each lesson plan includes a curated selection of films accompanied by class conversation prompts, assignment ideas and how the themes fit within Texas’ TEKS and STAAR standardized testing requirements.
The Education and Web Exhibits pages bring together digital technologies in creative ways to teach new understandings of Texas history. The Webs Exhibits section looks at different aspects of Texas. For instance, ‘La Frontera Fluida – The Fluid Border’ explores films of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. On the site you can view films depicting historical events from a historical chronology page, a subject page, and even geographically from a map of the border. These value-added aspects are great examples of a digital-humanities approach, but TAMI also makes these films available for researchers to use in their own projects. Each film has code that allows you to embed the film on your own page. This makes the content of the archive ripe for myriad digital humanities projects exploring every aspect of Texas.
The University of Texas Libraries owns or subscribes to an enormous collection of audio-visual materials originating from every corner of the globe. A simple search in the library catalog for video/film turns up over 75,000 results. While the majority of this material is not necessarily focused on Texas, the library does have incredible collections of audio-visual materials that originate in the state.
At the Benson Latin American Collection, for instance, we have significant collections of film focused on the history and culture of Latinas/os in Texas, especially focusing on Mexican Americans and the Chicano movement. This includes large numbers of interviews with prominent activists, documentaries and archival collections such as the Cine las Americas video collection and a collection of their festival materials, the Robert P. and Sugar C. Rodriguez collection of Tejano Music videos, and the Los del Valle project. All of these materials can be crucial primary and secondary source materials for research projects. Taken together with the materials found in TAMI, I can almost always find something useful for students doing research on Texas Latinas/os when they are looking for audio visual materials. No other state has a statewide digital film archive like TAMI, and we are privileged to have such as amazing resource at our fingertips.
All images from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image website and Instagram site.
Frick, Caroline. “An Interview With Caroline Frick of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and the University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-Television-Film” The Velvet light trap: 2013, Vol. 71 (1), p. 42-6.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
 Mariel Iglesias Utset, A Cultural History of Cuba During the U.S. Occupation, 1898–1902 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
 Louis M. Pérez, On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).