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

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

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

BY HANNAH ALPERT-ABRAMS

How can we process 80 million pages of historical documents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Access to Historical Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining Digital Futures

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

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

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

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

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

McKinney Engineering Library

Welcome Back to Campus

Director Lorraine J. HaricombeWelcome back!  I hope the spring semester will be productive and successful for you.

While you were away we have worked quickly to launch UT Libraries’ new website. Check it out at https://www.lib.utexas.edu/  It is our hope that you will find the new website easy to navigate and to learn more about UTL’s News and Featured events. There is a helpful 404 error page in place to redirect users who might be trying to reach legacy content. All of the content on the legacy site will remain intact for the foreseeable future as we continue to migrate to the new site.  Please use the new feature on the site to send us your feedback.

We are also excited to announce the opening of the McKinney Engineering Library in the brand new Engineering Education and Research Center on January 16. The engineering library exemplifies our continuing efforts to rethink what libraries need offer to meet user expectations in a digital environment. We have moved a highly curated collection from the engineering collection on PCL’s 6th floor to the new library.  Beyond books you will find enhanced space and technology — 3000 square feet of new space, including consultation and seminar rooms, 24 new workstations and power outlets aplenty, as well as new printers, scanners and self-checkout.

We also made a change at the end of the fall semester that may have gone unnoticed, but will be of great interest for our undergraduate patrons. Beginning December 1, the Libraries extended loan duration for materials from 28 days to a semester-long period, allowing students greater time to focus on learning and less on managing access to resources.

Our core mission is to support the university’s core mission of research and teaching and to help our students to be successful graduates.  We are here to serve you please let us know how we can help you!

Best wishes for a successful semester.

Support for the Economy Furniture Co. strike in Austin from Chicanos in Leavenworth, 1970.

Special Collections Bring Students to Digital Scholarship

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.

Publicity materials for West Side Story. Box 102, folder 1. Ernest Lehman Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
Publicity materials for West Side Story. Box 102, folder 1. Ernest Lehman Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

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.

Program of the first Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza. Box 1, folder 1. Lucy R. Moreno Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin
Program of the first Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza. Box 1, folder 1. Lucy R. Moreno Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin

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.

A card expressing support for the Economy Furniture Co. strike in Austin from Chicanos in Leavenworth, 1970. Box 3, folder 11. Economy Furniture Company Strike Collection, 1968-1972, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
A card expressing support for the Economy Furniture Co. strike in Austin from Chicanos in Leavenworth, 1970. Box 3, folder 11. Economy Furniture Company Strike Collection, 1968-1972, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

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.