Category Archives: Collections

Transcription of Mixtec, with Spanish translation. Raúl Alvarez (transcriber and translator). 1981. Rabbit story, with additional translation by Benjamín García Santiago. This will be part of the AILLA archive.

NEH Grant Will Fund Transcription of Indigenous Language Collection

BY J. RYAN SULLIVANT

The Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) has received a pilot grant from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This grant will improve access to some of the archive’s thousands of audio recordings in indigenous languages by supporting pilot efforts to crowdsource the creation of digital texts for manuscript transcriptions and translations that accompany recordings already in AILLA’s collections. Specifically, the grant will support the transcription of materials in the Mixtec languages of Mexico that are included in the MesoAmerican Languages Collection of Kathryn Josserand. These materials include a very broad survey of the grammar and vocabulary of the Mixtec languages spoken in over 100 towns and villages of southern Mexico.

Transcription of Tehuelche, from the AILLA archive of Jorge Suárez
Transcription of Tehuelche, from the AILLA archive of Jorge Suárez

Digital transcriptions will improve users’ access to these materials and will also facilitate their reuse for humanistic and especially linguistic research studying the dialectology of the Mixtec languages, which, decades after these materials were collected, is still not completely understood. They will also contribute to research on the prehistory of the Mixtec-speaking people, who today number almost a half-million in Mexico. One component of the project will be the development of educational modules that will use the transcription task to teach lessons on linguistic transcription, language description, and historical linguistics. This pilot project will also allow AILLA to develop transcription workflows that can be applied to other significant collections of handwritten documents in the archive’s collections.

Pilot project will improve access to a collection of Mixtec audio recordings.

The project’s principal investigator is Professor Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. The project manager is Ryan Sullivant, AILLA language data curator.

Survey in Chalcatongo Mixtec (with Spanish above), from the AILLA collection of J. Kathryn Josserand
Survey in Chalcatongo Mixtec (with Spanish above), from the AILLA collection of J. Kathryn Josserand

The National Endowment for the Humanities, created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

For more information on the AILLA transcription project, contact Ryan Sullivant.

Mary Rader buying books in Pakistan.

Distinctive Collaboration in Pakistan

Book stall.
Book stall.

The mission of UT Libraries is to “advance teaching, fuel research and energize learning through expansive collections and digital content, innovative services, programs and partnerships to develop critical thinkers and global citizens that transforms lives.”  In recent years, our mission is fulfilled through a number of ongoing thematic “Purposeful Pathways” and short-term focused “Current Priorities.”  In this blogpost, I would like to highlight how my recent efforts in Pakistan demonstrate the realization of a number of our pathways and priorities, namely those related to collections of distinction, collaborative collection development programs, and visibility and impact in the global knowledge ecosystem.

I have written before about UT’s maturing South Asian Popular and Pulp Fiction Collection, both in terms of its growth and in terms its relationship to the national distributed collection for South Asian Studies as supported through the South Asian Cooperative Collection Development Workshops.  With my 2018 trip, I was able to expand the collection’s Pakistani imprints considerably.  For a number of years, we have been working to establish UT’s collection of novels by Ibne Safi as one of, if not the, largest in the world.  While in Pakistan, I was able to meet and work with Ali Kamran, the Managing Director of Sang-e-meel, one of our major vendors, to review and purchase both currently produced Ibne Safi titles as well as out-of-print editions–the former we were able to explore in his office itself, the latter we explored on foot in the second-hand markets of Lahore.  I am excited to receive the new additions soon and to add them to our collection, including that which is represented online and described in a compelling new exhibit by UT iSchool student Nicole Marino.

Speaking in Lahore.
Speaking in Lahore.

While in Lahore, I partnered with my colleague from Cornell University Libraries, Dr. Bronwen Bledsoe, to co-lead a workshop for librarians. The 2-day workshop was sponsored by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (most commonly known as ‘LUMS’) and by the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (known as ‘AIPS,’).  Entitled “Exploring Library Cooperation,” the workshop focused on themes of how to identify opportunities for and strategies to work across institutions to improve access to resources and services.

Librarians in Lahore.
Librarians in Lahore.

Approximately 30 librarians from across Lahore attended, including those from LUMS, Punjab University, Government College University, Kinnaird College for Women, and the Government of Punjab Research Wing.  While our opportunities for collaboration here in the U.S. are deeply embedded in our ongoing work (not only efforts such as the South Asia Cooperative Collection Development Workshops noted above but also structural support such as our robust InterLibrary Services), it was clear from our workshop that our colleagues in Lahore are also interested in working together.  For example, they shared details of their work to more fully describe and digitize their collections, to collectively petition funding agencies to advance their missions, and to continue developing professional networks and strategies for the common good.  I was impressed and inspired by their commitment and enthusiasm and am looking forward to growing these newly formed professional relationships long into the future.

UTL’s Director, Lorraine Haricombe, often cites this maxim: “Working alone, I can go fast, but working together, we can go farther.”  I am excited and committed to continuing to work in cooperative ways and have already seen how far it can take us—at least halfway around the world!

 

 

 

Women spinning wool, Juncal, Cañar, Ecuador; photo: Niels Fock/Eva Krener, 1973

AILLA Awarded Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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.

Women spinning wool, Juncal, Cañar, Ecuador; photo: Niels Fock/Eva Krener, 1973
Women spinning wool, Juncal, Cañar, Ecuador; photo: Niels Fock/Eva Krener, 1973

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.

NEH Logo MASTER_082010

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.

Prague.

On the Hunt for Books in Frankfurt and Prague

With the generous support of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Center for European Studies I was recently able to travel to Frankfurt and Prague to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair and purchase books for the UT Libraries’ collections. In addition to meeting with vendors and participating in the international community of librarians, booksellers, and publishers at the book fair, I collected materials that continued to grow the UT Libraries’ collection of European zines and artists’ books.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest book fair, and has been held for more than 500 years. The fair consistently has over 7,000 publishers represented, and attracts visitors from all over the world. Each year a country is chosen as the fair’s guest of honor; this year’s guest was France. As such, there was a particularly strong focus on French culture, writers, and publishers, with the aim of highlighting and promoting France’s literary culture to the world.

A presentation on new technologies for the humanities being given during the Frankfurt Book Fair.
A presentation on new technologies for the humanities being given during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book fair offered many opportunities to learn about and participate in the international library and publishing communities. I was able to participate in meet-ups of other librarians, visit with vendors, and view lectures on new technologies on the vanguard of the library and publishing worlds. In addition to attending the book fair itself, I was able to participate in the New Directions for Libraries, Scholars, and Partnerships Symposium organized by the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), in part due to a competitive stipend I received from the funds of the Collaborative Initiative for French Language Collections (CIFNAL) and the German-North American Resources Partnership (GNARP). The symposium was held at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, or German National Library, also in Frankfurt.

The symposium further allowed me to meet with and forge relationships with an international community of librarians, scholars, and publishers. Presenters at the symposium included librarians and researchers from Harvard, the Newberry Library, various German universities, and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, as well as representatives from prominent European publishers. As the European Studies Librarian in PCL, being able to hear presentations from such a broad swath of perspectives was very informative and relevant to my subject areas, and I look forward to continuing to foster a sense of community and collaboration with these colleagues.

The German National Library, where the New Directions for Libraries, Scholars, and Partnerships symposium was held.
The German National Library, where the New Directions for Libraries, Scholars, and Partnerships symposium was held.

In Prague, I visited bookstores and acquired materials with the aim of improving our collection of European artists’ books and zines. The materials I bought will be made available in the Fine Arts Library special collections, and complement similar materials I acquired in Russia while on an acquisitions trip last year. Many of these books are unique to UT Austin’s holdings, meaning they are not available in any other academic libraries.

The poster session during the symposium.
The poster session during the symposium.

This trip allowed me the opportunity to represent UT Austin internationally to a diverse group of colleagues and industries, and I’m grateful that I was able to serve in such a capacity. I look forward to continuing to build both our distinctive holdings and our relationships with colleagues in the library and publishing worlds.

 

 

 

Jackie Barnitz in her slide collection. Photo: Mike Wellen.

Legacy of Art Historian Jacqueline Barnitz to Be Celebrated with Remembrance and Archive Exhibit

The Benson Latin American Collection is pleased to announce the acquisition of the archive of Jacqueline Barnitz (1923–2017). The life and collection of the late art historian and professor emeritus will be celebrated in the Benson’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room on Tuesday, March 27, at 3 p.m. Selected materials from the archive will be on view in an exhibition titled The Legacy of Jacqueline Barnitz.

Jackie Barnitz in her slide collection. Photo: Mike Wellen.
Jackie Barnitz in her slide collection. Photo: Mike Wellen.

The exhibit provides a glimpse into the archive of the world-renowned modern Latin American art historian who taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1981 until her retirement in 2007. Barnitz donated the archive to the Benson shortly before her death, and its contents include correspondence, research notes, teaching materials, art slides, notebooks, rare art and art history publications, and an exceptional array of exhibition catalogs from Latin America spanning much of the twentieth century.

A young Jacqueline Barnitz.
A young Jacqueline Barnitz.

An artist in her own right, Jackie Barnitz made a living during her early professional career as a portrait painter and eventually turned to abstract expressionism. In 1962, she traveled to Argentina, where she became enthralled with the dynamic arts culture of Buenos Aires. Upon returning to her home in New York City, she wrote about Latin American art for multiple publications, bringing crucial exposure for Latin American artists in the 1960s and 70s, especially those who had left their home countries for New York in the wake of political unrest. She continued to travel to Mexico and South America throughout her career. Barnitz earned her PhD in art history from the City University of New York after having taught courses on Latin American art at the college level.

Barnitz joined the art history faculty of UT Austin as the first professor to hold a university tenure-track position in modern Latin American art. She was a dedicated mentor and teacher whose students have moved on to research, teaching, and curatorial positions in major institutions around the world. Her textbook, Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America, published by University of Texas Press in 2001, with a second, expanded edition in collaboration with Patrick Frank issued in 2015, is the textbook of choice for most university courses on modern Latin American art.

Barnitz with Patrick Frank, co-author of second edition of "Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America." Photo: Gayanne DeVry
Barnitz with Patrick Frank, co-author of second edition of “Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America.” Photo: Gayanne DeVry

Barnitz’s contribution to the field of Latin American art history in Austin and beyond is emphasized by Beverly Adams, curator of Latin American art at the Blanton Museum. “Jackie was a true innovator, pioneer, and steward of the field of Latin American art history. From her salons in New York City to her far-ranging travel and research, she constantly sought meaningful connections with artists and intellectuals throughout the Americas. In the Art History department, she helped form a generation of scholars. At the Benson, her archive and library will surely continue to inspire new generations of students.”

Barnitz with students during a lecture. Photo courtesy Mike Wellan.
Barnitz with students during a lecture. Photo courtesy Mike Wellan.

The Blanton Museum of Art was the beneficiary of several remarkable gifts from Barnitz over the years, ranging from thoughtful catalogue essays, class tours of the collection, and her frequent donations of art. According to curator Adams, Barnitz made her most recent gift to the Blanton last year, “a number of fascinating works on paper of important artists such as María Luisa Pacheco, Cildo Meireles, Paulo Bruscky, Regina Silveira, and Leandro Katz,” which will soon be seen in the museum’s galleries.

According to Melissa Guy, director of the Benson Latin American Collection, the acquisition of Barnitz’s collection further strengthens the Benson’s holdings in Latin American art and art history, which also include the José Gómez Sicre Papers, the Barbara Doyle Duncan Papers, and the Stanton Loomis Catlin Papers. “Jacqueline’s collection brings incredible richness and depth to the Benson’s art and art history holdings, and reflects her stature as the preeminent scholar of modern Latin American art history. The exhibition catalogs alone, covering nearly the entire region from the 1960s into the twenty-first century, warrant special attention by students and researchers,” said Guy.

Barnitz in her early teens.
Barnitz in her early teens.

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Attend The Event

RSVP requested: attend.com/barnitz

This event is co-hosted by the University of Texas Libraries and LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, who gratefully acknowledge the following co-sponsors: Blanton Museum of Art, Center for Latin American Visual Studies, Department of Art and Art History, College of Fine Arts.

About the Benson Latin American Collection

The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is one of the foremost collections of library materials on Latin America worldwide. Established in 1921 as the Latin American Library, the Benson is approaching its centennial. Through its partnership established with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies in 2011, the Benson continues to be at the forefront of Latin American and U.S. Latina/o librarianship through its collections and digital initiatives.

 

"Typvs Cosmographicvs Vniversalis in Novvs Orbis Regionvm ac insvlarvm veteribvs incognitarvm"
Attributed to Sebastian Münster, cartographer, and Hans Holbein the Younger
1537
print and wash on paper
15 x 22 in.

Collections Highlight: Typus Cosmographicus Universalis

In this important world map, the extent of North America and the distance across the Pacific Ocean are hardly understood while the outline of South America is better represented.

The cartography is attributed to a collaboration between celebrated German mapmaker Sebastian Munster, and a renowned Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein, contributed the rich ornamentation at the map’s border.

Holbein’s additional embellishments — including realistic renderings of flora and fauna, as well as fantastic and frightening sea beasts — makes this a superlative example of cartography from the period.

"Typvs Cosmographicvs Vniversalis in Novvs Orbis Regionvm ac insvlarvm veteribvs incognitarvm" Attributed to Sebastian Münster, cartographer, and Hans Holbein the Younger 1537 print and wash on paper 15 x 22 in.
“Typvs Cosmographicvs Vniversalis in Novvs Orbis Regionvm ac insvlarvm veteribvs incognitarvm”
Attributed to Sebastian Münster, cartographer, and Hans Holbein the Younger
1537
print and wash on paper
15 x 22 in.
Benson Latin American Collection.

 

 

María Luisa Puga Papers. Benson Latin American Collection.

Scholar Takes an Intimate Look at Mexican Author María Luisa Puga

On February 15, LLILAS Benson celebrated the opening of the literary archive of Mexican author María Luisa Puga (1944–2004). This unusual archive is replete with the author’s voice and vision, consisting in large part of some 327 diaries that span the years 1972 through 2004. In honor of the occasion, Irma López of Western Michigan University delivered a lecture titled “Escritura y autofiguración el los diarios de María Luisa Puga.”

María Luisa Puga, undated. Benson Latin American Collection.
María Luisa Puga, undated. Benson Latin American Collection.

A novelist and short-story writer, Puga was the winner of numerous prestigious literary awards and highly esteemed by her peers, yet she largely eschewed the limelight. Her complex attitude about her identity as a writer is on display in the diaries, which Mexican Studies Librarian José Montelongo refers to as “a truly remarkable document of struggles both personal and artistic.” Puga’s diaries were donated to the Benson Latin American Collection by her sister, Patricia Puga, who attended the opening lecture and reception along with her husband, son, and other family members.

The author's sister, Patricia Puga, at the Benson Collection. Photo: Travis Willmann.
The author’s sister, Patricia Puga, at the Benson Collection. Photo: Travis Willmann.

Written in a beautiful hand, with occasional doodle-like illustrations, the notebooks contain the entire trajectory of Puga’s celebrated literary works and thus are of enormous research value. The pages also carry within them a poignant emotional charge: the author was someone for whom putting pen to paper was a vital activity in her art and thought, and her diaries are an almost visceral expression of her self.

Visiting scholar Irma López discusses the Puga diaries. Photo: Travis Willmann.
Visiting scholar Irma López discusses the Puga diaries. Photo: Travis Willmann.

If the collection of diaries itself is remarkable, the lecture by literary scholar Irma López was similarly compelling. She spoke with both erudition and affection about Puga, her writing, and the intimate access afforded by the diaries to a writer for whom self-examination was essential. López concluded her talk speaking directly to the members of the author’s family, reading to them from a tender diary passage by the late author. (López, a leading authority on Puga, is author of Historia, escritura e identidad: La novelística de María Luisa Puga.)

From María Luisa Puga Papers. Benson Latin American Collection.
From María Luisa Puga Papers. Benson Latin American Collection.

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During their visit, the Puga family was able to see five display cases containing select materials from the archive in the Benson’s main reading room. This exhibition, on display through April 2, 2018, and titled María Luisa Puga: A Life in Diaries, was curated by graduate research assistant Emma Whittington. Read José Montelongo’s Spanish-language article on Puga, “Una vida en 327 cuadernos.”

Lucile Halsell Conservatory Palm House  San Antonio/ Emilio Ambasz, architect, undated

Alexander Archive Acquires Buildings of Texas Collection

The Alexander Architectural Archives at the Architecture and Planning Library has acquired source materials for a publication that provides a comprehensive survey of architecture in the Lone Star State.

“The Buildings of Texas” (University of Virginia Press) — part of the Society of Architectural Historians’ “Buildings of the United States” series — is a two-volume publication by Gerald Moorhead (with James W. Steely, W. Dwayne Jones, Anna Mod, John C. Ferguson, Cheryl Caldwell Ferguson, Mario L. Sánchez and Stephen Fox), that catalogs the state’s built environment with architectural profiles of its major cities and the landmark structures that pepper the landscape.

The collection features the archives of editor Moorhead (FAIA) and contributor Mario L. Sanchez (UT, 1982), including documentation with research material, administrative records and over 12,000 photos. Only a small portion of buildings are represented in the final publication, providing incredible opportunities for further research.

The first volume was published in 2013, and the donation of these materials marks the project’s completion, with the second volume slated for publication later this year.

Processing of the collection will begin this spring.

Moorhead is an architectural lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture and an award-winning Houston architect with over 40 years of experience. He is a former contributing editor to “Architectural Record” and “Texas Architect” and the architect laureate of Kazakhstan.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba Donates Archive to the Benson Collection

Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Alicia Gaspar de Alba

BY DANIEL ARBINO

The Benson Latin American Collection is pleased to announce the acquisition of the Alicia Gaspar de Alba Papers. Contents include drafts of creative works such as Calligraphy of the Witch (2007), La Llorona on the Longfellow Bridge (2003), and Sor Juana’s Second Dream (1999) as well as notable academic publications like [Un]framing the “Bad Woman” (UT Press, 2014), Our Lady of Controversy (UT Press, 2011), and Making a Killing (UT Press, 2010). Moreover, researchers will have access to Gaspar de Alba’s conference ephemera and early teaching files. In total, the scholar generously donated 40 bankers’ boxes that span her academic and literary career through 2017.

A native of El Paso/Juárez, Gaspar de Alba is no stranger to academia. As professor in the departments of Chicana/o Studies, English, and Gender Studies and Chair of LGBTQ Studies at UCLA, she has been a monumental figure on the California campus since 1994. During that time, she has published five academic books, three novels, and three collections of poetry and short story, establishing herself as one of the leading scholars and writers on Chicana feminism and lesbian literature.

As seamless as Gaspar de Alba’s relationship with academia might seem, tension marked its beginning. After graduating with a bachelor’s and then a master’s from the University of Texas–El Paso, Gaspar de Alba had a brief stop at the University of Iowa in the 1980s that ended with her leaving the PhD program in American Studies. She also taught English composition and ESL courses part-time at UMass Boston. Her career took off in 1986, however, with a purchase and a decision: the purchase was a used IBM Selectric typewriter for $600; the decision, to write every morning for four years.

1994 Correspondence between Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Avon Books
1994 Correspondence between Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Avon Books

Gaspar de Alba returned to her doctoral studies in 1990 at the University of New Mexico, receiving her PhD in 1994. She has lived in California ever since, now with her wife, artist Alma López. Yet the author keeps strong ties to the borderlands of her early years. In fact, Desert Blood (2005), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery Novel, demonstrates how her home and her career as both researcher and writer all inform one another. The novel, which came about after years of research, is a fictional account of the femicides in Ciudad Juárez told through the eyes of a lesbian graduate student.

Those unfamiliar with Gaspar de Alba’s writing will find a focus on putting forth a Chicana lesbian identity through popular culture while questioning traditional Mexican and Chicana/o discourse. Her prolific and varied writing career has led her peers to refer to her as “the quintessential bilingual/bicultural writer” and “one of the most eloquent exponents of a lesbian esthetic and promoters of the empowerment of women.” The fact that this “do-it-all” writer has donated the collection speaks to her charitable desire to make her materials accessible to students and scholars around the world. It will certainly be the purpose of many visits to the Rare Books Reading Room and pairs nicely with the Benson’s current holdings, namely the papers of other Chicana writers from Texas, such as Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Carmen Tafolla, and Estela Portillo Trambley.

Excerpt from Gaspar de Alba’s manuscript Sor Juana’s Second Dream
Excerpt from Gaspar de Alba’s manuscript Sor Juana’s Second Dream

The Gaspar de Alba acquisition is a noteworthy addition to the U.S. Latina/o Collection at the Benson, which began in 1974 as the Mexican American Library Program. The collection has since evolved as one of the most inclusive and most comprehensive in the world, with a special attention given to distinctive voices that document the cultural, political, and economic impact of Latina/o and Hispanic populations in Texas and the United States. Its mission is to support the educational needs of students as well as to facilitate the scholarly activity of the faculty of the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies.

Please stay tuned for future information and events to celebrate this exceptional collection.

________________________________________________________

Daniel Arbino is Librarian for U.S. Latina/o Studies at the Benson Latin American Collection.

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.