Category Archives: Social Sciences

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How can we process 80 million pages of historical documents?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.

Meet the Talents: Carolyn Cunningham

Carolyn Cunngham, Social Sciences Liaison Librarian for Psychology & Sociology.
Carolyn Cunningham, Social Sciences Liaison Librarian for Psychology & Sociology.

Carolyn is a Texan, born and raised, and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Master of Science in Information Studies from UT Austin. After graduation, she served stints at St. Edward’s University, and UT San Antonio, before returning to UT Austin to work as the Social Sciences Liaison Librarian for Human Development & Family Sciences, Kinesiology & Health Education, Psychology, Social Work, and Sociology.

Research topics are driven not only by access to resources, but quality resources, walk us through how you develop new and curate existing resources for the social sciences.

Carolyn Cunningham: Social scientists use a little bit of everything in their research, from statistical data gathered from research articles and government agencies, books, to qualitative interviews. Some of this information is freely available, but a large portion is only available through our library subscriptions. We try to stay on top of developments in the field so our researchers will have access to the latest journal articles. With publication prices going up and budgets staying the same or shrinking, we have to prioritize carefully to serve the many different types of experts in our fields.

Many social science students go on to work outside of academia after graduation, so they lose access to the library resources they had while they were in school. It is just as important for them to have access to the latest research while working as practitioners as when they are students. Social work students are a great example. The agencies and organizations they work for after graduation sometimes have affiliations that allow research access, but often they are on their own. I try to squeeze in lessons about how to find open access material, how to request material through the public library, and other access points while they are still on campus.

How many patrons do you service on the Forty Acres?

CC: In my role as subject liaison, I serve folks in the following departments, across multiple colleges: Human Development & Family Sciences, Kinesiology & Health Education, Psychology, Social Work, and Sociology. I serve over 4,000 patrons, which includes 316 faculty and instructors, 700 masters and doctoral students, and 3,000 undergraduate students.

I also work unofficially with programs that don’t fit within one department, and I serve the campus at large when I answer questions through the Ask a Librarian chat and at the PCL Research Help desk.

Day to day, we see you in front of classrooms alongside professors teaching students how to access research information or with individuals who have an idea for research but are not sure how to get started. What happens in those sessions?

CC: Teaching in the classroom and meeting with folks one-on-one are some of the best parts of my job. When a faculty member invites me to talk about the art of doing research and exposing the students to the available tools, it can be tough to narrow down the talking points to fit the time allotted. It’s easy for me to go on and on, knowing all the tools we offer. Usually my classroom sessions happen when the students are writing research papers and they need to cite scholarly sources. With undergraduates, I show them how to pick a database and choose keywords in order to find research articles. We spend time during the class thinking about who is writing about their topics, whose expertise is considered authoritative, and what things are appropriate to cite (for example, scholarly articles versus news articles, or cutting edge research versus well-established theory). With graduate students, their projects often require deep interaction with the research in their areas, so we talk about finding works by major authors, methodology, and the process of publishing research articles. I recently worked with a class in which several students wanted to design surveys and questionnaires to measure social behaviors and attitudes about gender bias in the workplace. I showed them how to use the databases to find examples of previous studies that utilize surveys and questionnaires to use as models.

Carolyn assists at the desk.
Carolyn assists at the desk.

In one-on-one consultations, the meeting is molded by the where the researcher is in their project, and by their comfort level doing research. Undergraduates in the social sciences are often learning about their topics for the first time, and are shaping personal interests into something they can tackle in their coursework. Immigration, access to healthcare, LBGTQ issues; if there is a news story about it, we can usually find scholarly literature to lay the foundation for a research project. In these cases, I spend a good amount of the meeting introducing them to tools beyond Google or Google Scholar, and showing them how to produce a good pool of results. Graduate students and researchers are typically more experienced with the main tools in their fields, so we talk through the best keywords to search, the kinds of things published on their topic, and how to make sure they are not missing any key research in their fields. But this is just the beginning. It can go off in all kinds of crazy directions, sending us deep into the stacks, or deep down an Internet rabbit hole. This is a nerdy example, but I once helped a student dig through pages from the Wayback Machine in the Internet Archive to find a research abstract that was written in Italian. The original website had been taken down, but we had a partial citation. He had Italian language skills, so while I navigated and searched, he translated what we were seeing. It was the epitome of a wild goose chase, but we eventually found the full citation and were able to request the article through our interlibrary loan service.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?

CC: Talking to researchers one-on-one in consultations is incredibly gratifying. I learn something new almost every time. There are many great parts about these meetings, but learning about the issues researchers are interested in is so cool. UT has many movers and shakers on campus, and our faculty often get interviewed by NPR and other media outlets. It’s cool to hear a faculty member on the radio who just invited me to work with their classes.

I had no idea about that part of the job when I went to library school. I toyed with the thought of going into museum studies or preservation, and those specialties remain interests of mine. But I knew academic librarianship was for me early in my time as a student worker in the Geology library, and later as an intern at PCL. Dissecting people’s research questions and connecting them to information somehow works really well with my curiosity and people-orientation. I also love the cross-section of folks on campus: undergrads who are grinding through the college experience so they can go out and do other things in the world, and folks who stay in academia and build expertise in their areas (among many others, of course).

Is there a particularly rewarding or transformational interaction you had during a consultation with a patron?

CC: Transformation is one of the highest goals of pedagogy, and those moments are awesome. Sometimes, I see small transformations of people’s understandings of their topic. I have been working with a graduate student for the past few months who is investigating how college athletes identify as students. Just to give a very specific example of something I consult on regularly, we were searching for articles about college athletes and their student identity, but were not getting good results. I did a little playing around with our search, and we found that the research more commonly refers to “learner identity” or “academic identity.” Once we tweaked the search terms, the databases cracked open and gave us much better results. This student will use what she learns to make recommendations about how to advise and support student athletes in their academic achievement. It’s a great project with very tangible applications.

Other times, the transformation is more apparent in the classroom. I’ve gotten thank you notes from instructors saying their students’ papers are higher quality after a library session. Or they will redesign assignments after having me visit their classes.

Once, a patron high-fived me at the reference desk for finding a book they needed. That was awesome.

Anything you can teach us that will help us in our personal life?

CC: Sure, I can show you a few tips so you can Google like a librarian. Searching within a website can be really useful. If you know certain information lives on a site, but you can’t remember how to get there, you can search that whole site for the page you want. For instance, to find the UT calendar, enter this into the Google search bar:

calendar site:utexas.edu

Or you can easily limit your results to certain website domains. This may be helpful if you want to learn about a topic, but not see every type of result related to it. Let’s say you want find research about coconut oil. If you do a regular Google search for “coconut oil,” you get a lot of varied results, including news, social media, and products for sale. But if you scope to .edu websites, you get useful stuff right up front. Enter this into the search bar:

Coconut oil site:edu

Check out other Google shortcuts and tricks here.