The Influence of the Digital Age on Latin American and Caribbean Studies: Open Access and Primary Sources

SALALM 61, Panel 9, May 12, 2016, 2:00-3:30 pm
Moderator: Rafael Tarragó, University of Minnesota
Rapporteur:      Matthew J.K. Hill, Brigham Young University

Panelists:  Paula Covington, Latin American and Iberian Studies Bibliographer, Vanderbilt University
Lisa Cruces, Hispanic Collections Archivist, University of Houston
Anton Duplessis, Curator of Colonial Mexican Collection, Texas A&M University
Christine Hernández, Curator of Special Collection at the Latin American Library, Tulane U.

Rafael Tarragó welcomed the attendants and presented the first panelist, Paula Covington.

Paula Covington
Stimulating and Enhancing Scholarship by Digitizing Colombiana

The purpose of Covington’s presentation was to make people aware of Vanderbilt’s collections, especially collections of primary sources that have been placed online, and to answer the question posed in the panel description, “What is the impact of the digital collection that Vanderbilt is producing on scholarship?”

She discussed the role of digitalization in preservation and mentions the example of Vanderbilt historian Jane Lander’s digitization project of archives dealing with Africans and Afro-descendant communities in Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia.  In this case, documents that had been digitized had become illegible only five years after their digitization, highlighting how digitization can help to preserve endangered documents and archives.

Covington briefly talked about other Vanderbilt-owned sources, including the webpage “Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slave Societies” (ESSSS), which has 500,000 images of documents on the topic of the African diaspora in the trans-Atlantic world; the Helguera Collection of Colombiana, which has a searchable database with full metadata and contextualized descriptions; and the papers of Afro-Colombian novelist Manuel Zapata Olivella.  Digitization has increased the worldwide availability of Zapata Olivella’s papers for research.  She discussed the idea of digital primary sources contributing to the creation of communities of researchers who share stories and scholarship on Zapata Olivella through digital projects, resulting in the production of edited volumes, conference panels, and other collaborative scholarly work.

Finally, she mentioned how these digital, online primary source collections have been used and are currently being used for teaching by professors at Vanderbilt.

Tarragó introduced the second speaker, Lisa Cruces.

Lisa Cruces
Sí, se puede/Yes, It Is Possible: Documenting Houston’s Latina/o Histories with the Help of Digital Tools

The purpose of Cruces’ presentation was to describe her experience documenting Houston’s Latin@ histories with the help of digital tools, demonstrating how digital tools have contributed to teaching, collection development, and raising funds for the archival collection.  Her needs and purposes in using digital tools were instruction, increased visibility, and donor relations.

Cruces noted that prior to the creation of her position in 2012, the archive was not engaging with relevant departments at her university.  She saw instruction as a potential vehicle to increase collection use and spread the word about its holdings.  Another major motivation in augmenting the archive’s digital presence was to increase the university’s visibility and help to support her university’s recently granted accreditation status.  Finally, by digitizing and utilizing the collections she was able to help donors see that the university’s collections were not merely being preserved but that they were being used and contributing to the university’s mission, which gave her leverage with donors.

Social media has also been a part of the archive’s campaign in the form of a collaborative blog, and it is also very inexpensive to create and maintain.  Cruces has also digitized full collections, three in their entirety, and one was in process at the time of the presentation.  She has curated exhibits, both physical and digital, as well as some hybrid exhibits, which have been used in instruction and research.  An important lesson learned from these exhibits was the need to be aware of the type of objects exhibited so that they maintain their integrity and context in a digital format.  She also mentioned the need to use an appropriate digital platform since her team experienced technical difficulties with the one they chose, Omeka.

Tarragó introduced the third speaker, Anton Duplessis.

Anton Duplessis
El Proyecto ‘Primeros Libros de las Américas’—International Collaborative Digitization for Access, Preservation and Scholarship

In this presentation, Duplessis described the “Primeros Libros de las Américas” project, which is an international collaborative effort aimed at the digitization of early printed books from New Spain (16th century) for the purposes of access, preservation, and scholarship.  The website,, was launched in 2010 and comprises material from 27 member institutions in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Spain, and the United States.  The project has digitized 136 of the 220 titles known to have been printed during the period and seeks as many exemplars as possible of the same title for comparison and completeness purposes.  Eventually Peruvian imprints will be included as well.  Part of the project was funded by an NEH grant, which helped to develop transcription tools.

Duplessis made note of the current condition of many of these books and the problems that they face (holes, water damage, binding, geographic location, potential natural disasters, etc.), as well as some of the repairs that have been carried out to preserve the materials (some of which are problematic), then discussed both the need for and the dilemmas associated with digital preservation of such materials.  Advantages include the opportunity to disseminate the information more widely and the possibility of digital repatriation, while problems include the cost of digitization and maintenance, appropriate technologies and digital preservation, and the nature of dissemination, including whether to use the open access model or go with a commercial vendor.

Duplessis emphasized the importance of collaboration and sharing (technology, standards, skills, etc.) among partner institutions, especially for some of the smaller institutions who do not have the funds, materials, skills, or personnel to carry out these large-scale digitization projects.  A major goal of the project is long-term preservation through digitization and dispersion, as partners are entitled to any and all files, with redundant copies spread among the participating institutions.  He described the technical aspects of the project (cataloging, metadata, etc.), as well as potential uses of the interface, including Optical Character Recognition (OCR) through the Ocular+ software, the possibility of viewing multiple copies simultaneously, and an example application of the webpage for linguistic studies.

Tarragó introduced the fourth speaker, Christine Hernández.

Christine Hernández
Digital Primary Sources at the Latin American Library, Tulane University

The focus of Hernández’s presentation was to discuss the digitization of primary sources taking place at Tulane’s Latin American Library since digitization began there in 2012 with the launch of the Tulane Digital Library (TUDL).  Projects up to the present have been prioritized by the criteria of accessibility and preservation, but recently a third criterion has been considered, complementarity with holdings of libraries in Latin America.

Hernández discussed the collaborative nature of recent digitization projects, mentioning such projects as the Nicaraguan Presidential Papers project carried out in cooperation with the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y de Centroamérica (IHNCA); and CALAP II, the Central American Libraries Archives Project, aiming at digitizing early photography, newspapers, and presidential papers.  These projects have the additional goal of creating a network of institutions capable of carrying out such projects and of creating standards of digitization with common metadata.  In this way these digitization projects are trying to bridge North and South by putting collections digitally online and accessible to anyone with computers and internet, and makes efficient use of scarce funding and personnel.

Following the panelists’ presentations, the Q&A portion began.


Adan Griego (Stanford U.) to Anton Duplessis:
Will the Primeros Libros project continue?
A.D. – It is continuing.
A.G. ‒ The Palafoxiana library is now online; to what extent are the local institutions in a position to do something with the files?
A.D. ‒ The Palafoxiana has suffered from a dearth of resources and is not in a position to take back files, although there are (tentative) plans for preservation and maintenance further on, but for the moment it is unable to do so due to material and financial constraints.

David Wilkin (U. of Oregon) to Lisa Cruces:
When using digital resources as a way to motivate donors, how do you explain the effort that goes behind digitizing primary sources so that they don’t have false expectations?
L.C. ‒ I am very honest with them about the expectations and possibilities of their donated materials and digitization.

Paula Covington: Referred to specific ways that donors and the university administration have financed/supported digitization projects.

Lara Aase (U. of Washington) to Paula & Anton:
Have you had any culturally sensitive material that has been digitized (Afro-Cuban religions, indigenous practices)?

P.C. ‒ So far nothing, but currently in midst of project of ethnographies & interviews, hoping it doesn’t lead to any problems.  There is also the example of Zapata Olivella’s correspondence with other people and how she had to get copyright for the senders of letters and the long process that entailed.

A.D. ‒ Not so many problems of culturally sensitive materials for Primeros Libros project, just that security is an issue for some of the institutions, therefore high publicity is an issue because items have been stolen in the past.

Donna Canevari (U. of Saskatchewan) to all panelists:

Requested that panelists speak about how they fund the projects.

P.C. ‒ For ESSSS funding from British Library Endangered Archive Program; from NEH; from ACLS; applied for another NEH grant this year; working through sustainability issues with the university.

L.C. ‒ U. of Houston has been investing heavily in digitization projects; university wants a lot of content, hungry to digitize; for other larger projects (such as a collection about Latin American oil), seeking for grants (NEH) and for money from donors.

Donna Canevari follow up:

Do donors ask for tax docs, tax breaks?

L.C. ‒ Yes, they do, and I am very willing to help them with that, and I am open and up front about those kinds of conversations, which helps the donation process along.

P.C. ‒ We also get money from NRC grants.

A.D. ‒ For Primeros Libros, received [grant] funding for the technical aspects (OCR), but the initial design and building of sites sponsored and carried out by participating libraries (A&M, U.T., LaFragua).  Big research libraries are using their money and personnel to carry out these projects as part of their institutional mission.  Bought a scanner and took it down to Puebla and other libraries in Mexico to digitize materials and train Latin American workers.

Daniel Arbino (U. of Arizona) to Paula & Anton:

Have you noticed an increase of online traffic from the respective countries using these collections?

P.C. ‒ Uptick in use from Brazil and Colombia; increased number of Colombian researchers coming to Vanderbilt to use non-digitized elements.  Mentions a commitment with the Colombian Ministry of Culture of making as many items available digitally as possible.  The online Zapata Olivella collection has increased research and scholarship on Zapata Olivella.

A.D. ‒ Has noticed increase through Google analytics, and an occasional “request to publish” form; has student employees go through and analyze citations to see who is using the material; not exhaustive searches.

End of panel

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