Interview with SALALM Scholarship Awardee: Theresa Polk

Theresa Polk is an archivist at the LLILAS...

Theresa Polk.

Theresa Polk is an archivist at the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas. She earned her MLS from the University of Maryland's iSchool, specializing in archives. While studying at Maryland, she learned of the SALALM scholarship through the iSchool's listserv and decided to apply. Polk also holds an MPhil in International Peace Studies, with a specialization in Ethics, from Trinity College Dublin.
What drew you to the field of librarianship/archival studies?
I was working on a human rights project in Guatemala when the Historical Archive of the National Police was uncovered in 2005. Later, as I became more involved in some of the legal cases around human rights violations that took place during Guatemala's internal conflict, I became increasingly aware of the vital role of archives in transitional processes following political violence or conflict.
How did you become interested in Latin America/Iberia? Describe your language abilities and experiences studying and/or traveling in Latin America.
I had a wonderful literature teacher in high school, who taught a world poetry class. She had an amazing collection that I slowly read my way through during my spare time. As I started to connect the poetry I was reading from Latin America to the historical moment from which it emanated and the struggle for justice, something clicked, and I was hooked. I went to college knowing I would pursue a major in Latin American studies, and was able to spend a year studying abroad in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
It took a while to find the right opportunity to return, but in 2005, I joined the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala's (NISGUA) accompaniment team, supporting communities involved in the Rios Montt genocide case and other human rights defenders. It was an amazing, life-changing, and heartbreaking experience that ultimately led me to pursue a career in archives.
Did you know about SALALM before you applied for the scholarship?
Yes, I attended the SALALM conference in 2011 in Philadelphia, when I was still deciding whether an MLS was a good fit for me. It was a great experience and helped me make the decision to begin applying to MLS programs. In 2014, I had intended to attend SALALM in Salt Lake City, but had to cancel my travel plans at the last minute for health reasons.
What was the most interesting or unexpected thing that you learned at the conference?
I knew very little about the field when I attended the 2011 conference; for the most part, it was an opportunity to see if it felt like a good fit for my interests. The human rights theme was very encouraging, and it was exciting to hear about human rights-related collections and work happening in the field. The keynote speaker, the National Security Archive's Peter Kornbluh, particularly struck a chord. His talk really resonated as he spoke of activist archivists and doing “documentary exhumations” of human rights violations, and I thought, yes, that is what I want to be able to do.
Was SALALM helpful in your career development?
Yes. To begin with, discovering this space within the profession encouraged me to pursue the MLS. I have also really benefited from the mentorship and connections I have made through SALALM, and look forward to becoming more involved in the future.
Did the SALALM scholarship allow you to do something you might not otherwise have been able to do?
The scholarship went mostly to school expenses; however, it eased the financial burden, allowing me to pursue other experiences outside of school, such as internships, conferences, and other professional development opportunities.
Are you currently working with a Latin American/Iberian archival or library collection?
I recently joined the staff of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin, working on a new post-custodial digital archives initiative. It's a dream opportunity that allows me to really integrate my experience in the region with my archival training. Previously, I interned in the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress, and helped process two Latin American ethnographic collections at the National Anthropological Archives (Smithsonian Institution).