2011 - Panel 12 - Exhuming the Archive: Countering Impunity and Restoring Cultural Heritage in Neocolonial and Post-Conflict States
Panel 12, Tuesday May 31, 2011, 2:00 pm-3:30 pm
Moderator: Silvia Mejia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Presenters: Marisol Ramos, University of Connecticut; T-Kay Sangwand, The University of Texas at Austin; and Joel Blanco-Rivera, University of Pittsburgh
Rapporteur: Suzanne Schadl, University of New Mexico
The first presentation, Sharing Archives: The P.R. Civil Court Cases Collection Digital Project, by Marisol Ramos of the University of Connecticut (UConn) offered digitization of the Puerto Rican Civil Court Cases Collection as a solution for colonialist ownership of cultural heritage collections in tenuous political environments. Ramos noted that this collection, purchased by UConn in 2002 (before her appointment), actually belonged in the National Archive in Puerto Rico. Upon its establishment in 1955, it became the repository for all government records from the Spanish period to the present. Even so, and through legal means, these documents were in the custody of UConn when she began working there. Because of strict Connecticut state laws prohibiting the deaccession of materials bought by the state, this 19th century collection could not be returned to Puerto Rico. To make matters worse, the fragility of the documents within this collection prohibited making photocopies to share access with the country of provenance.
In 2007, Ramos became concerned with how best to address the moral and ethical obligation to provide Puerto Ricans access to this collection. She saw it as part of the Puerto Rican national and cultural heritage. As a Puerto Rican who had worked in and collaborated with staff at the National Archive in Puerto Rico, Ramos felt even more obligated to identify a solution to the problem of U.S. universities ending up with collections far from their countries of origin. After offering a snapshot of several cases in which donations, purchases, deaths, and/or other events led to document drains, Ramos addressed the difficult historical relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. In so doing, she situated their relationship within studies of colonialism. Ramos noted that as a political appointee embroiled in this difficult connection, it would be ill-advised for the director of the National Archive in Puerto Rico to formally demand that documents be returned to Puerto Rico. The rotating nature of such political positions would make this endeavor even more complicated.
Ramos proposed intervention from archivists and librarians in the United States holding cultural heritage collections. She then outlined the UConn project, and announced that the Latin American Microforms Project (LAMP) had agreed to help fund the initiative. Ramos noted that once digitized, by May 2012 all of the documents in the Puerto Rican Civil Court Cases Collection would be shared through the Internet Archive. Ramos noted that while this solution did not return documents to their country of origin, it did offer access. It also successfully bypassed University funding politics and spoke to the difficulties of cross national/institutional ownership of cultural heritage collections in a tenuous funding situation and in a complicated political environment.
In the second presentation, Tejiendo la Memoria: Strengthening Collective Memory of El Salvador’s Civil War through Transnational Digitization Partnerships, T-Kay Sangwand (The University of Texas at Austin) proposed a Distributed Archival Model as an alternative to problematic traditional methods of archival possession. She argued that the partnership based model of transnational digitization could empower record and access creators by enabling them to retain, expand, and share access while also learning useful techniques in digital preservation.
Sangwand began by presenting the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) at UT (http://www.lib.utexas.edu/hrdi). This program serves as the umbrella under which her primary focus, the Tejiendo la Memoria project, evolved. Sangwand noted that HRDI emerged out of the collective effort in which activists, scholars, and organizations together with the University of Texas Libraries (UTL) began to identify threatened electronic and analog resources for preservation. They sought to save the most fragile records of international human rights struggles and promote their security through archival availability, human rights research and continued advocacy. A generous grant from the Bridgeway Foundation in 2008 led to the establishment of the HRDI, which Sangwand noted currently engages in transnational collaborative projects to preserve and make accessible the historical record of genocide and human rights violations throughout the world.
Sangwand presented UT Austin’s work with the Radio Venceremos Archive at the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of Word and Image) in El Salvador as an example of implementing a Distributive Archival Model. Radio Venceremos traveled with the FMLN during the El Salvadoran Civil War and denounced human rights abuses. Sangwand noted that this medium also became an important means for popular education. After the war ended, Radio Venceremos had 1,270 fragile tapes containing personal testimonies. Needless to say, the Museum Word and Image was reluctant to give UT Austin temporary custody of these important records, and understandably so, especially considering the political history between the United States and El Salvador. UT Austin chose, thus, to use collection development funds in order to send equipment and trainers to the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen with the express purpose of acquiring this digital collection.
UT Austin employees provided training in digital preservation techniques and metadata standards and Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen archivists began to digitize and describe the collection. Custody never changed hands and each party had the opportunity to contribute their expertise to the project. UT Austin and the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen agreed to share the digital copies archived in a server at UT Austin. The original Radio Venceremos tapes remained in El Salvador. The funding formula used in this experimental acquisition involved calculating the staff costs of two employees processing this collection over two years’ time. UT Austin agreed to pay 2/3 of the cost while the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen covered 1/3. Sangwand concluded by sharing a clip of a sole survivor’s testimonial in these audio files.
In the third presentation, Declassification and Accountability for Part Abuses: Transitional Justice in Latin America and the Impact of Declassified U.S. Government Documents, Joel Blanco-Rivera (University of Pittsburgh) argued that transitional justice in Latin America requires and is dependent upon access to government documents from the United States. He suggested and offered several examples in which these documents have played important roles in memory-related initiatives throughout Latin America.
Blanco-Rivera began his presentation by placing Latin American requirements for access to U.S. government documents in an international context. He offered a review of cases and literature including reference to the following international efforts to save threatened records: German state security service records in the early 1990s; Paraguayan information on detentions during the Stroessner regime; records from the Guatemalan national police stored in a police building in Mexico City; and very recently, records from the Egyptian state security police. In this last case, Blanco-Rivera stated that protestors successfully used social media to document their demands for saving records as well as for documenting them. He noted that in all of these cases, saving these documents from destruction led to public outcries and increased availability, as in the case of the Archive of Terror. Knowledge of these documents also prompted heightened demands for declassified U.S. government documents, as in the case of Operation Condor.
Building on literature regarding the importance of archivist activism in Human Rights, Blanco-Rivera noted that it was imperative for archivists and human rights activists to take responsibility for preserving several different kinds of archives including transitional archives of former regimes; archives of human rights organizations; archives documenting life during the period; and archives of declassified governments. He reiterated that archival sources enable societies to address legacies of human rights abuses, to institute truth programs, and to implement government reforms and other transitions. Blanco-Rivera highlighted the importance of truth commissions as the main mechanisms for addressing abuses in Latin America. He also argued that such efforts succeeded only after also obtaining declassified U.S. documents. Blanco-Rivera demonstrated that combining Truth Commission reports with the declassification of U.S. documents increased interest in the contradictions between U.S. declassified documents and local documents. He added that this triangulation often opened the door for even greater demands for the release of additional records.
Questions & Comments:
Pamela Graham (Columbia University) asked Sangwand how prevalent the UT Austin model is. She wanted to know if there were other institutions doing similar things and she asked Sangwand if the cost sharing formula UT Austin has used addressed ongoing preservation and maintenance costs. Sangwand stated that she was not aware of any other academic organizations doing something similar but that non-governmental organization were involved in like practices. As for the storage and maintenance costs, she noted that the UT Austin director was supportive of the project as an acquisition and not worried about storage right now. The point was to build an infrastructure for this process to continue in the future. There was an inaudible interjection from the audience on other collections or documents in Mexico.
Ana María Garra asked Blanco-Rivera about his familiarity with a case brought in the U.S. in 1973, which was developed from U.S. documents. He noted that he was familiar with that case and added a few additional examples.
Adrian Johnson (UT Austin) asked Blanco-Rivera if civil judgments help people pursue criminal cases, sort of as a means to ameliorate the reality that a civil conviction rarely results in payment. He wondered if it would be possible to use such a case to revoke citizenship. Blanco-Rivera responded that receiving money was never the end goal. Recognition was most important.
Suzanne Schadl (UNM) asked Ramos and Sangwand if they had to maneuver restrictive bureaucratic funding (such as not recognizing museums as vendors or refusing large reimbursements) to purchase documents in order to get them back to where they belong or to use collections development funds for digital acquisition. Both noted that they had very little difficulty, just increased paper work and communications.
Johnson (UT Austin) asked Ramos if she had any contact with the Puerto Rican Archives since they put this collection into the Internet Archive. He wondered if they were using it. Ramos noted that they were still in the beginning processes of the project and that it would not be live until May 2012.
Adán Benavides (UT Austin) asked Sangwand how feasible it would be to continue these kinds of agreements and how selective they could be in this process. He wanted to know about the long-term sustainability of these projects after the case. Sangwand noted that the library was dedicated to preservation and maintenance costs for these collections, not unlike they would be for other acquisitions. Graham (Columbia University) added that Mellon grants were offering funding for figuring out how to do archiving metadata/