Theresa Polk, Archivist, and Melanie Cofield, Metadata Coordinator, UT Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
In 2014, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin received a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to pilot a post-custodial approach to international archival collaboration. Under the auspices of the grant, LLILAS Benson partnered with three archival institutions in Central America to digitize selected holdings, both facilitating the long-term preservation of unique historical materials and making them accessible to a global audience through the Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) online repository.
In developing the project, LLILAS Benson explicitly adopted an approach to archival collaboration informed by post-custodial theory. Rather than physically taking custody of partners’ collections, LLILAS Benson provided consultation, digitization equipment, and archival training in preservation, arrangement, metadata, and digitization. Partner institutions prioritized the materials to be included in the project, conducted the digitization work, and created descriptive metadata. This approach allowed our partners to retain physical and intellectual control over their collections throughout the project.
Project partners included the Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica – CIDCA (Nicaragua), the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica – CIRMA (Guatemala), and the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen – MUPI (El Salvador). CIDCA digitized an estimated 900 issues of La Información, a local newspaper that covered the economic, social and political life of Bluefields, Nicaragua from 1917 through 1998. CIRMA digitized approximately 4,700 news clippings on the theme of violence in Guatemala during the years of 1978-1981 from the Inforpress Centroamericana archive, one of the most highly consulted collections in their holdings. MUPI digitized a variety of solidarity and propaganda materials, including posters, pamphlets, and publications from the Salvadoran conflict, from 1979 to 1992.
The resulting digital collections are made available online in collaboration with the University of Texas Libraries, utilizing the open source Fedora/Islandora repository framework. For UT Libraries, the project served as a test case for in-house development with Islandora, helping to identify resource, staffing, and workflow requirements for bringing additional UT collections online.
Optimizing descriptive metadata for use in the Islandora environment proved to be one of the most critical and time-consuming aspects of the project. Out-of-the-box Islandora requires use of the Metadata Object Description Schema (MODS), a bibliographic metadata standard, for batch ingest purposes, so we started by mapping the raw metadata we received from partners to the MODS schema. The granularity of MODS enables fine control over the indexing, search, and display of metadata in the interface. MODS also includes detailed attributes that allowed us to indicate the language of each element value, reference both external and local authorities, and embed Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) in anticipation of future linked data functionality. Customizing MODS “note” fields gave us flexibility to accommodate valuable information that didn’t otherwise neatly fit within the MODS schema, such as extended descriptions for some materials, designation of objects for curated site displays, and location information for related digital master files. Once we mapped the metadata to MODS and normalized across collections for a cohesive user experience, we utilized tools such as OpenRefine and oXygen to further clean, standardize, and format the metadata in preparation to ingest the digital files into Islandora.
While the granularity and flexibility of MODS is advantageous in many respects, it does present practical and ethical challenges in the context of a project like this one. Practically, there is the need to reconcile archival and bibliographic description. Ethically, we felt compelled to think critically about imposing a U.S.-based descriptive standard on the collections – pondering whether it undermined the post-custodial intent of the project (particularly given the historical context and subject matter of the collections) and whether valuable context might be lost in translation.
Continuing in the post-custodial vein, we prioritized Spanish as our “language of cataloguing” since our partners had created the initial descriptive metadata in Spanish. We originally expected to create a fully bilingual repository, but quickly realized we would need to make some compromises, given timeframe, resource, and platform constraints. While we have been able to translate static website text and implement a bilingual interface, the multilingual nature of the metadata — including the original Spanish description, supplementary English MODS fields, and in some cases titles or descriptions in the language of the resource (German, Italian, French, etc.) — complicates the metadata display. We had to be content with adding translations where feasible and including a language tag for each value in the XML for ease of reuse and programmatic operations. Ongoing metadata enhancement via grant-funded or student-driven projects will help to smooth out lingering issues.
As the digital repository finally began to take shape, it was tremendously exciting to see how the metadata facilitated these disparate collections talking to one another and to other Benson digital collections. Articles in La Información offer a Nicaraguan perspective on the Guatemalan coup in 1954. The Salvadoran and Guatemalan collections provide a glimpse into how both repression and resistance were internationalized during the height of the Central American conflicts. The posters and clandestine publications in MUPI’s collections contribute a visually engaging complement to the Radio Venceremos recordings. And in some cases, we have been able to link news clippings from the Inforpress collection to records in the Digital Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive. As the site continues to evolve, new collections are added, and researchers begin to actively engage it, we hope it will facilitate new insights into human rights scholarship in the region.