We use “post-custodial” to refer to an archival collection method whereby we enter into partnerships with smaller, often vulnerable and resource-limited organizations to preserve and provide access to digital surrogates of the collections without taking physical custody of them or depriving our partners’ surrounding communities of the original physical records. This typically takes the form of digitization performed on-site in Latin America, after which hard drives of digitized materials are sent to us at LLILAS Benson for processing and publication.
There’s a world of nuance and theory in how this work is carried out, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave it there for now. Each of the panelists that follow me will shed more light on the model, from various perspectives.
LLILAS Benson has been managing post-custodial projects since 2008. Without dwelling too long on these projects, I’d like to specifically identify a few which will help contextualize our recent work. The first project I’d like to talk about is the Human Rights Documentation Initiative or HRDI for short. The HRDI primarily operates out of LLILAS Benson, but it has no specific geographic constraint. The HRDI partners with local orgs to support their work by digitizing, preserving, and publishing their human rights-related materials, primarily AV materials.
HRDI materials, including the Texas After Violence Project which Jane will tell us more about, live on a public-facing wiki-powered AV and transcription platform called Glifos. The wiki platform allows us to flexibly structure and restructure each collection to meet our partners’ needs, but the geographic disparity between collections and idiosyncratic tagging practices means the metadata doesn’t really facilitate cross-collection research.
The other early post-custodial collection I’d like to mention here is the Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional de Guatemala, which is a Benson partner. The collection is made up of approximately 80 million 20th century Guatemalan police records, containing evidence of police complicity in human rights violations. Like the HRDI’s collections, it would be inappropriate for the records to leave the country. In this case digitization using flatbed scanners was already underway before the partnership began, and the Benson’s role is primarily to publish and preserve the digital collection. As you can imagine, digitizing 80 million documents is not a small task – after about 10 years, roughly a fourth of the collection has been digitized. Given its size, the AHPN digital collection requires its own web portal with its own often opaque discovery and navigation system.
In both the case of the HRDI and AHPN, we’ve supported important ongoing human rights work and made valuable collections available, and developed a large body of post-custodial practice for others to look to. One particular challenge is that the digitization process and structure for each of these collections varies significantly, making each post-custodial partnership a significant intellectual undertaking.
In 2014 LLILAS Benson received a pilot Mellon foundation grant to expand post-custodial partnerships in Latin America and build a unified Islandora access platform for digitized print materials. The resulting Latin American Digital Initiatives platform launched in 2015 and brings together collections from 20th century Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The tighter geographic and chronological focus facilitates discovery across collections more easily than before. Our current Mellon grant project will add an additional three collections from Latin America to the LADI platform, as well as migrate existing collections from a Fedora 3 to a Fedora 4 framework.
The slide you see here is a rough sketch of what post-custodial partnerships look like from before they form to the time materials are publicly released. This is how we generally divide the work between ourselves in blue and our partners in red. The purple boxes are sites of particularly close collaboration, though I should say that this model is meant to foster cooperation and close contact throughout every stage of the partnership, as our goal is always to create mutually-beneficial projects. I’d like to point out that our partners always get a local copy of the digital collection, which they’re free to reuse and publish independently. We also donate the equipment at the conclusion of the project so our partners can continue digitizing their materials independently. This slide is available on my website for closer review – that URL is at the end of my presentation.
Now I’d like to talk a bit about some of my work specifically, which is focused on developing digitization workflows for print materials. In 2016 we launched a post-custodial digitization project in Michoacan, Mexico, which Matthew will be speaking about. The materials in that collection are bound volumes that could not be digitized using flatbed scanners, requiring a new equipment setup and workflow. We settled on a setup using DSLR cameras mounted on copy stands, and a workflow which leans heavily on Adobe Lightroom. This is with our project team in Michoacan in November 2016. The project has been successful enough that we’ve begun adapting the workflow and equipment list for projects under our current Mellon grant, adapting it to fit each collection’s structure and swapping the (very heavy) copy stand out for a lightweight tripod, which you can see in the image on the left.
Here you can see a detail view of some images created using our workflow. The workflow generates up to several hundred images an hour, each of which can be immediately QC’d using tethered capture. Budget limitations mean the DSLRs we use generate lower-resolution images than flatbed scanners, but we haven’t had to compromise too much and we’ve found the speed and ease of the work is worth the tradeoff. A higher budget for fancier cameras and more powerful computers would allow other projects to proceed roughly as quickly and produce higher quality images. For example, last year we got a grant to digitize a large collection in house, and we adapted this workflow to use a much higher resolution medium format camera that creates far larger images.
One final benefit of this workflow is that it produces camera raw files, which work really well as raw master files since they cannot be permanently changed. This is a good archival practice, but it also gives us more flexibility in adapting our workflow.
This slide shows two versions of the workflow. In the project on the left, recto and verso pages of books are photographed separately and then merged on TIFF export. But in the project on the right, we photograph two facing pages at once. Because camera raw files can always be reverted to their original form, we can crop, edit, and export the left side of each image, reset the camera raw file, then crop, edit, and export the right side. In the end, splitting, color correcting, and renaming files into left and right sides adds only a few clicks to the process and does not apply any permanent changes to the original raw file.
Post-custodial partnerships don’t need to be international. In fact, a lot of the logistical issues we’ve encountered with our projects, like the need to transport digitization equipment across distances, are probably more difficult in international contexts. There may be good partnerships waiting to be formed in each of our communities, within each of our collecting scopes. We don’t need to wait for organizations in our communities to close their doors or tell us they no longer need their records in order to help them in this way. We as archivists have a valuable service we can provide them.
In entering into these partnerships, approach the work collaboratively – this is meant to suit your needs as well as your partners’. In many cases partners may want to prioritize paper records for digitization, but as we’ve seen with the HRDI sometimes AV materials are priorities and the specific camera digitization model I’ve talked about today won’t help.
I’ve only recently begun to reflect on the fact that what I produce as an archivist is not what I thought it would be when I was a student. I’m not digitizing the materials myself, nor do I produce finding aids. The end product of my work is often a printed workflow document, not a collection itself!
We should also be mindful of the tendency to devalue the work of digitization. We try and set up partnerships so that the people digitizing the materials are the ones who understand them best. They’re also the ones who describe the materials and who will remain custodians. Digitization can sometimes feel rote, but we want our partners’ creative input about the process, and we don’t want it to feel like we’re dumping the most mechanistic work on them. With that in mind, we need to work to give our partners time to describe the material at the level they feel is important, even if that means digitizing slightly fewer objects than this workflow is technically capable of.
Here are some resources available to you – The British Library Endangered Archives Programme recently released this free handbook for digitizing materials, and it contains lots of good specific info. They don’t use the term “post-custodial”, but in many ways that is what the guide helps provide. I also have some digitization workflows available on my website, where these slides will also be made available. I’m happy to talk about this further, so come see me or reach out to me if you have any thoughts or questions!