Archival Neutrality and Archival Authority


Earlier this week my friend and colleague Hannah Alpert-Abrams published the following article:

Tamy Guberek, Velia Muralles, Hannah Alpert-Abrams; ‘Irreversible’: The Role of Digitization to Repurpose State Records of Repression, International Journal of Transitional Justice

I want to highlight an important (short) passage on page 5, about the establishment of the AHPN as a public archive staffed in part by “former militants, communist and labor union members, civil society activists, and young people with family members who had been detained, tortured or disappeared during the most repressive years of the internal armed conflict.”

Citing Kristen Weld, the article notes that these workers “balanced their human commitments with ‘archival thinking.’” because they wanted to ensure AHPN records could be admissible as evidence in court cases; court cases which did indeed happen and held (some) people accountable.

At the UT iSchool we talked a lot about notions of “archival neutrality” or “archival objectivity” – the idea that archivists should adhere strictly to this same notion of “archival thinking” in order to accurately document events. The most heated exchange we read on the subject was in the (notorious) “Social Justice special issue” of The American Archivist from 2013, which highlighted some, uh, “strong professional disagreement” in the profession.

When we read articles from that issue in class virtually everyone came down against Mark Greene hard for asserting that archivists’ and records managers’ objectivity in recording government atrocities could help later human rights tribunals. That is, records’ admissibility in court must be tied to their having been created in an objective manner. Verne Harris pointed out that he’d rather see conscientious government records managers fabricating records to save people from harm in the first place.

Working at LLILAS Benson and the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, I can’t think of a single archivist working alongside me who would argue that archivists can be, much less ought to be, neutral. I don’t even know if I have any in my professional network; the debate seems so settled.

But the AHPN is situated interestingly alongside this whole debate: in one sense the records were created neutrally, by state agents who faithfully wrote down and stored evidence of what the police were up to. And as the article points out, AHPN staff, many of them victims of the very state whose records they were now managing, “followed strict archival standards and protocols for the [archive’s] restoration” in order to preserve the documents’ evidentiary value.

What I find so interesting about this is that there are two distinct, absolutely opposed groups of archivists and records managers ostensibly operating along strictly professional lines that some people might call “neutral” or “objective”. But of course neither of these groups is neutral or objective: they’re working either in service of real widespread atrocities or efforts to seek justice for those atrocities. Nevertheless they are adhering to some sort of professional ethic of honesty that ensures records aren’t altered.

I think anytime we debate whether archives are “neutral” we risk wasting our time and missing the point. Certainly people outside the profession need to know that they’re not and have never been neutral. I think we should literally always bring it up in public-facing media. My colleague Rachel Winston did this expertly in an interview released last week.

But we also need to think about why people should take us seriously as authorities when it comes to records, if we aren’t neutral about it. We risk missing an underlying question of where our authority as archivists comes from.

Older generations would say our authority, in fact, comes from our neutrality. But that can’t be it anymore, in fact we’re out there telling the public that we’re not neutral, as we ought to be. But we probably do need something to point the general public to in lieu of neutrality. I don’t know what that is though. Maybe we should frame our authority as deriving from our Archival Transparency or Archival Honesty.

As we’ve all heard a thousand times, we’re living in a “post-facts age”, in which publics (and increasingly, politicians) can just handwave away any facts they’re not interested in confronting as “fake” or “made up”. Frankly I’m worried that this isn’t a phase, that it’s just the inevitable result of the way ICTs have taken shape under late capitalism. I’m worried we’ll see these debates creep over time from being about “fake news” to “fake records”.


If we as archivists, literal arbiters of what will constitute the permanent historical record, don’t have a clear & pithy term to point to when we’re accused of “bias” (as hollow as that word has become) as a way of invalidating our practice and cutting our funding, we might be in big trouble!

So I guess I’m not interested in debating archival neutrality or objectivity, especially not with people who would pretend it’s even possible. I am, however, interested in coming up with a unifying term for the honest work we put in each and every day in service of historical memory.


The best movies what I saw in 2018

I saw about a dozen theatrical releases this year, and most of them were pretty good. Here are my favorites, in rough order from least-best to most-best.

11. Suspiria

The original Suspiria is both a campy product of its time (all the new age psychology nonsense) and a visual masterpiece with lots to say about buried history. It’s full of rich subtext about European life in the shadow of fascism and the Holocaust in the 1970s. Guadagnino’s version turns that subtext into text and grounds the story very specifically in Cold War Berlin, but it stops short of the original by not connecting those hidden wartime histories to post-war supernatural violence. Instead we get an audience surrogate whose wife was killed in the Holocaust, which results in some effective but ultimately hollow moments.

Continue reading “The best movies what I saw in 2018”

Digital Resources: The Hijuelas Collection

My first (non-blog) publication is now available! I wrote with Matthew Butler of the UT History Department about our Hijuelas digitization project for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. The article is available here (requires an institutional subscription for full access):

I have previously written about this project here, and my full workflow documents are available here.

Read about our ongoing project in Puebla, Mexico

Up now on the LLILAS Benson blog, a post about the official launch of the Fondo Real de Cholula digitization project in Puebla, Mexico:

This project will digitize and describe approximately 45 thousand pages of documents from colonial and modern Cholula. In June I traveled with my colleague Dylan Joy to Puebla to deliver equipment and conduct a digitization workshop for the team of three historians, who will carry out the work for the next 9 months.


My annotated slides from my panel at TCDL 2018


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!

Come see me at TCDL 2018

tcdl title slide

Along with my colleague Itza Carbajal, I will be co-moderating a panel at this year’s Texas Conference on Digital Libraries. Our panel, “Post-Custodial Praxis at LLILAS Benson: Lessons in Digitization, Access, and Community Partnerships,” brings together practitioners from LLILAS Benson and see of our partners on post-custodial projects of various kinds. The panel will provide helpful information on designing and managing post-custodial projects, as well as shed light on some important collections themselves.

My presentation, “Institutionalizing post-custodial digitization at LLILAS Benson”, will cover some of the digitization workflows we have implemented in Mexico, and some lessons I have learned from several years of working on post-custodial projects.

Our panel will be held Thursday, May 17th at 1:00pm in the Big Tex auditorium, 1.102. See the TCDL 2018 program page to see our panel and add it to your calendar using Sched.

On mass shootings and neoliberalism

In response to yesterday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida:

In another time, or another country, one mass shooting, much less one targeting children, would provoke sweeping legislation sponsoring large-scale gun buybacks and mental health programs for the entire population. Instead we all feel powerless to effect change because nothing about Florida is new, and nothing can affect the NRA or reach pro-gun lawmakers.

I’ve been thinking about why we’re left feeling so powerless and helpless to stop mass shootings, and yes, of course the NRA and GOP have literal blood on their hands. But I also think the Democratic Party bears some responsibility.

We all know the NRA doesn’t advocate for gun owners – it’s a manufacturers’ lobby, protecting a very lucrative industry of death. In a functioning political economy, we’d have a major party broadly advocating against the interests of the wealthy, on behalf of the majority of the population. In a functioning political economy, the outrage and heartbreak we feel in response to a mass shooting would be properly understood as the direct result of morbid profiteering, and the majority of the country that wants reasonably strict gun law reform would already be mobilized & aware of the need for direct political and material action. In a functioning political economy a single mass shooting would be met appropriately with horror and a sweeping electoral mandate to Do Something Now.

Instead we have a relatively hapless Democratic Party committed to maintaining a broken political coalition joining the urbane wealthy with the desperate, growing working class (and shrinking lower middle class). As a party, the Democrats have repeatedly chosen this coalition over the past 20 years, continuously eschewing meaningful class consciousness, mobilization, and direct action for technocratic tinkering and reification of the unsustainable status quo. The party hops from one “handsome rising star” to the next in the hopes of finding deliverance from the perfidy of the GOP, all for naught, because the party also works incredibly hard to avoid talking about precisely what makes the GOP so goddamn evil. To identify the cause of the GOP’s evil would encourage the poor to resent the wealthy, yes even the urbane wealthy.

Crucially, this strategy just isn’t working for the Democrats. They’ve been shedding thousands of seats at the state and local levels for decades. The GOP is not far from having enough unilateral control over state governments to force unspeakably evil constitutional amendments through. And they’re willing to do it. The Democrats’ unwillingness to engage in true class mobilization and coalition building is going to get us all killed.

That feeling of helplessness we all have right now is not so dissimilar from the helplessness we feel when schools shutter as a result of funding cuts, or when SNAP gets cut, or when our local library can’t afford to hire enough staff. It’s the relentless, unstoppable logic of capital and the market, wriggling its way into our brains and preventing us from imagining an alternative to austerity. But we don’t have a resource shortage problem, we have a resource allocation problem.

We can, in fact, just take money from the rich and give it to the poor. If we can make that a political reality, we make it easier to mobilize very specifically against the ghouls in the NRA. But we need our supposed representatives to take the goddamn gloves off, or we need to find a way to force them to.

My published thoughts on the 2017 DLF Forum

This October I was fortunate enough to attend the 2017 Digital Library Federation Forum in Pittsburgh, with the support of a DLF Student and New Professional Fellowship. DLF is a very progressive, critically minded organization, and the Forum was a wholly worthwhile experience. I wrote a post for the DLF blog about a few panels which I found particularly stimulating and relevant to my work.

Come work with me!

LLILAS Benson is looking for a Latin American Metadata Librarian to contribute to our Mellon Foundation grant project, “Cultivating a Latin American Post-Custodial Archival Praxis”. This is a two-year position, though like mine there is always a chance the scope and length of the position will expand. There are two listings: a Librarian I position for those new to the field, and a Librarian II position for those with more experience. Both have great pay and offer an exciting opportunity to work in a dynamic and forward-thinking environment.

Here’s a link to the job posting on SALALM.