The Limits of Efficiency: Daily Digital Archival Practice at LLILAS Benson

I gave the following presentation on May 27th, 2021, at the Latin American Studies Association’s 2021 virtual congress, “Crisis Global: Desigualdades y Centralidad de la Vida”. This presentation was part of a panel entitled “Historia digital: trabajando con archivos nacidos digitales”, alongside Nicolás F. Quiroga (CONICET/Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata), Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez (UC Irvine), and Denise Frigo (Universidade Federal de Santa Maria). The panel was organized by Nicolás F. Quiroga, and Eden Medina (MIT) was the discussant.

Introduction and post-custodialism

My name is David Bliss, and I am the Systems and Digital Archivist at the University of Texas Libraries. From July 2017 until to April of this year, I was the Digital Processing Archivist at the Benson Latin American Collection at UT. Today I’ll be speaking primarily about my work in my previous role, although many of my reflections about digital archival labor also apply to my new position and, I suspect, to other digital archivists as well.

At the Benson, my work was primarily focused on developing and supporting post-custodial archival projects in Latin America. Post-custodialism refers to an archival methodology that aims to preserve and provide access to archival collections without physically relocating them from their contexts of creation. The term was coined in 1981 by archivist F. Gerald Ham, but its contemporary use by archival practitioners follows its usage by archival scholar Jeannette Bastian, who wrote about it extensively beginning in the late 1990s.[1]

Slide with title "Post-custodial archival theory".

Preserving and publishing records without taking physical custody

Digitization and online access

F. Gerald Ham, "Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era" (1981)

Jeannette Bastian, "A Question of Custody: The Historical Records of the U.S. Virgin Islands" (1999)

Photo of digitization equipment and computer being used to scan a colonial document at the Archivo Judicial del Estado de Puebla

Post-custodial theory proposes that digitization tools and internet access hold the potential to fundamentally transform the relationship between those who create or hold historical records and archivists who seek to preserve these records and make them available. Traditional archival collecting models regard archivists as custodians of social memory, uniquely equipped to conserve and provide access to historical materials for future generations by taking direct control of documents in state, university, or private repositories.

For institutions collecting internationally, this has often meant relocating archival collections far away from their original contexts, where those records may have the most profound and immediate social value. In the aggregate, this has resulted in the extraction of large swaths of documentary cultural heritage from the Global South and its accumulation at well-financed institutions in North America and Europe. This pattern mirrors colonial archaeological extraction, not to mention the ongoing extraction of natural resources by economic forces concentrated in these same regions.

The post-custodial model is an attempt to intervene and disrupt this dynamic. The post-custodial team at the Benson partners with organizations in Latin America to digitize and describe their records on-site. We devise digitization and metadata workflows that will meet the structure and needs of their collections, then deliver equipment and train our partners in its use before returning to Austin, while our partners undertake the work locally. Once a collection has been digitized, a copy is sent to the Benson, where it undergoes image and metadata processing, digital preservation, and finally publication on our Latin American Digital Initiatives online repository.

Diagram with title "Post-custodial projects at LLILAS Benson", showing typical post-custodial project elements, broken down by chronologically and divided between those pieces contributed by the project partner, those contributed by LLILAS Benson, and the points of collaboration. 

Pre-project partner elements are Physical custody of records. Pre-project LLILAS Benson elements are Digital Infrastructure.

Project planning collaborative elements are Selection of Materials and Metadata templates. Project planning LLILAS Benson elements are equipment selection and workflow design.

Project launch partner elements are Digitization and description; Editing and derivatives; QC; and fixity check.

Processing and publication partner elements are Additional derivatives and publication and reuse.

Processing and publication LLILAS Benson elements are ingest, fixity check, QC, processing, preservation, and publication and reuse.

Broadly speaking, we’re leveraging the digital infrastructure and expertise of the University of Texas together with our partners’ rich contextual knowledge to provide broader access to their collections. Our partners retain physical and intellectual control over the collections at all times, they are free to reuse and publish the digital collections as they see fit, and they keep the digitization equipment used for each project for their own purposes following the conclusion of the project. Our hope is that these collaborations will help to develop our partners’ archival capacity, and that wider use of their collections by researchers and the public will bolster their work more broadly.

Post-custodial archival projects at the Benson date back more than a decade and encompass a variety of initiatives of different scopes and durations. Today I’d like to elaborate and reflect on my work for two such projects in order to shed light on how digital collections are constructed and what daily archival labor looks like. My hope is that this reflection will help researchers understand some of the practical limitations and implications of working with digital collections, work which is often even less publicly visible than traditional archival practice.

How digital collections are constructed

In August 2018, I traveled to Puebla, Mexico to visit the Archivo Judicial del Estado de Puebla, which houses the Fondo Real de Cholula. The Fondo Real is a large collection of judicial records from nearby Cholula, spanning from 1571 to the early 19th century. During the colonial period, Cholula was designated a Ciudad de Indios by the Spanish crown, granting its residents access to special legal structures and a degree of local political autonomy. The judicial proceedings recorded in the Fondo Real show how Cholultecas navigated the contemporary world through contracts, lawsuits, criminal complaints, and wills. It is believed to be the only such collection from New Spain that survived the Mexican Revolution, and it may be the most complete one in all of Latin America.

Slide with title "Fondo Real de Cholula at the Archivo Judicial del Estado de Puebla". Photo of several hundred archival boxes on metal shelves in an archive. Photo of man and woman examining a document on a table. Screenshot of a list of questions about the archive and collection.

The purpose of my initial visit was to assess the collection’s intellectual organization, the structure of its component documents, and the physical state of the building in which it was housed. These questions would shape our equipment selection and the metadata templates used to describe the collection. While our goal was to create a complete digital surrogate of the Fondo Real for online access, digitization itself is a highly material process, and material considerations determine whether a project succeeds or fails.

Over the six months that followed, we purchased equipment, devised digitization workflows and metadata templates, and documented all the steps involved in creating the digital collection. The digitization workflow we devised emphasizes speed and efficiency, capturing two facing pages of an expediente at once, then cropping and color correcting several hundred images at a time.

Slide with title "Fondo Real de Cholula: Project Planning". Photo of camera and tripod mounted on a table. Screenshot of digitization workflow guide. Diagram showing digitization process, with recto and verso pages photographed and named together, then edited, cropped, and exported & renamed separately, then reintegrated

This work, along with the metadata gathering, would ultimately be done by a team of historians in Puebla, who have access to the collection and are well equipped to read and understand the documents. Although we tend to defer to our partners’ preferred terminology for describing the documents, in setting a metadata template, we exert a great deal of influence over what types of information our partners can and can’t gather.

Designing a metadata template for this collection meant deciding which fields and values would be required — that is, which information the team would need to record about each and every expediente — and which would be optional. Optional fields can be thought of as nice to have and potentially useful to researchers, but may not necessarily be present in each expediente or a top-priority should the team come up on the time constraints imposed by our grant.

Slide with title "Fondo Real de Cholula: Metadata template". 

List of required fields:
Número de volumen
Cantidad de fojas
Tipo de caso/documento
Nombre del escribano
Identificador digital

List of optional fields:
Nombre del solicitante
Nombre del acusado
Ubicación del solicitante y/o acusado
Nombre del juez/autoridad
Calidad del juez/autoridad
Calidad del escribano
Nombre de testigo(s)
Otros nombres/entidades

Because there is no limit to the types of metadata fields we could conceivably ask the team to collect, setting a template provides our best opportunity to creatively shape the digital collection from the outset. However, the constraints our own team faced limited the scope of what we could creatively achieve. The expectation that we would digitize and describe as large a portion of the collection as possible on a limited grant timeline pushed us toward a relatively small number of straightforward required fields for the template which the team could record relatively quickly for each expediente and move on.

Similarly, when we received the digital collection at the Benson and processed it, our focus was on breaking each folder up into discrete expedientes and refining the metadata to ensure its compatibility with our online repository. We did not drastically alter scans, identify highlights, or add to the metadata our partners sent us, in part because we could not spare the time needed to do so.

Slide with URL

Screenshot of scanned document.

Screenshot of metadata display, showing a large number of metadata fields and values in Spanish, describing the document.

The result, which you can see today, is a digital collection that largely replicates the colonial ordering logic of the original documents. The more extensive fields we might have asked the team to gather could have made so-called “against the grain” readings of the collection easier, for instance by tracking the identities of minor actors named throughout the collection. What information we did gather will still allow researchers to recover the voices of everyday Cholultecas, and I want to stress that this was by all other metrics a very successful project. The team in Mexico digitized and described approximately 37 thousand pages in just 9 months, and our Metadata Librarian Itza Carbajal did a tremendous job of taking my initial metadata template and turning it into something realistic and workable, not to mention refining and processing the metadata for ingest into our repository. Of all the projects I’ve been a part of at the Benson, this is the one I’m most proud of, but it’s no coincidence that in the face of project constraints, the default metadata approach we were forced to fall back on largely defers to the notarios themselves, and primarily records the same elite voices who display the most agency in the documents.

It’s much easier to digitally recreate the archival grain than to digitally disrupt it.

This, I think, is key for scholars attempting to understand archival labor: We can be proficient in the subject matter of a collection and conversant in modern research methods used by scholars, but our efforts to make collections available in new and dynamic ways are often limited by project timelines and our responsibility, traditionally understood, to faithfully preserve collections as they come to us. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to digitally recreate the archival grain than to digitally disrupt it.

The labor of digital preservation

I’d like to pivot now to talking about a different collection and the labor involved in digital preservation.

In 2005, investigators uncovered the archives of the Policía Nacional de Guatemala in an abandoned warehouse in Guatemala City. The records in the warehouse, totaling approximately 80 million documents, cover the full span of the PN, from the mid-19th century to its disbanding in 1996 as part of the country’s peace accords. Most notably, the records contain direct evidence of the PN’s role in abductions, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances during the Guatemalan Civil War, atrocities which had previously been primarily attributed to the military. The discovery led to the formation of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, under the direction of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, in order to preserve and process the records in the warehouse.

Slide with title "Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala (AHPN)"

Image of documents stacked high in a dark room, labeled "Secuestros 88"

Image of two digitization technicians in lab coats with facemasks and hair coverings, scanning a document

Recognizing the significance and precarity of the records, the AHPN undertook a large-scale digitization and metadata project with the goal of reconstructing the collection digitally, making it searchable using a massive database of metadata gathered at the point of scanning. The team also partnered with the Benson to move a copy of the digital collection to Austin, in order to build an online access portal as well as provide a safeguard against tampering by government or police officials implicated by the records. Like the Fondo Real de Cholula digital archive, and like other human rights archives such as the Khmer Rouge Archives at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the AHPN digital archive faithfully reconstructs much of the oppressive ordering logic of the original records in order to support subversive uses of the materials.[2]

My work with the AHPN digital archive began in spring 2018. At that time, we had a public copy of the digital archive available online and secure copies of the collection on hard drives, but we had never properly undertaken the work needed to preserve it long term. Given the sensitive nature of the collection and ongoing interference in the AHPN’s mission on the part of the Guatemalan government, the preservation of our digital copy was identified as an urgent priority.

Slide with title "Archivo Digital del AHPN"

Screenshot of AHPN digital archive website, showing a scanned document

As of spring 2018:
20 million scans
7 terabytes
Available online ( but not properly preserved

Digital preservation at UTL:
Extracting technical metadata using FITS
BagIt packaging
Storage on LTO tape

Digital preservation at UT Libraries involves extracting technical metadata for every file in a collection using a tool called the File Information Toolset, packaging collections according to the Library of Congress’ BagIt standard, and writing copies in duplicate to LTO tape. These processes protect the files from catastrophic data loss and ordinary bit rot, and ensure that any files retrieved from tape can be understood and read many years in the future. As of 2018, the digital collection stood at approximately 20 million images totaling more than 7 terabytes, and proper preservation of that copy of the collection involved approximately 6 months of continuous ingest and around-the-clock processing on a powerful dedicated workstation.

The structure of the collection complicates the preservation process even further. Because the original physical collection in Guatemala is so large, the digitization process cannot be a simple matter of scanning a record, giving it a recognizable name, and placing the file within the proper folder. Instead, when a document is scanned, it is assigned a random unique filename and placed in a random subfolder within one of 53 top-level directories. Metadata, including a document’s title, date, and origin location, are all collected in a database that links this information to the scanned image. The database connects images to one another and effectively recreates the PN’s original complex hierarchical recordkeeping structure. The database grants us some search functionality and protects the collection against tampering by significantly complicating the process of removing incriminating scans or inserting exonerating digital forgeries. The database structure also means that users looking for specific records may have to familiarize themselves with the organizational structure and recordkeeping practices of the PN. For many users these are the very same institutions that have hurt or killed members of their family.

In fall 2018, as initial preservation work on the digital collection was nearing an end, we received three hard drives from the AHPN, containing an updated copy of the collection, with approximately 2 million new scans and database entries created over the course of one year. The scanning process does not separate scans into discrete batches of files, but instead produces a continuously growing cohesive body of files and accompanying database. As we were not yet finished writing the previous year’s copy to tape, we recognized the unsustainability of processing and preserving successively larger copies of the collection year over year. I set to work developing a method of safely disaggregating two versions of the collection, in order to ingest only those files which had not previously been preserved.

Slide with title AHPN disaggregation

Screenshot of text file listing a large number of hash values and filepaths

Large diagram showing AHPN disaggregation process

This is accomplished by calculating and comparing a list of filepaths and hash values for both copies of the collection, then producing an actionable list of files using OpenRefine. This cuts the ingest size and processing time for successive copies of the collection by approximately 90 percent. The two disaggregated copies of the collection can then be merged locally to recreate the complete up to date copy.

All of this work is highly involved and time consuming, but it provides me very little opportunity to engage with the content of the collection. The work prioritizes collection integrity checks, redundancy measures, and extracting underlying technical metadata for the images, all of which is done entirely through semi-automated batch processing. Traditional physical conservation involves some degree of direct interface with an archival collection, which grants archivists an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the documents, familiarity which is useful in reference work and collaborating directly with researchers. With digital collections, meanwhile, preservation work can be done without even glancing at the content of a collection.

This significantly widens the gap between archival work and research, and limits our ability to promote our collections or collaborate with subject matter experts. Put simply, I can often speak at length about a digital collection’s structure or my work in processing and preserving it, but even when I am the archivist working most closely with a collection I am rarely equipped to provide reference support.

I can often speak at length about a digital collection’s structure or my work in processing and preserving it, but even when I am the archivist working most closely with a collection I am rarely equipped to provide reference support. […] In the case of the AHPN, the cold violence and bewildering scale of the collection sharpened the insensitivity of the dry, distant work needed to preserve it.

The number of simultaneous projects we take on exacerbates this problem: while we were processing and preserving the AHPN digital collection, our attention was otherwise focused on planning for the Fondo Real de Cholula project and shrinking our digital processing backlog. Many archivists – digital and otherwise – are forced to limit their engagement with collections as a result of being pulled in several directions at once, however in digital contexts the effects are exacerbated by years or even decades of collections backlogs and distant processing tools. In the case of the AHPN, the cold violence and bewildering scale of the collection sharpened the insensitivity of the dry, distant work needed to preserve it.


Undergirding these issues in digital archival labor is a fundamental tension between the expensive digital infrastructure required to support digital collections and the neoliberal austerity which progressively reduces cultural heritage staff lines, even as collection volume increases. Career advancement in digital archives frequently privileges technical skill, scripting, and bulk processing over contextual knowledge, not necessarily because contextual knowledge is undervalued, but because distant processing is often the only way for an archivist to successfully meet grant and institutional deadlines. A 2020 survey of digital stewardship practitioners in the US found that digital archivists are generally confident in their ability to undertake deep, comprehensive work with collections, but lack the staff and institutional latitude to do so.[3] I would like to suggest that the pressure to work at scale at the expense of engagement with our collections similarly inhibits the quality of our work by limiting the kinds of tasks we can perform.

Slide with title "Conclusions"

Work at scale is often necessary to meet deadlines, but comes at the expense of engagement with collections

Scholarly collaboration and promotion are important elements of archival work

Without the ability to engage with collections, we cannot provide reference support or build exhibitions

Without the freedom to set time aside each week to simply read and appreciate our collections, digital archival labor all too often reduces rich and complex collections to simple data points, and reduces archivists themselves to digital functionaries focused entirely on maintaining digital infrastructure and compliance with preservation standards. Precisely because processing, manipulating, and providing access to large digital collections requires a special set of skills, there is fertile ground for digital archivists and researchers to collaborate closely, but the material circumstances surrounding our work currently drive us apart and deny us the knowledge needed to work with scholars. I would like digital archivists to have the freedom to take on fewer or smaller projects in order to work more slowly, more creatively, and more collaboratively.

Works cited

[1] Ham, F. “Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era.” The American Archivist 44, no. 3 (July 1, 1981): 207–16.; Bastian, Jeannette A. “Taking Custody, Giving Access: A Postcustodial Role for a New Century.” Archivaria, May 1, 2002, 76–93.

[2] Aguirre, Carlos, Kate Doyle, and Guatemala, eds. From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the AHPN. Eugene, Or: Univ. of Oregon Libraries, 2013; Caswell, Michelle. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Critical Human Rights. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

[3] Blumenthal, Karl, Peggy Griesinger, Julia Kim, Shira Peltzman, and Vicky Steeves. “What’s Wrong with Digital Stewardship: Evaluating the Organization of Digital Preservation Programs from Practitioners’ Perspectives.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 7, no. 1 (August 17, 2020), 9-10.

Full bibliography

Aguirre, Carlos, Kate Doyle, and Guatemala, eds. From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the AHPN. Eugene, Or: Univ. of Oregon Libraries, 2013.

Bastian, Jeannette A. “Taking Custody, Giving Access: A Postcustodial Role for a New Century.” Archivaria, May 1, 2002, 76–93.

Blumenthal, Karl, Peggy Griesinger, Julia Kim, Shira Peltzman, and Vicky Steeves. “What’s Wrong with Digital Stewardship: Evaluating the Organization of Digital Preservation Programs from Practitioners’ Perspectives.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 7, no. 1 (August 17, 2020).

Caswell, Michelle. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Critical Human Rights. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

Ham, F. “Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era.” The American Archivist 44, no. 3 (July 1, 1981): 207–16.

Kelleher, Christian, T-Kay Sangwand, Kevin Wood, and Yves Kamuronsi. “The Human Rights Documentation Initiative at the University of Texas Libraries.” New Review of Information Networking 15, no. 2 (October 30, 2010): 94–109.

Sangwand, T.-Kay. “Archives Beyond Borders: Preserving Historical Memory Through Transnational Collaboration in Latin America,” 2014. Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009.

LADI repository launched

The updated Latin American Digital Initiatives (LADI) repository has launched! This version of the repository is the culmination of three years of work for our team, and builds on the first version of LADI, which launched in 2015. The new repository uses a Fedora 5/Islandora 8/Drupal 8 technology stack, is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and contains 7 archival collections from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Brazil.

I was primarily responsible for selecting digitization equipment, designing digitization workflows, processing digitized collections, and publishing materials in the repository. These were only a small part of all the work that went into this project, however: it also required expert administrative navigation, metadata planning and refinement, and extensive custom software development.

Read more about the repository on TexLibris, and visit the site here.

Watching rioting and debating rioting

Like everyone else, I’ve watched Minneapolis get torn open this week after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. As of Friday night, much of Lake Street has been damaged or destroyed, including the 3rd Precinct building. Through Facebook, I’ve watched as my friends and family in Minneapolis join protests and argue about the situation.

I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation, but this being my hometown I am compelled to write what I think about the situation, particularly the ways people talk about rioting. This is just my attempt to parse out my thoughts on the matter, from basic moral principles to meta-commentary on the way the debate is often framed. Maybe there’s a nugget of a useful or original thought in here; more likely the act of writing it will simply help me sort out the knot of sadness and frustration I have in my stomach as I’m forced to watch this unfold from so far away.

1. No amount of property can ever equal the value of a human life. The loss of property should never be mourned with equal anguish, or given the same media attention, as the loss of a human life. This is, I think, a fundamental moral premise that many liberals and (hopefully) all leftists can agree with. I don’t think it’s possible for two people who disagree on this point to have a fruitful conversation about a situation like this one.

2. The choice for anyone resisting or protesting state violence is not one between violent and nonviolent tactics. Or, at the very least, those choices are not as easy to define as some people might think. The status quo is immensely violent, and tolerating it amounts to a tacit endorsement of a certain degree of social and economic violence that is inflicted on communities of color and other marginalized groups every day. Successful violent resistance might be less violent overall than the status quo, if it ends that everyday violence.

(That the status quo is itself violent is, I think, the fundamental dividing line between liberals and leftists in the US right now. Nevertheless, I think leftists might still disagree about violence as a tactic of resistance from time to time. More on that below.)

3. When protests and riots result in the destruction of property, we should emphasize at every single opportunity that not all property is equal. An occupied and destroyed police precinct has essentially nothing in common with a looted or damaged store. The Right takes great pains to paint all property destruction as senseless, but whatever you think of the successful attack on the 3rd Precinct, it was far from accidental or illogical as a target.

4. Not all private property is equal. Certain businesses, just like police buildings, might be seen by protestors as symbols of gentrification or oppression, and thus good targets during a riot. From what I’ve seen, this is the first of these points on which leftists often disagree. I would argue, as have many others, that the destruction of certain private property during a riot might not be any more senseless than the occupation of a police building. We’ve seen certain businesses spared damage just as conspicuously as others have been targeted, and certain damaged businesses have spoken out in support of the protests. Nor are all businesses equally hurt by looting: Target stores and chain pharmacies are able to withstand damage during a riot in a way smaller businesses are not.

5. Very little property destruction in the current riot can’t be indirectly traced to escalation by the police and the state’s baffling delay in arresting Derek Chauvin. As many, many people (including some mainstream voices, to their credit) have pointed out, there’s a striking contrast between how the police have handled the response to those protesting George Floyd’s murder and the armed, mostly white, right-wing protestors who have directly threatened state governments demanding an end to quarantine restrictions is striking.

6. Not all property destruction in a riot is caused directly by protestors. The use of police agents provocateurs is well established at this point, and there’s reason to believe the damage to the Minneapolis AutoZone next to the 3rd Precinct building, which kicked off a police escalation that has led to wider rioting, was the work of a St. Paul police officer. Likewise, the narrative of misguided young leftists — often white men — eager to set off disorder against the wishes of largely-peaceful protestors is well known, to the point where protest organizers will regularly ask that they please not do that. In either case, it’s impossible to fairly characterize the protests as fundamentally violent at their core or from the outset (not that that has ever stopped the Right from trying).

7. Some amount of violence was inevitable in Minneapolis, as it is in many American cities (and as I write this, there are protests in cities all over the country). MPD has a horrific track record of violence against communities of color. Barring widespread abolition or at least universal, fundamental reform of American policing, police officers are going to keep killing innocent people. The Twin Cities more broadly have a terrible history of segregation and racial oppression, and to this day the metro area is one of the most segregated in the country. What’s happening now in Minneapolis isn’t just about George Floyd, it’s an unleashing of unrerst and dissatisfaction from a variety of communities that have been politically, socially, and economically marginalized for decades, and targeted by truly vile white conservatives in mass media when they dare to speak up. It doesn’t come from nowhere, and it’s not so much an escalation of unrest as it is an uncommonly-visible expression of what was already there. There’s a reason so many people decided to join the protests and risk arrest so quickly.

8. The tactical value of rioting and outwardly violent resistance is, I would argue, very difficult to assess in the moment. Rioting can work, either by calling attention to serious social problems, or by directly affecting material change that improves communities’ conditions. It could also lead to a conservative electoral backlash, as frightened white suburbanites turn out in large numbers and throw elections to Republicans. Most of the debates I see on social media are between people who acknowledge that riots and property damage are understandable, but who can’t agree whether or not they are helpful. I think this is the most important area for the Left to debate right now, however the debates I see still question the effectiveness of riots in moral and tactical terms simultaneously. I think we need separate conversations about the righteousness of rioting (i.e. what constitutes a valid target) and the effectiveness of rioting (i.e. what constitutes the right conditions for a riot).

9. Riots are scary. Even from hundreds of miles away, I’ve been unable to sleep knowing my hometown is being literally engulfed right now. I think there’s a lot of weird posturing by some leftists that refuses to acknowledge that, whatever you think of the righteousness of the cause and even the validity of the tactics, seeing a city burn like Minneapolis is right now is fucking scary, not only because fire is unpredictable but because rending a city open like this can produce unwanted cover for violence or just accidental injury and death. I think people of good faith should be able to acknowledge that riots are scary while still disagreeing whether or not they’re righteous or effective.

Unfortunately in mass media, which still holds sway, the debate is not typically between people of good faith; it’s between those on the Right who weaponize the scariness of riots in order to undermine conversations about their cause and liberals who might nominally support protestors but who are too easily rhetorically cornered into condemning all forms of unrest and violence, however measured and legitimate. Our work on the Left should be to shift this debate, to foster a more honest conversation about everyday violence and the unsustainability of the status quo.

Libros de Hijuelas now available online

Scans from the Libros de Hijuelas digitization project, which ran from 2016 to 2018, have been published on the Endangered Archives Programme site. The collection consists of 196 books, totaling approximately 95 thousand pages, documenting indigenous Michoacanos’ navigation of the land privatization processes which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The full list of books is available for browsing here. LLILAS Benson’s press release, with quotes from historians about the significance of the collection, is available here.

My annotated slides from SAA 2019

I presented at Archives*Records 2019 in Austin, on the panel “Means of Production and Selection: Capitalist Frameworks in Archival Contexts“, organized by Elizabeth Lisa Cruces of the University of Houston. My co-panelists were Sarah Carlson of the Harry Ransom Center, Dr. Jamie A. Lee of the University of Arizona, and Margarita Vargas-Betancourt of the University of Florida.

My annotated slides are below. You can also download my slides and those of my co-panelists from the Sched page for our panel.

Bliss Neoliberalism Slides_Page_01

Continue reading “My annotated slides from SAA 2019”

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.”

Continue reading “Archival Neutrality and Archival Authority”

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.