"Endangered Archives, Digitization, and the Possible Futures of Historical Research in Latin America”
This presentation introduces the audience to a multi-year collaboration among digital humanists, historians, translators, and local team members in Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and Florida. Funded by the British Library Endangered Archives Program and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other sources, our team has digitized, published, and is in the process of translating over a half million pages of manuscript documents pertinent to the African diaspora in Latin American. The most important institutional support has come from the British Library. In collaboration with several Canadian and Latin American universities, we have equipped and trained students in several developing countries how to preserve, digitize, and study documents central to the writing of local, regional, and transnational histories. The British Library’s initiative has led to locating, digitizing, and disseminating manuscript documents from the pre-Industrial age and has resulted in hundreds of projects on all inhabited continents. These documents, photographs, and sound recordings, most of them in peril due to climatic, political, and religious conflicts have the potential to alter our understanding of colonialism, migration, demography, and pre-Industrial cultures in general. The presentation will give a visual and narrative account of several of these projects over the last several years. It will focus on the challenges of doing this type of work in the field, navigating bureaucratic processes in Latin America, and the remaining challenges in making this type of preservation and research more accessible to scholars and a more popular audience. Advances in OCR have qualitatively changed the nature of historical research and writing in the last decade. My particular work as a historian would not have been possible even ten years ago. As OCR continues to advance, the documents we have already placed in the public domain have enormous possibility to reform our work on slavery, religious change and syncretism, demography and other areas of history where quantifiable data has been nearly impossible to accumulate due to constraints of time and geographical mobility. For example, the oldest serialized demographic data in the Western Hemisphere is held in deteriorating birth, marriage, death and burial registers kept by the Catholic Church in most places until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. While we continue to find and digitize these documents, their systematic and quantitative information will yield a wealth of data that will likely alter the necessarily impressionistic conclusions we have made about much of colonial history. As part of the presentation I will also explain funding opportunities for digital humanists, show images from work in the field, and relay anecdotes that illustrate the multiple benefits to writing history and conducting fieldwork that digital technologies have and will continue to make possible.