Post-Custodial Praxis at LLILAS Benson: Lessons in Digitization, Access, and Community Partnerships

The following speech was given as part of a panel on Post Custodial project at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Special Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. The panel was part of the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries held in Austin, TX in May of 2018. More details found in my presentations 

Panelists included: Jane Field, Itza Carbajal, David Bliss, Eddie Shore, and Matthew Butler

In continuing the discussion brought forth by David, I would like to address the themes of partnerships, access, and how metadata plays into both. In developing this proposal, it seemed obvious to us that each of these themes could warrant their own panel, but in an effort to keep ourselves focused and aware of the larger picture including the various roles and work contributing to these efforts, we decided to keep the discussions in parallel to each other.

For me this larger picture looks at how my work as a Latin American Metadata librarian contributes to the overall goals of this project including the positioning of mutualistic partnerships and our multiple approaches to access. I’ll begin with how we think about partnerships then talk briefly about access and metadata followed by my own reflections on my work including what sorts of situations I find myself in given the pulls from various sources including the grant proposed structure, system environments, staff resources, and duration of my own temporary position. I will then finish with a brief statement on how we see our work as never ending.

To start off I’d like to give a shoutout to those who work with metadata as I talk through what may be a familiar situation for other metadata folks. As I mature into my new position I oftentimes find myself asking whether outwardly or inwardly what does a person mean when they use X word. For this presentation, I picked on the word “mutualistic” or more broadly the word mutualism. In looking through the Polysemy of the word mutualism I thought I’d share the definition of the word as a noun from the field of ecology. In this instance mutualism is “Any interaction between two species that benefits both; typically involving the exchange of substances or services.” Hm. While we at LLILAS Benson may not immediately use the term species to refer to ourselves, we do oftentimes evoke the words benefits, exchange, and services. Through these aspects we strive as passionately and firmly as possible to position our partnerships as mutualistic. A few principals we typically focus on include 1) valuing the contribution of all partners 2) incorporate collaborative decision making 3) Decisions strive to be partner and project specific and 4) we trying to strike a balance between the needs of all.

In moving towards a discussion of access, I’d like to point out again that as a post-custodial project, we do not retain the original material so digital access is the ONLY access we can guarantee. Upon completion of the project, we currently do not have a mechanism or strategy for retaining access to the original, so what we have is what we have. In addition the metadata created as part of the project may also be the ONLY existing descriptive, administrative, and structural metadata out there. While we do hope that our partners preserve all the digital files created through this project, we do not impose any expectations in regards to this. This is all to say that digital access for us is the only access we commit to providing for this project. As a result of this sort of reality, we as a project talk a lot about shifting the understanding of access from the physical to the digital for both our own internal staff as well as the general public. This is most evident when looking at our recent efforts to place ourselves and our collections into the university classroom. So far we have been able to incorporate our digital collections twice for a repeated course on contemporary Central American history through the use of digital collections with a third course planned for Fall 2018 led by my wonderful colleague Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams.

As I previously mentioned, I am here to speak from my perspective as the metadata librarian for the project so here are some thoughts on what that means. As far as access I find ourselves to be lucky that we have the first iteration of LADI (Latin American Digital Initiatives) live and can test out how the metadata schema there is used and perceived. In theory we can use findings gathered through formal or informal usability testing to improve the various means of access metadata provides. One of the things that we recognize needing attention is the dual language aspect and the forthcoming multilingual components. During the first instance of LADI, a dual language capability was initiated, but due largely to time restraints we were unable to mirror the content between the English and Spanish webpages. Going forward we hope to truly mirror the multiple languages that are both present in the materials as well as the ones spoken by our targeted audiences.

Additionally partnerships also contribute to my metadata work in that I do not create metadata, but rather take a hands off approach to what metadata is created, how, and for what reasons. This speaks to the goal of centering our partner needs, BUT I can say at this point that in as far as metadata is concerned this part is a bit of a challenge. While we are fortunate enough to control and potentially change aspects of our digital repository to fit our metadata needs, the introduction of new collections and accompanying metadata requires that we remain vigilant to incoming work that may need extensive metadata modifications in order for it to be ingest ready. At this point it is important to note that I am the first Latin American Metadata librarian for the Mellon project and more formally for LLILAS Benson. Prior to me, metadata work for digital collections was done by the now Post Custodial archivist, Theresa Polk with the support of Melanie Cofield and the Cataloging staff at the main library. My position was advocated for when proposing the new grant given the obvious need for someone to deal with not only the created metadata files, but to also facilitate, systematize, and reflect on metadata practices for both LLILAS Benson staff and our partners. This aspect in particular is of extreme importance to me given that my position is not permanent, so if I do not dedicate a portion of my work to developing internal standard practices there is no guarantee that the work can be sustained or at least remain aligned to the larger vision I mentioned previously.

I conclude by saying that all this work is ongoing. As we tell ourselves in the LLILAS Benson digital initiatives team, this is all an ongoing process. NOT the sense of ARGH! the work won’t end, but more so that we do not see the end of a project as the end of our efforts. Rather our efforts are imagined as chapters in a book. The overall story doesn’t end in a chapter, but maybe characters exit and subplots end with new characters and plots entering in the next.

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