Post Custodial Metadata Development and Decisions

This presentation was given at the 2019 Society of American Archivists conference held in Austin, Texas as part of a panel on “Cultivating a Post-Custodial Praxis: Insights from LLILAS Benson’s Community of Colaboradores”


Hello, my name is Itza Carbajal and I’d like to talk to you today about my role as the Latin American Metadata Librarian for LLILAS Benson and our work around post custodial projects in Latin America. Through my training, education, and experiences as a memory worker, I view my work as both direct & indirect, support centered, speculative and based from many privileges including being from the United States (the Global North) and working out of a large very well funded institution.

When I began my 2 year temporary position as Latin American Metadata Librarian, I immediately knew it was my responsibility to understand the context of our partners’ stories and collections in order to better develop metadata tools and expectations that met their needs. For two of three partners, I focused on helping to document Afro-Latin American (which is part of Latin American) history with a focus on Colombia & Brazil in the late 20th century to now. During this period of investigation I kept reading and finding countless stories I had never heard of or had heard differently. I started to think why my upbringing (let me note here that despite being born in the United States my parents ALWAYS ensured I knew the history of their homeland and my continued formal studies and education focused on expanding this understanding) had never included extensive or even a brief discussion of Afro-descendent cultures and history in Latin America. While realizing this immense gap in my knowledge, I stumbled upon Bergis Jules’ talk “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives” shortly before I left for Colombia for the first time. I kept returning to the question posed by Theaster Gates in that piece where he says “Who feels responsible for the failure of care around the legacies of great black people around the world?” As I learned and spoke with members of PCN, I kept thinking why had I not felt responsible for this history? In all my discussions and reflections on preserving and highlighting Latin American and Latinx history, why had I not felt a specific obligation to support the stories of Black and Afro-descendant communities and people? It took a while after returning from Colombia to realize that my lack of care and responsibility towards these stories mirrored in many ways the attitude some White or Anglo Americans feel towards the stories of People of Color in the United States.

Had I not realized this immense gap in my practice, I would very likely have created and expanded on an already increasing number of problematic metadata both at my institution and in the overall archival field. Without this personal paradigm shift, I recognize that I would have contributed to what Post Custodial Archivist Theresa Polk calls our institution’s historical debt. Similar to technical debt, historical debt refers to the additional, costly, and haphazard work of redoing or undoing work as a result of a previous person or people’s decision to pursue a cheaper, quicker, or incorrect solution or approach. In my case of creating, defining, and maintaining metadata for our post custodial digital collections and our users, historical debt is both an inherited problem and a potential pitfall. To this day, I struggle with balancing the issues I come across from my previous predecessors as well as avoiding making further issues for those that will come after me. As both technical and historical debt root from the concept of financial debt, there exists an understanding that like with all debt, it must eventually be paid. The question now rests on how others like me can avoid placing this debt solely on the shoulders on Black and Indigenous bodies especially if the debt has been accumulated by those like me.

I am also thankful for my other colleagues including David, Dylan, Kelly, Lidia, Theresa, Hannah, LLILAS Benson leadership, and others. Also many many thanks to T-Kay Sangwand and those that helped begin this work at LLILAS Benson. While I am the sole metadata person in my unit, I know that I am part of a larger whole.

I am immensely grateful to my scholar liaisons including Anthony Dest then Ph.D student at UT now Dr. Dest, for providing the necessary guidance, expertise, and care in helping me address my own ignorance and areas needing improvement. I’d like to also thank Edward Shore and Rachel Winston, our proxy post custodial training team in Brazil, in leading, refining, and empowering our partners to begin and continue their post custodial digitization project. In my attempt to define my role as the first exclusive post custodial Latin American Metadata Librarian, I have appreciated being able to lean on people and their extensive knowledge both with context and content of project materials and local environment. These cross-departmental partnerships for my job has also helped in imagining what my job could be beyond my immediate grant scope of standing up international projects, but also in my local university setting. This is especially important as we think ahead to the actual uses of our collections and especially in trying to expand our understanding of what data is or where data can come from. After witnessing the labor, love, and attention many of our partners place in their metadata, I know I want to do what I can to facilitate the use of their work.

I will finish with a specific call for those working in or with Latin American & Latinx collections, but the same can apply across different cultural settings. As the U.S. Latinx diasporas struggle to redefine and address longstanding internalized racism, homophobia, cultural hegemony, and classism, the need for a reckoning perhaps has already begun. As a mestiza or Ladina or more recently a Latinx person, it has taken me until now to realize that while I may not enjoy the full privileges of white supremacy in the United States, I very much have enjoyed the comforts of living, studying, and visiting countries where anti-Blackness places me a lighter skinned daughter of Latin Americans higher on the whiteness scale. For this reason I urge my Latinx communities to address and hold ourselves and our communities accountable.

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