I pursue a better understanding of archives work, jazz style.

Society of Southwest Archivists 2010

Below follows a presentation I wrote for the SSA’s 2010 meeting in Santa Fe.  My Department Head presented it in my absence on May 1 for the session Undocumented History: Initiating a U.S.-Mexico Border Archives Program.

Good morning.  If there are any Rush fans in the audience you might understand the reference being made by this slide.  If so, when this session is over you can explain it to those who are sitting there wondering what in the world this is supposed to be.  If that includes everyone, I’m sorry – just ignore it, although you might want to stop at your local record store and pick up a copy of Moving Pictures on your way home.

The main purpose of this presentation is to report on a brief project that we undertook to capture a small sample of social justice activism in our region.  I’ll begin with some background to the project and the motivation behind it, move on to the project itself, and then fit it in with the larger question of documenting current events along the U.S.-Mexico border as this relates to our work at NMSU.

From my perspective, the beginning of this project was rooted in the Esther Chávez Cano collection, which I processed in 2007.

After the reception we held for her and fellow activist Paula Bonilla Flores on November 9 of that year we began discussions with Molly Molloy about how we could use this collection and the interest we had generated in it to move towards preserving more records of current happenings along the border.  The form of Esther’s collection points to the fragile state of memory and record concerning these events, and we judged our library to be in an appropriate and advantageous position to preserve such documentation.

The principles behind the Documentation Strategy and its many successors were a driving force behind this goal.  I came out of graduate school with an interest in applying the principles of planned, proactive and cooperative documentary projects, and I began working at NMSU with an interest in strategically documenting current border problems, but I can take very little credit for any achievements in that area so far.  The main push for anything we have done towards any border-related collecting has come from outside of the Archives and Special Collections Department.  Cynthia Bejarano from the Criminal Justice department was mostly responsible from bringing in the Esther Chávez collection, and Molly’s interest in preserving documentation of current border problems has been essential in taking our collection activities in this area to whatever distance we may have covered so far.  In carrying out this specific collecting project I only supplied the guidance in archival methodology.  The other participants brought the knowledge and familiarity with the subjects and events that really drove the project.

Although we have the specialized archival training and may have interest in the subject matter, these colleagues of ours either grew up in this area or have lived here long enough – and more importantly, have made it their focus of study long enough – to have far more expertise in the area and its current problems.  In a real sense, they made the important appraisal decisions by identifying which groups to seek documentation from.  This experience has strengthened my conviction that archival appraisal is too important a function of our work to be left to archivists alone.  I owe the foundation of this conviction to Hackman and Warnow-Blewett’s article which put forth the Documentation Strategy in 1987.

The model . . .  is aimed at broadening participation, at sharing expertise and information, and ultimately at sharing the burden of appraisal and acquisition decisions . . . Implicit in this model is the belief . . . that archivists cannot construct a grand theory of appraisal . . . Ideally the initial group will include archivists, subject matter experts, and representatives of both users and creators. Theoretically, any of these can define a documentation area and begin preliminary analysis. Larry J. Hackman and Joan Warnow-Blewett: “The Documentation Strategy Process: A Model and a Case Study,” American Archivist 50 (Winter 1987) 20-21.)

This is how our border-oriented collecting has taken shape.  Molly, the Latin American reference specialist in the library has defined the documentation area and begun analysis.  We archivists began working with her in planning collection in that documentation area.

Another article which articulates our motivation is “A Different Shade of Green” by Stephen Sturgeon, published in Archival Issues in 1996.  Writing about the challenges of gathering documentation of political activism he proposed a “documentation advocacy . . . an active effort by archivists to recruit record collections from individuals and groups who lack the institutional connections that normally result in records being donated to archives.”

We all judged the current social justice activism that is taking place in our region to be a good focus to begin a more strategic documentary effort.  Much of the documentation of current events related to the U.S.-Mexico border, especially as it relates to marginalized or indigent people, must depend on active intervention in capturing and creating records, and we hoped to start doing this.

Molly and I joined Neil Harvey, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies, and History professor Dulcinea Lara to put together a grant proposal in May 2008, asking for $5000 from NMSU’s Southwest Border Cultures Institute.  The first two paragraphs of our proposal read as follows:

Many social justice, service and activist groups in Las Cruces, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are working on a daily basis to address human rights, economic, labor, environmental, housing, land tenure, violence and other critical issues in the U.S.-Mexico Border region. For example, Annunciation House provides shelter for immigrants in El Paso. The Border Network for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union provide education and defends the rights of migrants and others. La Mujer Obrera and the Border Farmworkers Center organize for better conditions and wages for urban and rural laborers. The Colonias Development Council sponsors community economic development projects in rural and low-income housing areas and works for environmental justice, with a particular emphasis on residents of Sunland Park and Chaparral who are concerned about the impact of landfills in their communities. Various groups in El Paso and Juárez have organized to defend the rights of residents in the Segundo Barrio in El Paso and in the Colonia of Lomas del Poleo in Juárez who are in danger of losing their homes due to commercial development.  Families of women who have been murdered in the ongoing femicides in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua have organized to demand an end to impunity and the killings. They are supported by the work of several organizations and groups, including Casa Amiga and Amigos de las Mujeres de Juárez.

Professor Neil Harvey works with many of these groups and provides numerous opportunities for students to engage in service learning by volunteer work in these community organizations. Economic conditions often mean that these groups lack adequate office space and clerical staff to maintain the records of their valuable social change work in the border region. Thus, the record of much of the social justice work carried out in the region is ephemeral and easily lost, kept only in sparse document files and in the memories of the activists on the front lines. Our proposal, Preserving Memory / Promoting Justice: Developing a Service Learning & Research Archive of U.S.-Mexico Border Activism, seeks funding to train student volunteers to identify, collect and preserve records, photographs, oral histories and other materials generated by these groups in the course of their social justice work. This proposal also includes funding for supplies and equipment for the Rio Grande Historical Collections in the Library to facilitate the processing and preservation of the records of these border activist groups. In addition, we propose funding for two graduate students who will travel to and work within these different organizations to collect and copy documents, interview organization and community members and use sound, photography and video to record their memories of these important social struggles in the border region.

We were awarded the grant and began the project in the fall of 2008.  I gave an instructional workshop on general principles of archival theory and practice to Cynthia Renteria and Jon Williams, the two graduate students working on the project.  Soon afterwards we all decided that the students would focus their collecting activities on the Colonias Development Council or CDC and groups which protested planned development in the Segundo Barrio and Lomas de Poleo.

I expected more eyebrows to be raised over the controversial nature of this focus than actually happened.  Academic repositories do need to deal with the trouble that can come from collecting documentation of radical political views or dissident activities, but we were spared any of this so far.  I attribute this to these factors:

  • The prior existence of the J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium as an annual event on the NMSU campus,
  • The sympathetic stance of the university towards our work following our reception of November 9 2007 honoring Esther Chávez and Paula Flores, in which the Dean of the Library and Provost were present,
  • A general understanding and acceptance locally of the notion that archives must necessarily include controversy.

With the project that we began in fall 2008 we felt that we were breaking new ground and it was exciting.  Between October 2008 and May 2009, the students met with personnel from the targeted groups and subjects.  The students quickly focused their work on three individuals who showed the most interest in donating materials to the archives: Diana Bustamante, the director of the CDC, and El Paso-Juárez area activists Antonio Lopez and David Romo.  We started out optimistically but encountered setbacks.  Chief among these were the challenges of working with people who may not have much interest in documenting their work through academic repositories, and the realities of time and resources.  I will deal with these in more detail later.

Since we set out to collect documents of current events, the volume of documentation that was going to be available to us to walk in and collect was bound to be limited.  The people we worked with are for the most part still using the files they have collected.  The CDC is a well-established organization with a 20-year history and a home office, which has carefully kept records of its actions.  By contrast, the groups that have protested El Paso and Juárez land development were truly “moving targets”: loosely constituted and minimally organized, without established record-keeping or even record-making processes.  Much of the documentation of the relevant events and the activist work is in fact done by journalists, and so newspaper articles become a valuable information source.  We also got copies of fliers and photographs from protests, correspondence between the protestors and city officials and the like.

Knowing the limited scope of records we were likely to find, we planned to supplement our collecting activities with oral history interviews.  With a portion of the grant funding we bought two Edirol R-09HR digital audio recorders for use in this and future projects.  The oral history component was our most under-realized ambition.  Although Cynthia recorded an interview with Diana Bustamante, she and Jon were not able to record interviews with anyone else, due to the reluctance of prospective interviewees and worsening conditions in Ciudad Juárez which in time made it inadvisable for the students to travel there at all.  Still, Dr. Bustamante at least has been very supportive of the idea to interview more of the long-time personnel at the CDC.

After the spring 2009 semester was over, the documentation that the students had collected and copied was gathered together and placed in the RGHC, where it now forms a manuscript collection titled as follows:

U.S.-Mexico border social justice activism collection.  Ms 0479.  New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections Department.

Although this project did produce a research collection, I see it as valuable mostly because of what it has taught us.  The lessons to be learned from this experience relate to problems inherent in documenting political or social activism, in collaborative archives projects and in grant-funded projects.

I have already touched on some of the problems that come with seeking out activist groups to document in an academic manuscript repository, but I want to return to this now.  Some of the problems have to do with the size of the group in question, the volatility of the problem it engages, how long the group has been active and whether it is still active when the archivist proposes to document it through an authoritative channel.  The basic problem that I always saw came from the realities of citizen activism, especially dissident activism, as it relates to authoritative channels.

In my remarks during our publicity event in April 2009 I spent a good deal of time discussing the rationale for bringing documentation of controversy into the archives.  I don’t feel I need to rehearse the matter much here, since I expect most of the audience has a commitment to the ideal of neutrality in our work.

We are many of us fortunate to operate with guiding principles of preserving good, bad and ugly, of documenting all sides of an issue as fairly as we are able.  We are fortunate in having official recognition of what we may describe as professional, ethical, even moral imperatives to do this.  I have something to say about all of this as it relates to collecting records from social justice activists.

I subscribe to the point of view Verne Harris shared at the University of Pittsburgh in March 2006: “Impartiality is a chimera turning archivists into the pawns of those who have power.”  My blood was stirred when I first heard that, but I have come to realize that as things stand, just about every single archivist who draws a paycheck for services rendered as an archivist is to some extent a pawn of power.  This is especially true, in the case of academic archivists such as myself, though often hidden and easy to ignore.  We are not given license to form our collecting policies to serve our political, personal or social sympathies, but in cases where these coincide with a current fashion we might feel free to take such license.   Preserving or even giving voice to marginalized groups is still quite fashionable in most academic climates, so we can quite often get away with openly serving a cause of justice, diversity, or a similar cause, provided that it is not seen as too threatening in our hometown.

Even so, however, if we are not operating a “social justice archive” or “human rights archive” or something similar, we are expected to show an allegiance to that chimera.  And indeed, if those who may wield us as pawns do so in a fairly equitable way we have a good chance of achieving something that we can pass off as a dispassionate documentation of multiple sides of an issue.  So far this has worked to widespread satisfaction in academic repositories.  It is an arrangement that we try to perpetuate.

Still it should come as no surprise that some activists might be distrustful or reluctant to work with archivists.  Imagine their point of view: someone from a nearby university comes in and says: “we want to preserve the records of what you’re doing because we think it’s an important part of history in the making.”  We probably imagine they should feel flattered.  But what might they see?  Academics motivated by idle interest instead of a real sympathy with what they’re trying to do.  When do we dare tell activists: “we want to preserve your records because we believe in what you are doing now and want to help your cause?”  Sometimes.  But even if my colleagues in my department and I sympathize with the opposition to the developments planned in El Paso and Juárez, we have not felt authorized to state such sympathy as the reason for documenting it.  And activists who are engaged in a struggle they see as urgent are not likely to have much use for academics coming from outside and offering to take their stuff for the sake of documenting all sides of an issue.  With this in mind, we should be glad to have gotten copies.

The size and permanence of an activist organization or movement is obviously one of the main shapers of the documentation produced and the archival treatment of it.  For the smallest and most fragile of activist projects, intervening and collecting seems the only way to ensure the permanent survival of some record for future use, as we stated explicitly in our proposal.  If that means getting photocopies, then at least we have preserved a record of the activity that in time might be the only record remaining intact.  Lately we have been trying to steer away from treating photocopied collections as if they are unique materials, moving them into our general information file instead.  However, these are different from the copies of Historic Old Things that are being preserved somewhere else.  The survival of the originals, particularly together in order, is not as sure in this case as it is in the case of a Civil War soldier’s diary.

Looking beyond this particular instance to the broader aim of recording the history of political and social activism in our region: if we continue to pursue this we will need to use different methods to fit different record-creators.  An archivist operating within an institutional aim of neutrality might better serve the broader documentary mission by turning more energy to outreach and education rather than collecting.  This is a documentation advocacy that would focus on helping activist groups preserve and arrange their own records with the resources they have available.   Such projects would not only conserve our resources, but could build networks of reference and access and increase recognition of our work and value in the community.  Such initiatives would help serve NMSU’s mission as a land-grant university.  (In fact, the promotion and tenure policy for NMSU Library faculty has recently added a criterion of Extension and Outreach.)

That kind of documentation advocacy should also be more comfortable for many groups who may want to preserve their records but are reluctant to donate them to an outside repository and sign a deed of gift.  Cynthia, one of the students who worked on this project, is a resident of El Paso and maintains contact with various activist groups, including La Mujer Obrera, one of the first prospective groups we considered approaching.  Cynthia has advised me that La Mujer Obrera is not interested in donating to a repository, although I have offered to give them advice in how they might organize and preserve their records.  Diana Bustamante, the director of the Colonias Development Council, has expressed interest in receiving advice and help with organizing their archives while keeping them in the CDC offices.  It’s true that doing this kind of thing might not result in as wide a public access to these records as we wish to see, but neither will insisting on an all-or-nothing approach where our custody is the only legitimate way to recognize something as an archive.

Another lesson we have learned from this whole process has been a better understanding of the challenges of collaborative documentary projects.  Limitation of time and resources which are already committed to many other tasks is the most obvious obstacle.  Admitting major roles to people outside the archives compounds the difficulty.  We not only have to pursue the collecting activities, but also have to negotiate between different schedules, interests, aims and methods of everyone involved.  These obstacles have very little to do with archival theory or methodology and almost everything to do with human and organizational behavior.  I would like to see anthropological or sociological studies of university faculty which focuses on archivists and librarians.  I think we might learn a lot from such observations.

Using students to do collecting work in such a project has benefits and challenges.  It gives the students valuable experience and gives outlet to the interest and dedication they may have to certain causes.  Students may gain the trust of record-makers better than a professional archivist.  However, their work schedule is limited by their school schedule, both their graduation date and their class workload.  Their classes may suddenly become more demanding and further restrict the time they are able to devote to the collecting project.  Also, if a student serves as the principal contact point between a record-creator and the archives, that contact can be lost when the student graduates and moves out of town.  Delegating tasks to students is meant to save the archivist’s time, but in order to build and keep sustainable relationships with potential record donors, there is no shortcut for the archivist spending the necessary time with them.  My initial strategy of sending out students as the frontline agents and directing them while juggling other projects will need some amendment to be more effective in the future.

Outside grant funding enabled us to do this project, but once the scheduled project period is complete and the money is spent, it is easy to let the focus of the grant immediately blur into the background as other priorities and projects take the stage.  If a grant project is kept small enough that it can be neatly finished during the time and with the money given, this is not an immediate problem, but it can be frustrating when one contemplates a larger aim which will require many more small steps of this kind.  It is something like envisioning a large building and having to make every brick yourself, even if someone else supplies the straw.

The research collection that resulted from this project is in reality a record of the students’ collecting activities, and a record of our documentary intervention, in a similar way that Esther Chávez’s collection is a record of her documentary intervention.  The Rio Grande Historical Collections is itself a large record of the historical interests of its founders and the judgments its architects and directors have made as to what ought to be documented, what documentation we wished to preserve.  In order to really build up a more complete documentary picture of what is happening along the border, the best thing to do would be to set up a dedicated “Border Archives” project.  This would include a physical repository for collecting ephemeral publications and oral histories as well as manuscript materials as well as the kinds of outreach programs I mentioned earlier.  This will not be realized without very generous and sustained outside funding.

The words “Border Archives” have in fact been used frequently in our department and library over the past couple of years.  The meaning of this phrase is itself something of a moving target.  Sometimes it refers to the dream of establishing a work unit such as I just described.   At other times, “border archives” has been used to describe our humble and halting efforts to collect what we can with our resources, such as the project I have been picking at here.  Or it has been used to talk about our plans to translate Esther Chávez’s newspaper columns into English, and to expand our simple web exhibit about her into a fuller digital access tool for her collection.

These smaller steps that we have taken or would like to take are in service of an aim of building up our documentary holdings related to current events on the border, and so in a way they may be said to serve the concept of a “Border Archives.”  But we do not yet have anything that can be called a “border archive” by any rigorous definition.  Therefore, too loose a use of the term makes me uneasy.  It carries the risk of convincing others – and ourselves – that we have done more than we really have.  This in turn threatens a blurring of our goals.

Our goal relative to the documentation of current border problems remains a moving target, as I imagine any long-term documentation plan does, be it a strategy, an advocacy, or whatever term you prefer to use.  I also imagine, though I have not yet proved it, that the lofty and distant nature of many similar goals makes them easily mutable, making for an experience like steering by a star that just won’t hold still.  Many Documentation Strategy efforts have started out ambitiously only to collapse under their own weight.  Priorities change rapidly, and people lose interest or move on for whatever reason.  And in the gap between “wouldn’t it be great if” and the tasks we need to do right now, a project can easily lose momentum.

We realize this, and we keep taking small steps as our time and resources allow.  We might only give a tiny response to an enormous human problem, but if the clouds are obscuring distant landmarks, or if the guiding star has not settled into one spot yet, we may at least head in the general direction, keeping our eyes on closer landmarks to gauge our progress.  This is in fact the same way that citizen activists work.  Allow me then to consider myself in good company with them.

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