Global Collections Initiative: Mexico City Workshop 2018

Friday, September 7, 2018

On June 30 this year, in conjunction with the annual conference of the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM), specialists and librarians from the U.S., the U.K., and Latin America gathered in Mexico City for a mid-course critique of CRL's Global Collections Initiative. The Initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was created to determine how to address the serious deficiencies in the “supply chain” for primary source materials for area and international studies (AIS) research. That supply chain, created during the paper era, is showing its age in today's globalized, digital research environment.

The present phase of the Global Collections Initiative, which runs to mid 2019, is focused on a single region: Latin America and the Caribbean. But we hope to produce a template for cooperation and practice that CRL can apply to supporting research on other world regions, as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well. Here are some things we took away from the workshop.

Digitizing Historical Collections and Archives

Substantial new investment is needed in the digitization of archives and other primary documentation from the Global South. For researchers in all regions, digital access to the vast amounts of evidence produced only in tangible form is clearly preferable to interlibrary loan and microform. Digitized historical materials from libraries in the North, like the LAMP Brazilian Government Documents, have proved useful to scholars in the U.S. and in Latin America. Two kinds of materials deserve special attention:

  • News is particularly important, as source material that supports research in a wide range of disciplines. Unfortunately microfilm, long the dominant medium for preserving and providing access to back issues of newspapers, is becoming less useful and sustainable owing to changes in researcher preferences and publisher practices. Of particular concern are postwar and contemporary titles, where copyright restrictions inhibit library digitization and publishers are imposing new restrictions on the use of microform copies.
  • Legal publications and other government-related information are important, not only to scholarship but to the functioning of civil society in general. Many jurisdictions now publish their laws, court decisions, statistics, and other public-interest materials only online, or in costly or unstable commercial databases. Depository libraries are disappearing, and historical documents are often weeded from the remaining repositories. Government records and other documentation relating to official corruption, state-sponsored violence, and other matters of strong public interest are especially susceptible to loss or suppression.

Therefore CRL should increase its investment in digitizing newspapers and government-related materials and archives held by libraries in the North, and should marshal support for digitization of archives held in the region. Priority should be given to materials at greatest risk, and CRL should engage libraries North and South in setting those priorities. 

Many libraries in the North are already digitizing holdings from Latin America and other world regions. While this has created a wealth of scholarly resources, the lack of coordination and uniformity of practice among the efforts hampers discovery and use of the resources created. There is also a problematic tendency among institutions in the North to monetize their holdings of materials relating to other world regions. ProQuest's Digital National Security Archives, a body of material particularly relevant to researchers in Latin America but quite costly to acquire, and Adam Matthew's India Office Records from the British Library, 1599-1947 are instances of this practice. CRL should promote the sharing of data, best practices and strategic thinking on preservation and digitization of historical materials, to promote informed decision-making and digital investment by libraries, and should work with partner consortia to counter privatization and promote open and equitable access.

Collective Investment in New Digital Resources

Actively engaging publishers to develop and sustain new digital resources based on existing physical collections is necessary and desirable. Such engagement could exploit the capabilities and assets of the commercial sector, for example by enabling mining of the rich microform vaults of organizations like Brill, ProQuest and others. CRL will pursue those possibilities, with the proviso that partnerships be carefully structured to ensure appropriate controls, safeguards and return on investment for libraries.

Since many source materials at greatest risk are born-digital and of recent vintage, and therefore may still be under copyright, licensing will be a critical strategy. As more and more Latin American newspaper publishers put paywalls in place, direct dealings with dominant media organizations, along the lines of the academic site license CRL negotiated with The New York Times, is a potential way of engaging those publishers in the work of ensuring long-term access. CRL should pursue negotiation of similar arrangements with major publishers of record such as El Pais. As a condition of such arrangements CRL might influence publishers to archive their content in ways that promote the persistence and integrity of their content.

Alternatives to Archiving the Southern Web

The Global Collections Initiative is examining a number of programs in the North that harvest and archive sites and online content from the open web. While there is little evidence that scholars use the archived content, signs indicate that mining of live web and social media content by digital humanities and social science researchers is widespread. It is also evident that the prevailing web archiving practices tend to reinforce the longstanding but problematic North-South asymmetry in the control of documentation and cultural heritage materials.

On the other hand certain organizations in Latin America, some of them affiliated with universities, now engage in the large-scale gathering, preservation and exposure of documentation and data important to humanities and social science research. Colegio de Mexico, for example, is actively building an archive of documentation relating to the 1968 student uprisings; Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango is a network of libraries that preserve cultural patrimony and promote research in Colombia; and the Fundação Getulio Vargas's Instituto Brasileiro de Economia (IBRE) collects and publishes macro-economic statistics and other development-related data.

In addition, a new generation of organizations in the Global South, enabled by the Internet, social media, and data journalism, now gather and expose on the web information and documentation on human rights, government and corporate corruption, conflict, and environmental change. Among those in Latin America are Articulo 19 in Mexico City and the Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina (OCMAL), based in Quito, Ecuador. The evidence those organizations expose is of long-term importance to scholars North and South. CRL is endeavoring to identify the interests and needs of the organizations, with an eye to creating an equitable exchange of benefits between organizations in the region and research libraries in the North.

Bernard F. Reilly
President (2001-2019)
Center for Research Libraries