President’s Message: Preserving Latin American Information and Heritage

Discussions of the challenges of preserving digital information and resources usually focus on the behaviors of the producers. How persistent are the resources produced? What provisions has the producer made for future accessibility? How do measures taken by producers to solidify their control of materials, such as copyright and encryption, impede preservation?

The Center recently completed an investigation of how libraries might archive “primary source” digital materials, namely documents mounted on the Web by political groups. The report of the investigation is now available on the Center’s Web site (see Political Communications Web Archive). When it comes to preservation the Political Web is a particularly tricky domain. We found it useful to examine the behaviors not only of the producers but of the users. We explore who those users are, how they use digital objects and communications, and what they need to support those uses.

In answer to the “Who?” question we found, predictably, a number of academic historians and social science researchers who are now using Web content as the basis for their research. These included University of Texas Professor of Economics Harry Cleaver, who studied in depth how the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, used the Web in the late 1990s to publicize and gain worldwide support for their insurgency. Cleaver assembled on his Web site, Zapatistas in Cyberspace, many important electronic texts, such as online communiqués from the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and postings to their supporters’ listservs, as well as links to places where similar documents of the struggle were archived elsewhere. Many other documents have disappeared. It was interesting to see how Cleaver has taken on the role traditionally played by librarians and archivists, by maintaining his own publicly accessible archive of source materials.

Besides academic scholars, researchers in the public policy community also rely heavily upon Web sites and documents as critical evidence in their work. Studies published by policy research organizations like the Rand Corporation, Brookings Institute, and others in the last few years show a growing tendency to cite Web-based documents and data. Given the importance of such studies to national and international policy and decision-making, persistent presentation and “sourcing” of such evidence is critical.

A conference on human rights archives in South America’s Southern Cone, organized by Deborah L. Jakubs at Duke University in October 2004, called attention to yet another community of users who will rely on libraries to preserve and make available source materials, many of them in digital form. These are the survivors of those who disappeared or were killed under military dictatorships. The archives assembled by human rights organizations in the region are valuable resources to those who seek to know the fate of relatives and friends lost under repressive regimes, and for subsequent governments’ efforts to prosecute human rights violations.

Two upcoming events will help us learn more about the needs and behaviors of researchers. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are working with the Library of Congress to convene a group of leading Latin Americanists, to discuss new and emerging research needs in five fields: history, public policy, economics, cultural studies, and law. The information obtained will give the Center, the Library of Congress, and the Foundation a better sense of where resources for cataloging, preservation, and digitization might be deployed in the future.

This spring, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and the Yale University Library will host an invitational conference to explore ways in which scholars and libraries can help shape the scholarly resources that will support global studies in the future. The conference will bring together the Global Resources Network Advisory Board (chaired by Barbara Allen of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation) and faculty members and librarians from Yale and other universities.

Together these events will shape and inform the Center’s agenda for preserving and developing resources for Latin American and other international studies. With a keener sense of the needs of scholars and other users, we can provide more useful resources, digital and traditional, for advanced research.