Manuel Zapata Olivella, 1920–2004 (photo by Nereo López, courtesy of Vanderbilt Special Collections and University Archives)

Vanderbilt University digitizes Afro-Colombian oral histories with LARRP grant

"[Olivella's] desire to capture Black and indigenous life and customs and culture resulted in thousands of interviews that have preserved Colombia’s history of the marginalized."

Vanderbilt University is a long-standing member of the Latin Americanist Research Resources Project (LARRP), which has been administered by the Center for Research Libraries since 2006. LARRP seeks to increase free and open access to information in support of learning and scholarship in Latin American studies. Participating institutions contribute an annual membership fee of $900, which goes towards projects approved by LARRP members.

In 2018, Paula Covington (Latin American and Iberian Studies Librarian at Vanderbilt University) submitted a proposal to LARRP to digitize and preserve selected Afro-Colombian interviews in the Manuel Zapata Olivella Collection as a pilot project. After having been approved by LARRP members, this project supported the preservation and conversion from analog to digital of a portion of the 2,251 audiocassette tapes housed in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections as part of the Manuel Zapata Olivella Papers.

This pilot project aimed to digitize and make available a selection from two collections of interviews conducted by Zapata Olivella throughout Colombia: (1) Grupo etnográfico and (2) Voz de los abuelos. The materials would then be publicly accessible from Vanderbilt’s Manuel Zapata Olivella website and linked to the interview records and transcripts, where available. The intention was to conduct this as a proof of concept before securing additional funding to convert the entire collection of audiotapes—which Vanderbilt did in 2019, receiving a $46,000 CLIR grant towards the digitization project. In spring 2021, Vanderbilt also convened a widely attended virtual conference on the life and works of Zapata Olivella, affirming the digitized collection's interest to researchers and potential reach.

Judy Alspach, former Area Studies Program Manager for the Center for Research Libraries, talked to Covington about the project earlier this year.

Can you tell me a little bit about Manuel Zapata Olivella?

Manuel Zapata Olivella was an Afro-Colombian anthropologist, novelist, folklorist, and physician. 2020 was named “the year of Manuel” in his honor by the Colombian government. Because of his literary output—especially his slave narratives—he has been justifiably called the “Dean of Black Hispanic writers.” As an activist, he created the World Congresses of Black Culture and traveled extensively in the US in the ’60s, engaging with a large network of activist intellectuals. He founded and led Colombia’s Instituto de Investigaciones Folclóricas and produced radio programs, ethnographies, oral histories, screenplays, street theater, simposios, and organized hundreds of Afro-Hispanic events. His desire to capture Black and indigenous life and customs and culture resulted in thousands of interviews that have preserved Colombia’s history of the marginalized. He must never have slept given his incredible output!

Were there any surprises—either technical challenges or new discoveries in the content—that came up during the project work?

Nothing is simple! Of the selection of tapes we outsourced to be preserved and digitized, some had little information describing and identifying them, which was a time-consuming process. The original estimates of fees and requisite need for enhancements led to adjustments in what could be accomplished. In terms of content, the samples we began to test were amazing—[they include] everything from children’s songs to funeral rites to Wayúu marriage rituals.

How has this collection, especially the interviews funded for digitization by LARRP, been used in research and/or teaching? Can you share any particularly interesting examples?

We held a three-day virtual conference in April honoring the life of Manuel which was attended by participants from 12 countries in Latin America, North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Access to the selected tapes was demonstrated to the participants. One paper by a doctoral student in history used colonial slave records and selected Zapata Olivella interviews to discuss practices and traditions relating to Afro-Colombian music and religious practices. It will be published in the Afro-Hispanic Review. This semester two Library Fellows will be adding content to the website and will select a research topic that will make use of the oral histories. We expect high use of these ethnographies, especially among anthropology students, once more of the audiotapes become digitally available.

How did the LARRP funding help you make progress on your goals for this collection?

The pilot project gave us the knowledge of the workflow and the obstacles we faced to allow us to submit a grant proposal to digitize the collection of tapes.

Has Vanderbilt been able to digitize the remainder of the collection?

We received a CLIR Recordings at Risk grant to preserve and digitize the 2,000-plus audiotapes and are now creating the records to allow for linkages to the website. The audiocassettes represented a small percentage of the collection but were endangered.

Anything else we’ve missed?

The long-term goal is to make all aspects of this extraordinarily rich collection available digitally. It is Colombia’s national patrimony. Because of the scarcity of Afro-Hispanic resources available for researchers and the public, [as well as] the breadth of themes and disciplines this collection includes, it has become, understandably, one of our most visited special collections. It would be wonderful to make the 400+ boxes of novels, manuscripts, correspondence, World Congresses of Black Culture, screenplays, radio programs and transcripts of conferences available worldwide.

The audiotapes selected to be digitized under the LARRP grant are now available where links appear in the Grupo etnográfico interviews, accessible here.

Dec 2021