From Archival Theory to Practice
The Preservers and Retrievers of Stories, Part 2
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part column. The first installment can be found here.
When I arrived at the rural town of Temacapulín in western Mexico to conduct archival research, I found unorganized documents resting in dusty boxes. After some deliberation and with the town’s permission, I decided to arrange the records and establish a historical archive in the town. First, I learned about archival theories and the different levels of organization: collection/fond, series, and folders. Then I created a plan to systematize the mountain of documents in front of me. I began to sort the documents by myself. A few days later, after having made such an insignificant amount of progress, I realized the true magnitude of the project before me.
I needed help if I was ever going to establish Temacapulín’s historical archive. My first thought was reaching out to university students, but the town’s seclusion made travel incredibly difficult for those at the University of Guadalajara, two hours away by bus. My second thought was that, in Mexico, high school students are required to complete certain hours of community service, but the local school had suspended that requirement due to the pandemic. In the end, I turned to the town’s residents for help.
In small towns like Temacapulín, who you know is important. Usually when you first meet someone, they will ask, “¿Quienes son tus parientes?” (“Who are your relatives?” or “Who do you know?”) Luckily, my aunt lives in the town, and I met many fellow residents through her. From this first connection, I spread word around town about my project, calling for volunteers. At first, only one or two volunteers helped a few times a week. After I went around knocking on doors and asking for help, I had at least two people, and up to eight, working with me every day.
I spread word around town about my project, calling for volunteers.
Community engagement yielded unexpectedly rich results, since residents could provide insight on certain documents. For instance, when we were trying to categorize one document that concerned a man asking permission to plan horse races, it turned out to be the grandfather of a volunteer. She informed us that he took care of the gardens in the town plaza, worked in construction, and enjoyed planning events for the town. With her help we were able to determine this specific document belonged under the “public works” series.
Volunteers followed specific practices to ensure the accurate and quick completion of the archive. I shared with them the levels of organization (collection, series, folders) we would be using. We instituted typical archival procedures—they were asked to not bring in food or drinks, to only use pencils, and to wash hands before working with the documents.
Admittedly, we encountered challenges and made mistakes along the way. Seeing the practices at the state archives on a research trip to Guadalajara, I realized that we forgot to label the folders with the number of items each contains. Fortunately, after we completed digitization, we were able to calculate the number of items in each folder using a spreadsheet of all the materials. Second, older documents that were handwritten made them difficult to read and get through. Luckily, some of the older volunteers could read them with much more ease than the younger ones. Finally, many documents dealt with multiple topics, making their placement into a single series very difficult. To combat this difficulty, we created reference sheets detailing potential topics that could be included in each series. However, oversights are unavoidable.
Our work quickly began to bear fruit. In March, a team from the federal Secretariat of Culture traveled to Temacapulín to meet with local leaders and organize a jolgorio, a large cultural festival, and they asked if I would give a workshop on the archive and the documents it contained. To decide what to present at the jolgorio, I turned again to the community, asking the volunteers to suggest any interesting documents they came across to showcase. We made posters of a few documents and, when the day came, we talked about the town’s involvement in the Cristero War and the history of migration.
Temacapulín was not the only town in the region in need of an archive. After hearing about the archival project in Temacapulín, two residents from a nearby Indigenous town told me they had plans of building an archive of their own due to a current political crisis. The local government had forcibly removed residents from their land to build a large avenue. As such, the residents were attempting to obtain federal recognition as an Indigenous community to receive political protection, and they hoped establishing a community archive would help prove to the state their historical and continued existence.
To my surprise, their documents dated back to the 1650s.
I spent a weekend helping them get started. Before my arrival, they collected all the documents that had been kept by individual members of the community, passed down through generations. When I arrived, they showed me documents in burlap sacks, trash bags, and boxes—in total, they had gathered more than 20,000 documents. With the help of a few volunteers from Temacapulín, I created a visual guide of organizational archival systems they could use and reference after I left. We went over the guide and then started going through the documents. To my surprise, their documents dated back to the 1650s (in Temacapulín they went to the 1810s), and their conditions varied. Because they had been kept in individual homes, some had pen marks or water stains, while others were pristine. We worked through the entire weekend, and although only there a few days, I felt honored and privileged to help them start their archive.
When I returned to Temacapulín, I still needed to digitize all the documents so I could continue my own research after I left the town. First, I looked online to find the best practices to organize and store photos as primary sources. I wanted to recreate a digital copy of the archive on my computer, and I found Robert Karl’s (Minerva Univ.) videos extremely useful. I used Excel to create a reference guide to the photographs of my primary sources. I kept the process and organization simple; I photographed them with my phone, stored them as image files on my laptop, and backed them up on both the cloud and an external hard drive. If anything happened to one, I always had the other.
In total, the volunteers and I spent about two months organizing Temacapulín’s historical archive. Although it was an unexpected task with limited resources, the experience and knowledge I gained in archival studies has benefitted my journey as a historian and given me a new level of appreciation for archivists and the work they do. In this process, I was able to give something back to the community, and it was amazing to help the town to retrieve and preserve their own history.
Fernando Amador II is a PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University. He tweets @amador_ii.
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