(editor’s note: Elvia was recently elected to the SAA 2018 Nominating Committee)
Please give a brief introduction of yourself and your interests in Latin American and Caribbean cultural heritage archives.
Hi there, I am the Processing Archivist for Latin American Manuscript Collections at Princeton University. Prior to my current position I was a project archivist at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, an independent grassroots archive that collects social movement posters with strong concentrations in the Vietnam War era and 20th-21st century Latin America.
As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, my interests in Latin American and Caribbean cultural heritage archives stem from a very personal place and are closely tied to my identity. I feel very privileged to lend my labor to—and make accessible—the archives of Latin American and Latinx individuals and communities. It is also a privilege to put my language skills to use and work with Spanish language materials on a daily basis.
Tell us about your work at Princeton University Library Rare Books & Special Collections Department as the Latin America Processing Archivist. What are some of the collections you’ve worked with?
Princeton has extensive holdings of literary correspondence, manuscripts, and personal papers of contemporary Latin American authors, critics, and other intellectuals, with special emphasis on authors of the Boom (1960s-1970s) era. We have about 70 author archives and related collections that are processed and readily available for access.
Since I’ve started my position in June 2015, I’ve mostly concentrated on the backlog of unprocessed collections. These include the organizational and editorial files of the Mexican literary journals Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta (1976-1998), both edited by Octavio Paz; the papers of Argentine poet and human rights activist Juan Gelman (1930-2014); and numerous other smaller collections and new additions to existing collections. I am currently processing the papers of the late Ricardo Piglia (1941-2017) who just passed away earlier this year, and the papers of Edgardo Cozarinsky (1939- ).
I am also working on an audiovisual migration project to digitize the audio cassette and reel-to-reel assets found in our Latin American collections. We have collections that feature audio recordings of authors such as Pablo Neruda, Elena Garro, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, José Donoso, and many more. I am very excited about this project as it is a pilot project that will help inform the start of a reformatting program to digitize other AV materials held in our manuscript collections.
You recently presented at the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) this fall, and posted your comments on medium at https://medium.com/on-archivy/invisible-defaults-and-perceived-limitations-processing-the-juan-gelman-files-4187fdd36759#.u2k2zc6nc. How do you see the future of archives, especially digital archives, in relation to traditionally marginalized groups?
There seems to be a tendency to fully endorse technologies as egalitarian and democratic. That thanks to current technologies, information can now not only be immediately accessible, it is also accessible to a wider audience, and more folks can create and contribute content. Yes, there is truth to this; however, we cannot simply rely on this blanket promise without holding accountable those that are building the tools or otherwise making this information accessible. There has been recent critical scholarship (OLITA spotlight talk at the Ontario Library Association, 2015) about the implicit biases in the way technologies are built and how they simply mirror the biases and perspectives of those that build them. This argument elucidates that the same systemic structures that exist and oppress minority or marginalized groups in society are perpetuated in the technological tools we use to access information because the industries that make these tools, and related industries that purpose them, are created and used by the majority white and the majority male. Understanding this, how does that affect the preservation and access to digital archives of those from traditionally marginalized groups?
In my talk I argue that it takes critical awareness, consciousness, and ethical responsibility to uphold the cultural and political integrity of archival collections that are located outside of the majority, which I called the (in)visible default of “western, white, straight, and male” and collections that are not in English. Without active intervention to uphold the cultural and political integrity of archival collections of creators that are not English speaking, western, white, straight, or male, we run the risk of projecting this default onto them in the ways that we preserve and provide access to them.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work? The most challenging?
The most rewarding parts of my day are getting to learn about individuals I never met through the ways they lived, wrote, thought, and interacted with others felt vis-a-vis the traces they left behind. When I was a child I liked to scavenge through my mother’s purse while she and my father were out dancing during family parties. I liked to pull everything out of her purse to figure out what everything was and why my mom needed to carry it. I think there’s something in this weird childhood pastime that has endured in adulthood. My work is part detective, part psychologist and getting to figure out and preserve the puzzle of a person or an organization’s records and projecting this out to the world for access is still the coolest and most rewarding part of what I get to dedicate my 9-5 to.
What I find the most challenging in this field is remaining critical and constructive about the silences or deliberate obstructions in archival representation, in particular when it affects the representation of marginalized communities. The majority of archival collections I currently work with come from the established literary canons of Latin America; this is a fact that does not escape me. Though through my writing, presentations, and other outlets I try to contribute critical thought and perspective to these issues in the field.
Finally, what advice and words of wisdom would you give to new and aspiring archivists?
Even though I have about 6 years of post-MLIS experience working in archives, I still consider myself an early career professional so I am learning with everyone who is getting started in this field. I’ve recently offered some advice to students and new professionals in the SAA SNAP blog. Beside what I said there, all I can offer is my experience—what has worked and not worked for me. For both grad school and taking the job at Princeton, I’ve had to move away from my family and friends which is part of the challenge of working in archives. If you are able to pick up and relocate to gain the experience you need to get your foot through the door, do it. I recognize that because I did not have any geographical limitations or familial responsibilities of taking care of an elderly parent or children of my own, that I could do that easily.