Archival Structures and the Preservers and Retrievers of Stories

Roundup
tags: PRESERVATION, archives, archivists, libraries, primary sources

Fernando Amador II is a PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University. He tweets @amador_ii.

In early January 2022, I traveled to the town of Temacapulín in the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. I had planned to conduct archival and ethnographic research on the history of migration in Mexico’s hinterland. Because of the town’s long history, I expected to find a fruitful archive. In addition, recent protests against a government dam project had brought the otherwise peripheral community into the international and scholastic spotlight.

When I arrived, I entered the town’s administrative office and introduced myself to Anna, the secretary. I explained my presence and asked if I could conduct research in its archive. Anna led me to a storage room full of federal newspapers; I explained that I was looking for old documents related to the town. She gestured to the corner of the room—those large boxes and a gray filing cabinet over there might contain those records, she said.

With Anna’s help, I slid one of the heavy boxes toward a table and opened it up. Inside was a large stack of documents. We placed them on the table and filed through their contents. It was exactly what I needed—maybe. The papers inside dated as far back as the 1810s, but contained no semblance of order: papers from the 1880s were next to others from the 1920s, all mixed in with files from the 1950s. The filing cabinet and the other boxes had the same disorganization. The documents’ physical condition was also worrisome, as they were covered with water stains, dust, and random litter. On top of one cabinet I found 19th-century documents glued onto a board. Anna explained that during the remodeling of the administrative building, the workers moved the documents to a run-down storage room in the elementary school. It is unknown how long they were there or who might have handled them, but they were rediscovered around 2014 and moved back. Though I had limited time and resources, I soon concluded that the only choice was to clean and organize the material to create a historical archive that would aid my research, the town, and future scholars.

Historians rarely understand the terminology, organizational strategies, or labor required for establishing and maintaining an archive, and I was no exception. Systematizing the unorganized, unkempt papers of Temacapuli╠ün required extensive research on the theories, practices, and history of archival arrangement to develop a comprehensive plan to establish an archive and carry it out. The entire project lasted more than two months, saw the organization of close to 15,000 documents, and involved a dozen individuals. In addition, it gave me the opportunity to give back to the community. 

But first, I required permission from Temacapulín. Although they could not offer many resources, both the town’s representative and municipal president were enthusiastic about the venture and gave their endorsement. Soon, everyone in the town of 300 knew about my work, and when I spoke to residents, they expressed their gratitude and understood the importance of preserving and organizing those records. I was also delighted to have the community’s support, which later became crucial when I asked for volunteers.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History