Judy Blankenship and Natalie Baur 2017-05-03 14:41:51
The Archivo Cultural de Cañar grew out of nearly two decades of documentary work with indigenous communities in a highland region of southern Ecuador. I first ventured to Cañar in the early 1990s as a volunteer on a research project, with the task of teaching two young Cañari men skills in photography and oral history. Twenty years later, after many return trips for teaching and exhibits, two books, three Fulbrights, and the construction of a “house in the clouds,” my husband and I now live six months every year in Cañar and six months in Portland, Oregon. A Record Of Cañari Culture My original intention to document the indigenous Cañari culture broadened five years ago when the family of a local photographer, the late Rigoberto Navas, invited me to his studio to look at a collection of glass plate and early celluloid negatives. Back in my Cañar darkroom, I printed one set of negatives and realized that I had come upon a beautiful visual record of mid-twentieth-century town and country life. From this came the idea of creating a digital archives of Cañar, a small town in the southern Andes of Ecuador. Since then, I have continued to develop and scan the Navas photo collection while also searching out other sources of historic photos, documents, and recordings—particularly those from the end of the region’s hacienda period and the beginning of agrarian reform in Ecuador (1964–1974). Ex-Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in Cañar in the late 1960s found me on the Internet and donated more than 150 color slides, along with documents, field notes, and oral histories to the collection. These young people had come to southern Ecuador to help create agricultural cooperatives around the time the agrarian reform law ground into motion, and their materials highlight a “lost” piece of cultural and social history from a particularly conflictive time. Next, I contacted two Danish anthropologists who had done extensive research in the Cañari village of Juncal in the early 1970s, and they agreed to scan and send nearly 1,000 images, along with articles and books about Cañari culture. These images from outside sources are of tremendous value because, while townsfolk used professional photographers to record their private and public lives, the indigenous communities have virtually no visual record of their life ways and culture. Creating Access Working with the indigenous community to become partners in the archives has been the most challenging and exciting part of this project. While the elders are thrilled to see images from their past—particularly the mountainous landscapes and planting and harvest fiestas that are so important to their subsistence agricultural world—grasping that these photographs might be shared with the wider world is another matter. Among the elders, almost no one has a home computer or Internet access (although nearly all now have cell phones). So I turned to local Cañari educators in the bilingual (Kichwa/Spanish) Instituto Quilloac, where we created an editorial committee and convenio, or contract, to work together on the archives. This has been a slow process, and it will be another year or so before elders and other stakeholders may view collections with an eye to giving permission for public access. Meanwhile, to gather information on the images, I share them in slideshows and exhibits, on CDs, and in print. Last year I realized I had to stop collecting materials and think about processing and preservation, beginning with a description system. Using a simple form based on Dublin Core, I created collection binders with a page for each image. I carried these binders with me on home visits and sometimes displayed them at public events so people could peruse and add information: names, dates, times, and comments. At the same time, I began to explore open-source CMS software. I was impressed with Mukurtu’s work with native tribes in the Northwest region of the United States. As a cutting-edge platform supporting ethical stewardship of cultural heritage materials, Mukurtu seemed right for the Archivo Cultural de Cañar. An interactive function allows community members to have access as administrators or members. however, one issue is language: while the back-end of the platform is in English, the public view has to be in Spanish. Still, I began uploading content and inputting metadata, with assurance from Mukurtu that at a future date we can migrate data to a platform appropriate for Spanish-language users. Developing Sustainability In 2015, Natalie Baur began working with me as a consultant for creating long-term and sustainable digital preservation of the collections and building local capacity to maintain and access collections. It quickly became clear that this unique, postcustodial, community archives project—with little access to reliable national or international funding—would face significant challenges in establishing digital asset management, providing ethical and equitable access to digital collections, and training local professionals to undertake this work. To help with these issues, Itinerant Archivists organized its first study tour to Ecuador in September 2015 to work with Ecuadorian archivists and librarians and local Cañar community stakeholders. When Baur visited Cañar in June 2016, she realized that “traditional” archival and digital preservation standards and, to a large extent, the ethics surrounding those standards, were either irrelevant or just not adequate for the task at hand. While the project is community-based and takes a post-custodial approach, because no one formal institution (i.e., university special collections, government agency, or nonprofit) is making stewardship decisions, complications surrounding rights, privacy, access, and technical management are significantly amplified. We are only beginning to work through the issue of how to make the project sustainable technically and ethically. We cannot apply “formalized” archival standards without adapting and modifying them so that materials are preserved and accessible while also serving the needs and concerns of the community. With Baur we translated the “National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) Levels of Preservation: An Explanation and Uses” chart into Spanish. We chose the NDSA model because it is straightforward, adaptable, and iterative. Then we worked on creating appraisal and accession documentation for each of the collections, taking note of where the materials came from, the historical and community context in which they were created, and implications the materials may have on access and ownership. Finally, we shared the translated NDSA standards and adaptations of digital preservation practices in a workshop for local community, museum, and archives workers. Redefining Standards The Archivo Cultural de Cañar is an exercise in learning to set aside the idea that standards and best practices—as constructed through professionalization and institution-based efforts—are the “be all and end all.” We hold standards and professional training and literature in one hand, while in the other we carefully consider how they do or do not fit into the work that is happening in the community. This approach, being critically applied and adopted now by many archivists working on community archives and documentation projects, is creating a whole new vision and set of tools for both community documentarians and archivists.
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