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From Issue #45 June 19, 2014

Own the Past

Mexico is determined to convert its history into digital form on its own terms.

By Julie Schwietert Collazo Twitter icon 

Map of part of North America, 1832, via Biblioteca Digital Mexicana

There was a time not so long ago when, if the country that invented the Internet came knocking at your door to invite you to participate in the world’s biggest digital library, you wouldn’t hesitate to say “Oh, yes” and “Thank you very much.”

You would have turned over treasures, entrusting they’d be handled properly and returned to you in due time. You’d be honored to be included in such an ambitious, important project.

The days of the United States’ digital hegemony seem numbered, if La Biblioteca Digital Mexicana (the Mexican Digital Library) is any bellwether.

In 2005, a representative from the Library of Congress presented UNESCO with a proposal for the World Digital Library, an online archive of primary materials from around the world, accessible in multiple languages, intended not only to facilitate scholarly research, but also to expose cultural treasures to anyone with an Internet connection.

The WDL was launched in 2009, with the Library of Congress serving as the point-of-contact institution responsible for digitizing material and maintaining the Web site. To date, nearly 10,000 items from every part of the world, spanning 8000 BCE to the present, have been uploaded. All of them are accessible with the click of a mouse.

Yet one country with a curious paucity of entries relative to the expanse of its history (not to mention its relative geographical proximity to the United States compared to, say, Tuvalu) is Mexico. Despite having thousands of items and objects dating back millennia that would be valuable additions to the WDL, Mexican officials have been investing more resources in the development of the country’s own digital library.

It’s a choice that raises interesting questions about how “developing” countries are beginning to resist American digital ownership. Countries’ archivists are taking technology’s tools and deciding how they are going to represent themselves and share their most important primary materials with both a domestic and an international audience.

“I admire the WDL very much, and I participate in its meetings,” says Andrea Martínez Baracs, a Mexican historian and the director of La Biblioteca Digital Mexicana. “But we want our own digital library, and the two libraries — the WDL and the BDMx — are quite different. One is immense and global; the other is tiny, with a limited budget. The size of our project allows us to be more careful, more focused, with materials hand-picked one by one.”

During a visit to the City University of New York last fall, Martínez spoke to an intensely engaged audience about what she refers to as the “modest ambitions” of the BDMx and the process by which materials from some of Mexico’s key institutions are selected for inclusion in the country’s digital library.

“I have the honor of being shown our country’s most valuable, important historical documents,” Martínez said. She works with directors of public and private libraries and institutions around Mexico to choose the material they consider most important. Miguel Bustamante, who, like Martínez, is an employee of CONACULTA, the country’s National Congress for Arts and Culture, prepares the materials for digitization and uploading, while Martínez writes a description and bibliography to accompany the items.

One of the characteristics distinguishing the BDMx is that every item must be able to stand on its own. Though the descriptions explain an item’s provenance and basic facts that justify its historical value, one of the guiding ideas of the BDMx is that less is more. “Technology is a marvelous ally for knowledge building and [scholarly] investigation,” Martínez says. “Just being able to zoom in on an indigenous codex to see its details clearly is a privilege. But on the other hand, a Web page gets sick or dies if you don’t tend to it.”

In other words, the more references and links required to explain an entry, the more likely it is that the ultimate value of a centuries-old object will be subject to very modern technological troubles, such as 404 errors. With an average of 5,000 visitors a month — a large number for the type of site it is, Martínez says — it’s critical that BDMx stay information rich, resource lean, and optimally functional for the average user, who may not possess Internet or research savvy.

If the decision to build their own digital library seems isolationist, consider this: One of the first tasks the BDMx took on when it was founded was organizing and co-hosting an international congress with the WDL in Mexico City. The topic? Mexican codices in the exterior: early bound books that were created in Mexico, but now reside outside the country. Twenty-six institutions from around the world that possess Mexican codices participated, a fact that hints at some of the intriguing possibilities for Mexico and for other countries taking control of their own digital footprint.

No longer the passive subjects about which conferences are held and topics such as repatriation of archival objects are discussed by Ivy League scholars, the creation of the BDMx positions Mexico squarely on the world stage as exactly what it is: the rightful keeper and interpreter of its own archived history. There’s a lot the BDMx can share with the world, says Martínez, but on its own terms.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a bilingual (English-Spanish) writer, editor, and translator whose work covers a wide range of topics and interests, from art to science and from food to Pope Francis. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, DISCOVER, Scientific American, Ms., and a number of other publications. Based in New York City, she has also called San Juan and Mexico City home.

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