You may or may not know it, but you have a potential archive in your house. That pile of photos or newspapers in your garage may hold the key for a future historian to understand the way Latinos became a political force in Texas or how Latinos became a powerful demographic in Nebraska. The point is, archives are what academics and historians use to talk about the past, and in turn, understand the present.
In order to understand how Latinos fit into this picture, I asked an historian very familiar with Latino archives about how anyone can create an archive — and why they should. My father, Roberto R. Calderón, is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas, and has been actively working to build a Latino archive at that institution for several years.
I asked him a few questions about archiving, his answers are below, and you can download a somewhat technical manual on archiving here.
MW: Why should someone archive their family’s papers? Isn’t it just trash?
RRC: Archives tell the story of how a group came to be the dominant group — that’s what archives are. The point of having an archive is making peoples’ histories, peoples’ voices part of history — you can’t have written history without archives.
By and large, the history — that is the archives — of those who are privileged in society, wealthy, politically socially dominant in society, tends to get represented disproportionately … Poor folks’ stories tend to be told less than wealthier folks’ stories, so class and race and gender, also enter into this picture.
Latinos have been, are, and will become, an even more significant part of U.S. history. Latinos have always been a part of the history of this place, even before there was a United States, in the building of this society that history was minimized.
MW: What counts as an “archive”?
RRC: All of our history is important. Things that should be included in archives are: letters, bills of sale, property documents of any kind (pertaining to land, pertaining to houses), wage receipts, pay stubs, diaries, journals, artwork, newspapers, magazines, photographs of course, genealogical histories, published histories, rare books, self-published books, pamphlets, newsletters, recipes, video cassettes, audio cassettes, CDs.
I don’t think all archives collect objects, artifacts, but many do: dresses, hats, jackets, suits, antiques, furniture, anything pertaining to material culture.
MW: What do you do with photos, papers, and artifacts like clothing and books?
RRC: A lot of it ends up in garages or outside rooms. What invariably is bound to happen is that bugs that feed on paper are going to damage it. If you have audio tapes, after 20, 25 years in the garage, you are going to lose the voices on those tapes.
If you can, by all means, identify those materials that are the most important and try to put those inside your residence because, chances are, those conditions are relatively better than your garage or your shed.
Try to keep your materials dry and cool. And don’t laminate anything, think longer than 10, 20 years.
MW: How should I negotiate an archive donation?
RRC: Negotiate the hell out of whatever it is you would like to see done with those materials. If you are going to sell your materials to an archive, there’s not much negotiation there. But if you are donating materials, and most materials in archives are donated, then you have every right to negotiate terms vis-à-vis those materials. Whatever the terms are — whether you want to have the family to have full and complete access, for example — it will depend on the collection and the interest of the institution with which you are negotiating.
You will find institutions that don’t want to negotiate, well then you go and find an institution that will. We have seen a proliferation, happily, of regional archives in Texas and California, for example.
Oftentimes, these regional archives are becoming the archive of choice for families. It makes sense to put your archives in the region where you are and those institutions are more flexible in arranging terms because they are hungry to grow their collections.
MW: What should you take into account when selecting an archival site?
RRC: Ask them: Are you going to be able to digitize this material? Are you going to share it on the web? With the world? How? Do you have the resources to preserve this material? Do your research, ask questions, don’t make this decision in a hurry.
[Image Via MapSymbols_other_US_NPS.svg]