Saturday, April 13

UCLA Library looks to preserve at-risk archival materials through grant program

(Isabella Lee/Illustrations Director) Photo credit: Isabella Lee

UCLA Library’s Modern Endangered Archives Program will preserve at-risk cultural archives with an accessible, digitized landscape through its largest grant ever received.

The program funds projects that protect collections facing environmental and political instability, incorrect storage methods or social unrest, according to its website. The program currently features content from 11 collections, containing over 12,000 objects.

Rachel Deblinger, the program director, said the eight-year, $13 million grant from the Arcadia Fund, a foundation that supports cultural preservation, expands on UCLA Library’s commitment to preserve cultural heritage around the world and make knowledge accessible for students and faculty.

Virginia Steel, the Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian, said UCLA Library’s technological infrastructure and history of cultural preservation will ultimately allow archives supported by the Modern Endangered Archives Program to reach wide audiences and promote the preservation of at-risk materials.

The grants help grassroots organizations that work to include marginalized perspectives often not included in dominant histories, Deblinger said, adding that digitizing these archives promotes user accessibility and challenges popular narratives of history.

The program offers organizations a one-year, $15,000 planning grant and a two-year, $50,000 project grant, Deblinger said. While planning grants allow teams to start documenting and organizing materials, project grants enable recipients to focus on digitizing collections that are already organized, she added. Starting next year, the program will also offer $100,000 regional grants for organizations to build their digitization capacity and work with regional partners, she also said.

One project supported by a program grant represents the political and social evolution of the Confederación Campesina del Perú, a leftist political organization of Indigenous farm laborers formed in the late 1940s.

Charles Walker, a history professor at UC Davis and project lead for the Peruvian Peasant Confederation Archive, said the archive of the Confederación retells the history of Peru from a grassroots perspective.

Through a $50,000 grant received in 2020, Walker said his team first organized files, captured photos with a high-resolution camera and organized images by category. The physical materials and archive equipment will stay in Peru to promote community ownership and additional archiving performed by community members, he said, adding the project will appear on the program’s website by the end of the year.

Given that Indigenous farm laborers have been historically written out of history, the archive illustrates that these groups are central to the social and political developments of Peru, Walker said.

“We can understand them and look at their communities and organizations, their political groups, and the role of women and how that slowly changed over time,” Walker said.

Bruno Witzel de Souza, a project leader for the Ibicaba Farm archive through the endangered archives program, said the farm’s archival materials document the economic system of Brazilian agricultural labor and also challenge historical misconceptions regarding slavery.

During the early phases of the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1850, Ibicaba Farm was the first plantation that employed non-captive European laborers, signifying a transition from slavery and an age of European immigration, Witzel de Souza said. However, the archive highlights the forgotten history of continued slave labor on the farm until 1888, which is commonly ignored, he added.

The archive features a collection of ledgers and business records that span more than 100 years, Witzel de Souza said, adding that this data will contribute to the history of business, macroeconomics and material culture studies.

“Even if a new fascist government comes to power, or even if that material remains under threat by the ruling party, there is safety in knowing that material will not only be accessible, but also preserved by the UCLA Library,” Deblinger said.

The library continues to collaborate with UCLA faculty to embed archival materials supported by the program into assignments and coursework across campus, Steel said.

“UCLA is a global university. It wants to ensure that the teaching and research and programs improve and impact the world,” Steel said. “What excites me about the MEAP program is that we contribute to that by helping preserve these records of cultures and communities so that people will have access to them.”

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