Did you know it’s National Hispanic Heritage Month AND National Archives Month? To celebrate, we want to let you in on the inner workings of our incredible Historias collection.
Our Historias archive is one of the largest collections of contemporary Latino and Latina voices ever gathered! With participants’ permission, we send all interviews with individuals who identify as Latino/a to the Nettie Lee Benson Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, the premiere archive of Latin American materials in the United States. Christian Kelleher, the head archivist at the Benson Collection, was kind enough to chat with us about what happens to these interviews once they’re Texas-bound, as well as some of the other treasures this library and archive holds.
Christian Kelleher at the Benson Collection with an antiphonary (a liturgical book) from Mexico City from 1589–one of the first books printed in the Americas. Credit: University of Texas Libraries.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Nettie Lee Benson Collection, and your specific role there? How long have you been at UT Libraries?
“The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is the special collection library and archive on the UT Austin campus that specializes in materials from and about Latin America, the Caribbean, and Latino/as in the U.S. Among the premier collections in the world, the Benson holds over one million volumes in its library along with a significant body of original manuscript materials, photographs, maps, audio and video recordings, artworks, and cultural artifacts. I’ve been at the Benson Collection nearly 12 years now as the head archivist, leading the rare books and manuscripts division. It’s an honor and a thrill to work with the materials and individuals that I interact with every day. In our holdings we have some of the first books printed in North America–from Mexico City beginning nearly a hundred years before the first book printed up in New England–and beautiful original pintura maps from the Relaciones Geograficás, the first survey of New Spain done by the Spanish Crown in 1577.”
A map of Guaxtepec, Mexico from 1580 from the Relaciones GeogrÃ¡ficas collection, a key primary source about the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Credit: University of Texas Libraries
“We have the original literary manuscript of Argentine author Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela that is a genuinely interactive experience to page through. There is correspondence from Mexican-American activists working to desegregate schools in the Southwest, which provides unique insight into the processes and personalities of heroes in the civil rights movement. Students and scholars come to the Benson from all over the world. The individuals and organizations whose archives we preserve are endlessly fascinating: political figures, authors, activists, intellectuals, and regular people who witnessed, participated in, and lead in the making of history.”
Have any researchers already used StoryCorps materials? Have you used them to engage the university community or the general public?
“The StoryCorps archive is something that I feature when I talk with students in classes all the time because it’s a resource for so many of their research interests. Mexican American Studies, Latin American Studies, History, Anthropology, Media Studies, Sociology, Education, Women’s and Gender Studies, Art, Medicine–you name the discipline and it’s represented in StoryCorps. All I have to do is turn them on to the archive and let them go.”
How do you think researchers will make use of these interviews in the future?
“You might have to bear with me on this one. I’ve been reading a book on the history of the Chaos Theory, and am in a section on fractals. I’m definitely no physicist or mathematician, but if I understand correctly fractals are patterns that appear similar when examined at different scales. So, for example, when you look at a coastline from space you see this rough demarcation between land and water. Then, if you zoom in to, like, airplane height, you still see the same rough boundary, just on a different, closer scale. And again, standing on the rocky shoreline. But for each view while the shoreline looks random or chaotic, there is actually an underlying pattern.
I think an archive like StoryCorps’ will be studied in a similar way. If you look at the whole archive of more than 50,000 interviews you might see chaos with so many different personal histories. When we look at the 2,500 Historias interviews at the Benson Collection, there is still a huge diversity of human experience within that population. Even down to a single interview–with the interviewer and interviewee talking back and forth, over one another, with their life stories moving through time, in different geographic locations, and adding and losing family members, changing jobs, etc.–researchers will see patterns and meaning underlying that apparent chaos, and it will be relevant for the big population and the individual alike.”
Are there any topics, people, or communities that you’d like to see StoryCorps address or work with in the future?
“I love it. That’s always the right question for an archive: who is not being represented that needs to be? You know, one segment of the population that I don’t think we listen to enough is kids. They have insights that are shrewd, alternately hilarious or heartbreaking, and often surprising, though maybe everyone would be better off if kids didn’t surprise adults quite so much. I know that there would be legal and ethical concerns about such a project–and rightly so–but like everyone else, kids definitely have something valuable to add to the conversation.”
What are some of the other oral history collections you hold at the Benson Collection?
“Oral histories are an important part of many archival repositories. At the Benson Collection, we have a number of significant oral history collections like the Voces Project of nearly 1,000 interviews with Latinos and Latinas involved in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, including soldiers, doctors, nurses, and people on the home front. Many of those were done by students here at the University, as a way to engage them in understanding their family, community, and national history beginning on the level of an individual’s experiences and contributions. Our own librarians have done oral histories with civil rights activists in such organizations as the American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens, and we have collections from scholars and activists on human rights and political movements as well.”
Do you have a favorite collection at the Benson? One that you’re particularly excited to work with, or one with a subject matter that particularly strikes your fancy?
“A collection that I think demonstrates the power of an archive, and will promote new discoveries in research and scholarship for many, many years is the Gloria Anzaldúa papers. Anzaldúa was a Chicana feminist theorist poet who pioneered fields like Borderlands Theory and Queer Studies. Her archive documents so many aspects of her professional life and her personal life that were intricately connected. Anzaldúa was central to a historical moment recognizing that individuals and peoples aren’t on one side or the other of a boundary–whether that’s a national border, sexual identity, religious definition, language group, or ethnic identity, and many others–but that they cross those borders, move between them, or, Schrodinger’s Cat-style, inhabit both sides at the same time.
Cover page of a manuscript draft of Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa, 1986. Credit: University of Texas Libraries and the Gloria Anzaldúa Literary Trust.
Her archive illustrates how she grappled with such ideas intellectually and personally in her correspondence, published and unpublished written works, interactions with students and artists, and in her own wide-ranging reading. A European filmmaker made a documentary about the importance of visual arts to Anzaldúa’s work, and described Anzaldúa’s archive as an altar to her impact on the world around her. Anzaldúa scholar AnaLouise Keating described her archive as her “final and most complex text” and I think that really captures what an archive can be: complex, beautiful, and rewarding to inquiry.”
Finally, what are three favorite places that you’d recommend to a visitor to Austin?
“Wow, there’s so much great stuff in Austin that there’s something for anyone’s particular (and even peculiar) interests! I’ve been really enjoying seeing film screenings from the Austin Film Society at their new Marchesa Theatre. I recommend to everyone to see the world’s first photograph on exhibit at UT’s Harry Ransom Center–there’s only one, it’s the first ever, and it’s right here on campus. And on the right nights at the right time of year, seeing the bats fly out of the Congress Avenue bridge at dusk before a good dinner and night listening to live music is a very cool thing to experience.”
Big thanks to Christian Kelleher for answering these questions, and to StoryCorps’ own Archive Manager, Talya Cooper, for putting this interview together!