Archives at the Intersection of Postcolonialism and Climate Change

Reflections from Puerto Rico Post-Maria with Hilda Teresa Ayala-González

Amye McCarther

Cultural heritage stewards, perhaps more than any other sector of the arts and humanities, have a keen and growing awareness of the threats to historical materials posed by climate change. Once relatively niche within the fields of archives and conservation, disaster preparedness and response has become a regular and increasingly prominent topic at conferences and within professional literature as storms, floods, and forest fires have grown more frequent and severe. National organizations and local communities alike have mobilized in response to these emergencies. Yet, while the field as a whole continues to assess and adapt to shifting climatic conditions and their attendant risks, the severity of recent natural disasters and their ability to outstrip local precautionary measures and resources point to the need an even greater shift in consciousness and action across disciplines and geographic distances if we are to continue safeguarding cultural property.

Photo: Cristobal Guerra, from the series Rio Blanco/Playa Sucia, 2017. Courtesy the artist. © Cristobal Guerra

Archivists in Puerto Rico are no stranger to storms; situated in the Caribbean hurricane belt, the archipelago experiences severe weather events in the form of hurricanes and tropical storms at an average of once every two years. Yet even those seasoned to the tropical conditions could not have anticipated the destructive force of two hurricanes striking in quick succession in September of 2017. The second, Hurricane Maria, would become the most destructive storm to strike Puerto Rico since 1899, making landfall with winds of 155 miles per hour, and bringing with it rains that flooded coastal areas nine feet above ground level. The entire electrical grid failed in what would become the longest power outage in American history; as a result, communications and clean drinking water were impaired throughout the island. The magnitude of the damage to cultural heritage institutions is difficult to overstate.

In the months following the storms, the Archivists Round Table (ART) and the New York chapter of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NY) began reaching out to archivists and conservators from Puerto Rico and the diaspora to see how our communities could assist with the recovery efforts. New York is fortunate to have outstanding cultural collections relating to Puerto Rico and the diaspora, including the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (CENTRO) at Hunter College and el Museo del Barrio. Given the unique historical connection between New York and Puerto Rico and the critical importance of libraries and archives to the cultural record, we felt it was imperative for our communities to respond.

It was through these efforts that we connected with Hilda Teresa Ayala-González, the Research Services Librarian at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and Coordinator of Archival Advice for Puerto Rican archivists organization La Red de Archivos de Puerto Rico (ArchiRED). An archivist with experience in collections assessment and disaster preparedness, Hilda has actively documented the impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico’s libraries, archives and museums, and has presented her findings in the form of presentations, editorial and academic writings, and an interactive timeline hosted on Scalar. Her insights regarding the ongoing relief efforts enabled us to concretely identify needs and establish a plan that would leverage our modest fundraising to reach cultural heritage stewards across the archipelago.

Hilda Teresa Ayala-González

I caught up with Hilda to discuss her reflections on the impacts of the storms and ongoing recovery efforts, as well as her recent participation in the Smithsonian’s Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART):

To begin with, I think that many archivists have some knowledge of Puerto Rico’s history as a colonized territory and its tropical climate but may not realize how these histories intersect with archives. What should archivists understand about that history and its implications for cultural patrimony?

Since Spain colonized Puerto Rico in 1493, we have remained a territory of different governing entities. In 1898, we were ceded as a “war treasure” to the United States following the Spanish–American War, and despite the special arrangements made in 1952 between the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States to develop a new governance model (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) in truth the change was not deep enough in relation to our economical autonomy and decision making processes. This was confirmed to the world in 2016 when a Financial Oversight and Management Board was imposed by the Congress of the United States to restructure a more than $74 billion in bond debt.

Our political instability and financial crisis had and continues to have a deep impact in how our patrimony is preserved. To cite a recent example, the two main institutions that hold the vast majority of our records and cultural patrimony, the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and the Universidad de Puerto Rico have seen major budget cuts and are required — along with every other public institution — to obtain permission from the Board when special funding is needed. This directly impacted their response and recovery activities after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017.

How does ArchiRED fit into this context?

When ArchiRED was founded in 1988, its main goal was to build a network of all the archivists and archival institutions on the archipielago to enhance archival practices around arrangement, description, preservation, and access. As the only professional organization in Puerto Rico with a focus on archivists and record managers, ArchiRED has continued to support its memberships through educational activities, specialized publications, and connecting people with valuable resources. After the hurricane, ArchiRED played an important role identifying the state of damages and needs, and keeping the community informed of funding, workshops and strategies to cope with the disaster.

It has been over a year now since Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As a native of Houston, Texas, I know from experience that recovering from storms continues long after the news cycle has moved on. How are the recovery efforts going and what still needs to be addressed?

Recovery is indeed a slow process, and I feel it has been even slower due to the (1) limited funding available for repairing what the hurricane destroyed and (2) the overwhelming decision-making process that delays the necessary activities to rebuild for months. After a year, there are various cultural institutions providing only partial services, in most cases due to a relocation to a different building, far from their collections. That is the case of two libraries and their special collections from the University of Puerto Rico System in Humacao and Río Piedras. Both campuses were severely affected by the Category 4 wind gusts, which destroyed the water-proof roof membranes and created intensive leaks that — to this day — continue to threaten the permanence of the collections and maintain them closed to the public.

In terms of what needs to be addressed, I would insist on education, but this time, to those in administrative positions. It is crucial that they understand the consequences of losing unique and valuable resources when actions are not taken promptly. The professionals responsible for the well-being of collections know what they are supposed to do to protect the patrimony under their custody. But those above them, the administrators that create policies and legislation, and distribute funding, do not seem to understand the urgency to act during the response and recovery phases in cultural institutions after an emergency.

Photo: Evelyn Milagros Rodríguez, Biblioteca Universidad de Puerto Rico en Humacao.

You’ve been very involved in organizing and advocacy for the recovery efforts. Can you describe how visibility has helped advance the cause of cultural heritage collections and the barriers that still exist (geographic, economic, etc.)?

On the Island, those first weeks were chaotic. Essentials were scarce. We did not know the magnitude of the damages and were in complete survival mode. I do not know if it was a common practice or simply the intuition of the community before the hurricane season in 2017, but what I noticed soon after was how quickly the Puerto Rican diaspora and people in general got together in our aid, no questions asked. In less than a month, recognized organizations like the National Heritage Responders (NHR) — whom I, personally, had no idea existed — and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) planned visits and performed needs assessments and workshops to help cultural institutions get back onto their feet. We have also seen how Puerto Rico was included in diverse calls for funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Society of American Archivists, the American Library Association and REFORMA Nacional, amongst others. This funding was essential for institutions with low budgets to be able to respond and acquire supplies and services needed to take care of their collections.

Another thing I believe the visibility of our current state provided was the possibility to establish partnerships with institutions that were willing to help us throughout the recovery process. Two examples very close to my heart are the cases of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez and the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao. Both libraries established collaborations with other universities in the United States to help with their immediate needs. In the case of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, the library continues to receive support from the University of Illinois’ Library and its collections care specialist Miriam Centeno. In Humacao, the library has been receiving full support from the Princeton University Library and its preservation librarian Brenna Campbell. These two libraries have not been the only ones that have been able to establish partnerships, thanks to the “Adopt a Library” program, a collaboration between the American Library Association and REFORMA Nacional other 20 institutions received support throughout this process.

On the topic of barriers, I would say that being an island in the middle of the Caribbean is an intrinsic one. Unfortunately, our location (which is not a problem when it comes to vacations and getaways) limited our access to the equipment and supplies needed during those first weeks after the hurricane and continues to be a hazard in the case of any future unforeseen disasters. Adding to this burden is also the fact that when we want to acquire preservation supplies from companies located in the United States, the price we pay for shipping and handling is higher than those paide by institutions located stateside. The supplies need to travel further, sometimes by air, sometimes by water, thus reducing the funding itself for the supplies needed. For shipping purposes, we are ‘international’ yet part of the US, and those many extra dollars spent on delivery charges could be used in more varied and necessary ways.

Language can also pose significant barriers to accessing much needed resources. Immediately after the Hurricane, cultural heritage stewards did what they could to salvage and protect the collections under their care. Unfortunately, the unstable environment and the extended period that took for some of them to arrive to their institutions to start removing wet items or to open windows and doors to prevent mold outbreaks resulted in prolonged exposure requiring a more specialized knowledge to address.

Soon after, I began looking for up-to-date conservation resources that could be shared amongst the community, but I was mostly unsuccessful in locating content in Spanish. Even though we manage both languages — Spanish and English — fluency in English is not that common, especially under stressful situations where you have to translate on the fly. This also impacted institutions’ ability to respond to various calls for emergency funding, which were largely in English. Relatively few institutions applied, in part due to the recognition that we are not that familiarized with writing competitive proposals.

That is why, after talking amongst colleagues to see how we can best address this issue to be better prepared for the future, we thought that filling those knowledge gaps in the language that people are fluent in would be an important contribution. The best solution we found was to take advantage of technology and develop Spanish-content webinars, combined with essential resources related to collection care, disaster preparedness and grant writing, so these could be accessed and used from even the most remote areas of Puerto Rico.

One of the things that has been exciting to watch from afar is how archivists were able to mobilize and adapt extant technology in the wake of Maria, whether it was geospatial mapping projects undertaken from outside the Island to help aid workers navigate roadways that had been washed out by the storm, the use of Facebook for communicating and sharing information while local networks were down, or your Scalar project, which documents Maria’s impact on libraries and archives in the form of a timeline. How are you thinking about the role of technology as the infrastructure is being rebuilt?

Of the diverse projects that emerged after the hurricane, I think the geospatial mapping initiative was an extraordinary awakening call to all. One pitfall that limited how fast we could survey damages and needs in cultural institutions was the absence of a central and up-to-date directory of all the entities responsible for Puerto Rico’s patrimony. This was created on an as-needed basis, but, the limited access to communications and Internet services made the work difficult and the goal is still far from being accomplished.

A few months ago, I found another inspiring example that served as a reminder of how technology could be used to prepare and aid in extreme situations; an initiative by Ben Goldman, Eira Tansey and Whitney Ray called “Repository Data.” Their problem was the same as ours, they found there was not a comprehensive list of archival institutions in the United States that they could use to map the vulnerabilities against climate change, so they began to compile it. Last year, they used that data to map the archives in the path of Hurricane Florence and it astonished us all.

Imagine all we could do. Not only will we be able to see our vulnerabilities, but also, aid could come faster — as long as we always have backup and print copies of the data — because, if there is something we also learned was that in extreme situations like Hurricane Maria, technology will fail you. Not one, but many back-up plans are needed.

How has your HEART training helped you prepare for future storms, and what do you see as the most immediate next steps?

Participating in HEART was one of the most satisfactory experiences I have ever had. What I appreciated the most was to be able to share and learn from emergency responders. Having such a variety of professionals with diverse backgrounds created an atmosphere of comradery that promoted deep and diverse situational analysis. I would love to see how we can re-create a professional activity like this in Puerto Rico. We always read in the literature that we have to communicate with first responders and get them to know our institutions, but it wasn’t until I was in a room with five of them that I truly understood how great we are together and why we need to work together if we truly want to protect our cultural heritage.

The Archivists Round Table’s fundraiser for Puerto Rican cultural heritage collections is accepting donations through January 31st, 2019. All funds will be donated to ArchiRED for the creation of Spanish-language webinars and other instructional materials on collections care, disaster response, and grant funding, which will be made freely available to cultural stewards across Puerto Rico.

At the time of this writing, we are 93% of the way to our goal of raising $5,000 for ArchiRED. Please consider contributing to help us fully fund this effort!

Donate here:

The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART) is a not-for-profit organization representing a diverse group of more than 400 archivists, librarians and records managers in New York metropolitan area. Your gift is very much appreciated and tax deductible as a charitable contribution to the fullest extent allowed by law. A copy of ART’s latest financial report may be obtained by writing to ART, P.O. Box 151, New York, NY 10274–0151. New York residents may obtain a copy of ART’s annual report by writing to the Office of the Attorney General, Department of Law, Charities Bureau, 28 Liberty Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10005.

Amye McCarther is the Archivist & Media Conservator at New Museum.



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