British Library extends project to digitize endangered colonial documents in Cuba

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A report from Phys Org.

The British Library Endangered Archives Programme has extended a UTA-led project to digitize colonial documents in Cuba by another six months as part of their global initiative to preserve endangered documents relating to pre-industrial societies.

“The support of the British Library, one of the world’s largest and one of the few national libraries with a global scope, sets us up for future grants to expand the project,” said University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of history, David LaFevor, who has been working on digitizing endangered documents in Cuba since 2005.

“Our work is particularly relevant as it covers the African diaspora in Cuba between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering the slave trade and island life of the time.”

The aim of the British Library-sponsored project, ongoing since 2016, is to capture more than two million documents in digital form, a treasure trove of information that might otherwise be lost to the elements or poor storage conditions.

The process of digitizing the papers is painstaking. An average book can contain hundreds of pages, all in various conditions of preservation, the writing faded from age and the elements.

“We come up against additional challenges such as poor internet connections that require that we work with hard drives as storage and physically transport the digitized documentation,” LaFevor said. “Navigating the multiple interests associated with this work can also be complex.”

Cuba’s Catholic Church has played a major role in the preservation project, granting access to church archives around the island and assisting in identifying important documents.

Spanish colonial rulers recognized the “personhood” of slaves once they were baptized into the Catholic Church, so births, marriages, geographic origins and deaths were recorded in church archives.

“The reality is that this work could potentially last my lifetime,” LaFevor said. “There are millions of documents which form a hugely important legacy as historical documentation of Afro-Cuban cultures and experience. Our aim is to save as many as possible.”

LaFevor is also showcasing a new photographic exhibit, Cuba: Histories of the Present, through Aug. 3 in gallery space at Artes de la Rosa, 1140 N. Main St., in Fort Worth. He uses the nearly 17 years of his travels to Cuba for his extraordinary images.

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