Lowering Barriers to Access by Raising Understanding

October 9, 2020

October 9, 2020
Mike Zarafonetis

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen) published on GlobalSL / Community-based Global Learning Collaborative andTicha. Previous blog posts are available here:Lillehaugen/January 2020;Flores-Marical/February 2020;Kawan-Hemler/March 2020;Lopez/July 2020;Kadlecek/1 August 2020;García Guzmán/15 August 2020.; Park/October 2020.

At their core, libraries facilitate access to and the creation of knowledge. The Digital Scholarship (DS) program in the library at Haverford College supports faculty and students as they create new knowledge in digital forms, often partnering with stakeholding communities to do so. As a librarian, the leader of Haverford’s DS program, and a Ticha project team member, I often hold up the Ticha project as an example that reflects the depth and breadth of our work. It exemplifies the way we work and the values of our program–it is highly collaborative, critical in its approach to digital tools and methods, and deeply engaged with its communities.

Libraries and archives are not neutral institutions. They can and should be agents for equity, inclusion, and justice in the communities they serve. In an information landscape dominated by the interests of capital, libraries remain crucial instruments for creating, disseminating, and preserving community-based knowledge–especially while access to our physical locations are necessarily restricted in order to protect public health. Digital scholarship has proven vital to libraries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Through electronic database subscriptions, we provide access to books and articles to our users without their presence in the building (or even on campus). Through digital collections on the web, we can provide similar access to some archival materials. For digital scholarship projects like Ticha, we continue to connect users to nontraditional, multimodal, and community-engaged scholarship.

The work supported by this grant furthers the mission of the project and our library: to enhance access to and understanding of the cultural record. Ticha’s corpus is unique–some of the digitized manuscripts contain multiple European and indigenous languages, and they are not available anywhere else on the web. Because of this, it is difficult to ask users to make sense of the materials by simply browsing the corpus, especially if those users are not versed in Early Modern Spanish or paleography. Through the teaching units created by the Ticha team, educators and other community members can better understand the cultural, historical, and linguistic context in which these seventeenth and eighteenth century texts were created, which in turn can enhance understanding of the materials and the language. For example, the Numbers lesson shows how colonial printing practices shaped the production of the printed texts on the Ticha site. This context helps modern readers make sense of spelling, punctuation, and abbreviations that would otherwise seem unusual and confusing.

Features of the Ticha site provide additional ways of accessing materials beyond simple searching and browsing. The ideas for these features emerged from conversations with stakeholders, including members of the Zapotec advisory board and other members of Zapotec communities. Digital scholarship librarians and student developers working in the DS program then designed and implemented the features in dialogue with the core project team. The map viewer, timeline, and other visualizations, all designed and developed by students, provide multiple entry points into the corpus and allow users of varying learning styles and interests to explore the materials in ways that are meaningful to them. The modernized and normalized versions of Early Modern Spanish texts require painstaking work to create, but also democratize access to the texts on the site. One of the most exciting developments of the past summer is the pilot of a “personography” for the pueblo of Tlacochahuaya, which is an index of persons who appear in the corpus along with biographical information gleaned from the documents. The personography was created by project team member and student Eloise Kadlecek in close consultation with Zapotec advisory board member Moisés García Guzmán, and was published with the approval of the municipio of Tlacochahuaya. The development of these features has also helped the digital scholarship team at Haverford build capacity in new tools and methods, allowing us to enhance access to other collections in similar ways. For example, we have also built a personography for a corpus of Quaker travel journals and letters during the late eighteenth century, and have created visualizations similar to those on the Ticha site for other collections-based projects.

The work of the project team in creating these teaching units is a valuable reminder to me as a librarian that enhanced access often requires enhanced understanding. So many of the collections in academic libraries tell unique and important stories and have great value to underrepresented communities, but these collections often suffer from a lack of meaningful framing. These communities already confront structural barriers to accessing this knowledge (the expense of higher education, the technology divide, a lack of welcoming spaces to community members on college campuses, and others) and as information professionals we must do our best to dismantle those barriers whenever we can. When I hear about the effectiveness of the teaching units in the Conversatorios, I feel validated in the work that I do as a librarian and encouraged to continue to apply this approach to other digital scholarship projects.


Mike Zarafonetis is the Coordinator of Digital Scholarship and Research Services for Haverford College Libraries. Along with a wide range of collaborators in and beyond the library, he supports the critical application of technology to research, teaching, and learning for all library users. 

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