Rethinking Knowledge Production: An Interview with Dr. Lorena Gauthereau

Last year I had the opportunity to sit down virtually with Dr. Lorena Gauthereau for an hour to discuss her academic career and current work with the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage project. Dr. Gauthereau serves as the Digital Programs Manager for the US Latino Digital Humanities Center at the University of Houston and teaches courses at the Center for Mexican American Studies. During our conversation we talked about Dr. Gauthereau’s path to her current position, work in community archives, and advice for graduate students interested in archival work and digital scholarship. It was a privilege to talk to Dr. Gauthereau, and I am excited to share her fantastic insight, work, and advice with the HASTAC community. 

As a graduate student, what was your experience with archives during your degree? 

I did my MA degree in Hispanic Studies then my MA and PhD in English at Rice University, all working with the same professor, José Aranda. I was very lucky because his research is grounded in archival work and he serves on the board of the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Program (Recovery). He introduced me to archival research, the rich Recovery archives, and mentored me throughout my career at Rice. 

For my master’s thesis, I started doing archival work on my own. I did a historical analysis on a Mexican American novel, reading it through the context of the historical period and archival texts that provided a better sense of the time period. It gave me a different understanding of texts as history and texts of the US-Mexico border. 

After my MA degree, I worked at Rice University as the Americas Studies Researcher on an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)-funded archival grant to create a digital archive from texts of the Americas called the Our Americas Archive Partnership. I performed research, wrote translations, and was part of the conversation on how to make these materials more discoverable in a digital format. It was an experience of understanding archives in a historical moment and how to translate texts in a way that is culturally competent, while considering  how to describe the material and how people can  find it and use it.

Archival research formed part of my PhD graduate work from the start. I was specifically  interested in working with newspapers, which led me to Recovery archival sources as they have the largest collection of US Latino newspapers. My research is very anchored in the archive and doing this work gave me a much richer literary history to work with. 
After my PhD, I began working as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)-Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Houston’s Recovery Program, and that felt like a continuation of the work I was already doing, including negotiating the physical archival materials with digital materials. I have been a part of the Recovery/US Latino Digital Humanities Center (USLDH) team since 2017. In the time I have been at Recovery, I have learned an incredible amount about archives, community work, and digital humanities from my colleagues, Carolina Villarroel and Gabriela Baeza Ventura, the co-founders and co-directors of the USLDH Center. It all started with a research question and went from there. 

Where was archival research in your degree program? Digital humanities is helping us (humanities scholars) thinking about archives, but was there archival training available in your program? What does this mean for current graduate students and undergraduate students as well?
That is a good question because it depends on where you are. A lot of students are not exposed to archives at all. If you do not have any professors who are doing archival research then I think it might be harder to get that exposure. In addition to my dissertation advisor, whom I mentioned earlier,I also took a class with Helena Michie, who does archival research and taught an entire class structured around it. This involved reading literature published during a specific year (including serialized materials) and thinking through not only what is written in the text but also  contextualizing the texts through that socio-historical moment. I learned that with archival research you find one thing and it is like cookie crumbs that lead you to something else. The intellectual exercise of this class was really helpful, paired with the theoretical texts on topics like deep time and complications of historical moments and how they overlap. Thinking about archival research like that was really helpful. I know my colleagues at other universities have had different experiences with archives, and incorporate it into their work, but that does not happen in every graduate program. 

I try to bring archives into the classroom when I teach an undergraduate course so that students have access to this other part of history. I think that it is really important for students of color to see themselves reflected in the archive because they do not often see themselves reflected in the history curriculum. Bringing these primary materials into the classroom makes students aware of their own communities’ stake in making US American history itself. 

What are the differences between archival research and archival work? What does it mean to expose students to what it means to engage with archives? But, on the other hand, in making digital archives with data entry, description, and policies, what do you see as the similarities and differences of these kinds of work? For students that might be interested in not just working with archives in historical contexts but are interested in doing the archival work, how can we bring these together?

An awareness of what goes on [in archives] has helped me contextualize my own research in a different way. One of the big issues is that researchers will say that they “found” or “discovered” something in an archive and this misses all the work of an archivist in an archive before this. There are times when a document has been misunderstood, mislabeled, or miscategorized, which definitely happens in archives that are in languages other than English or archives that belong to communities of color, because the official forms of archivization say it has to fit into certain categories or described according to Library of Congress terms. This can limit discoverability and, sometimes, erase a lot of the value of these archives as well. 

As scholars, we can’t erase the labor of the other folks who are involved–that invisible labor. Understanding the way that archivization works is very useful to students and scholars because they need to stop to think about the ways in which knowledge itself is structured; that knowledge is structured along very Euro-centric, Anglophone categories. Certain narratives have been left out of archives because they are not what US American history is “supposed to be, or because history can only be made by “certain people. In other words, non-English, non-Anglo centric archives are not always preserved or considered part of canonical history. 

One of the things that I try to teach my students is that they can start to see themselves as producers of knowledge. There are misconceptions of who can make knowledge and it is problematic for the Latinx community and other BIPOC communities who have been marginalized in education and in the education curriculum. I think that these are some ways to bridge that gap: the understanding of how knowledge is produced, who produces that knowledge, what is considered legitimate knowledge, how to describe this knowledge, and who can access it. This kind of awareness empowers us, empowers communities to consider how they can be and are active participants in preservation and archiving and push back against gatekeepers. 

How do you define what a community archive is and what it can do? What does that work look like, practically speaking, and what are some of the benefits and hurdles of this?

I think it is something hard to describe because a community archive can be anything, especially now that we have access to technology – it does not have to be an official space or an institution. For example, there are Instagram accounts for people who are documenting their family history and local history.  We need to recognize that there are different types of archival efforts going on in different communities. 

Communities of color have long realized that if their knowledge was not going to be included in the institute, then they had to preserve their own knowledge in different ways. It does not even need to be a document; it can be things like storytelling, Indigenous beadwork, crochet or quilting groups because they are talking about their own histories and documenting their existence. Archiving and preservation looks different for different people because it has different missions or reasons to exist, so: how are you documenting the existence of your community, whether that is in a written or another form? If we think about this, it helps us understand archives in ways that maybe Western and European knowledges do not consider. We need to avoid replicating systems of oppression that have historically marginalized communities. Community archiving is about figuring out how to get this knowledge back out into the community. Even though many university archives are open to the public, many people don’t know that they can even go. Outreach is significant and looks different for everyone. In this type of work, we should be willing to adapt and produce work that makes sense for the community it represents. For example, if I am collecting materials for the Latinx community, it does not make sense for me to provide descriptions only in English. To be culturally competent, the information needs to be in Spanish as well and described in a way that respects the community. 

Library of Congress subject headings, for example, are very limiting. Various groups are pushing back against how things are described, including describing books about undocumented immigrants because the official terminology is offensive. The Take Back the Archive project also is pushing back against the ways in which the LCSH describe rape survivors as victims as this work is to take back ownership and describe their experience as survival. So the questions, “what do you do?” and “how do you do it?” play a crucial role in archival curation, preservation, and research. Ask yourself: Why do I do what I do in the way I do it?

Do you have any advice for graduate students who are interested in the topic of community archives? I can only speak for myself and my peers, but a lot of us are seeing the state of the world, our own communities, the academic job market, and thinking about communities and organizing differently. And, do you have any advice about community building for this?

I think that the number one thing is developing relationships. This means that you might not be working on the normal 9-5 schedule and might be doing outreach with people who have regular jobs and are doing this historical work on the side. Establishing a trusting relationship does not happen in one day. It happens through developing trust over several meetings and conversations and being aware that the community members are the ones who started the project, have ideas on who they want to share materials with and how. They are the original custodians of this knowledge, so working with them means getting their input the entire time and being aware that you cannot, as I mentioned before, replicate the same structures of oppression that take place in official institutes. At the end of the day, the best thing is networking and creating engagement. Community members are stakeholders; what are you doing for them?    

Are there things that we learn from doing archival work with community building that we can use in academic work? Are there lessons that, as scholars in our own communities, we can bring to our work and other avenues of academic life?

I think this goes back to understanding the structures that are in place. You start to recognize and pay attention to the way that things are created. For example with metadata, how is this problematic? There are a lot of libraries that are revisiting their collections and finding aids and asking how to revise these to be respectful of the content and the content creators. Also, how do we rehumanize the subjects in the archive? People have been erased, especially in archives dealing with enslavement, so can we incorporate actual names in these finding aids since they have been erased more than once over? I would have never had any idea how limiting the Library of Congress subject headings are unless I had worked in an archive, especially one related to Latinx people. You start recognizing how the people who might have made these decisions were implicated by these same systems of knowledge production. How you access things is very political. We have finding aids and categorization that tells you that you have to search a certain way. Working with archives has opened this [process] to me in a way I didn’t know before. Even just understanding this makes you a different type of researcher. Talk to people about how you are doing research, and make sure to recognize the work of librarians and archives in this process.