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A Literary Gem: The History and Future of the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape

(The following is a post by Amalia Castaneda, 2017 Library of Congress Junior Fellow, Hispanic Division.)

This summer, as a Junior Fellow in the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress, I worked on the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape under the direction of Catalina Gómez, Hispanic Division Reference Librarian, who co-curates the Archive and has been instrumental in making these rich resources available via a digital platform. In preparation for my Junior Fellows’ display project, I had a chance to do what I love most about working with special collections: sift through boxes of materials, photographs, and manuscripts. When I came across an extraordinary collection of photographs and piles of correspondence — including a letter signed by Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, and Spanish writer, Juan Ramón Jiménez — I decided to focus my display on the history of the Archive. I have found that the public (especially younger generations) may take digitization of collections for granted and assume that everything is available on the web. I knew that focusing my presentation on only the digitized sections of the collection would not capture its decades-long development in the Hispanic Division. Instead of focusing only on the completed resource, I wanted to tell the story of the Archive and show how Library staff played a key role in creating and shaping this amazing literary collection. The clippings, photographs, and letters told a richer story than the presentation of the audiovisual portion alone would have conveyed. My findings sparked conversations and much discussion about the Archive’s conception and its development over the past seven decades when I sat down with  Catalina and the Chief of the Hispanic Division, Dr. Georgette Dorn, to talk about how these recordings of some of the most famous writers of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world were made.

Photograph, Georgette M. Dorn and Argentine writer, Julio Cortazar, 1975.

In a 1975 photo I found Georgette Dorn in a stylish two-piece suit, standing among some of the most prominent writers of the contemporary Hispanic literary canon. Georgette, who became Chief of the Hispanic Division in 1995 and has worked as the Curator of the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape since the seventies, has had an impressive tenure at the Library of Congress. She has worked with the Library for over five decades, and listening to her talk about her experiences was as richly rewarding as exploring the Archives themselves.

Georgette reflected on her first recording in 1965, and on her nervousness: preparing for the recording, and interviewing the writer. Catalina recalls feeling similarly star struck when interviewing Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince, whose work she deeply admires. Georgette spoke casually about having dinner with Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most prominent writers of the Spanish language. She described her travels to Spain and Latin America to record writers at radio stations, universities and embassies, and remembers traveling to Oklahoma to interview the renowned Argentine writer, Julio Cortázar. What I found most surprising in talking to Georgette and Catalina is that the Archive is an ongoing project. While the curators continue to invite Latin American, Spanish, and Portuguese writers, since the late 1970s the Division has begun to include American writers of Hispanic descent. As a matter of fact, the day of the Junior Fellows’ display, Hispanic-American poet and writer Francisco Aragon was in the studio recording for the Archive. Later, he and Georgette stopped by to view the Fellows’ projects. A Californian of Nicaraguan descent, Aragon is one of a growing number of Hispanic-American writers included in the Archive.

Photograph, Mexican writer and poet, Octavio Paz, 1961.

Upon learning about these new recordings, I reflected on my own experience navigating dual cultural identities, and how that has shaped me intellectually and professionally. My academic work has always been connected to my Mexican-American heritage. Specifically, I’ve studied immigrant and historically marginalized communities in Los Angeles and remain particularly interested in community archives. In my previous position at Cal State Los Angeles, I processed a collection for a student activist organization that worked with youth of color in the working class neighborhood of East LA. My work at the Library this summer has further cemented my interest in and commitment to immigrant communities.

A native of Los Angeles, I attended high school in a neighborhood with a strong Mexican and Central American immigrant presence. A privilege I often took for granted, my hometown was rich in Latina/o culture. So strong was the presence of a Spanish-speaking community, that my high school even offered an advanced Spanish literature course. My classmates and I were native speakers, but with little exposure to advanced composition and literature beyond the grade school education of many of our working-class immigrant parents, we were challenged intellectually. Fluent in both English and Spanish, we were learning and sometimes struggling to fine-tune academic prose in two languages. To ensure that we grasped both the rhythm and the intonation of Spanish, and remained engaged with the literature, our teacher had us read the pieces out loud. Now, having listened to many of those same poems and writings in the voices of the authors themselves, I wish we would have had access to this audio collection in my high school classroom. How would this unique source have served as a teaching tool? How could it have enhanced our exploration of Hispanic literature? Now that the collection is freely available to an audience worldwide, it will be exciting to learn how students and teachers use this resource. As an aspiring public history professional, working with this project has reminded me of the myriad ways that archival collections can be better represented and disseminated to wider audiences. I am happy to see that the Archive, which in previous decades was primarily accessible to scholars, is now readily available online to everyone.

Photograph, Georgette M. Dorn, Chief of Hispanic Division; Amalia Castañeda, Junior Fellow; Catalina Gomez, Reference Librarian,
Junior Fellows Display Day, 2017.

On July 11, all the Junior Fellows attended a session with Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, where we spoke to her about our experiences and impressions. She spoke about strategies for promoting the Library’s projects and its initiatives. During our Q&A, I asked whether the Library was taking steps to ensure that its collections truly reached everyone, including, of course, working-class communities and students of color? Dr. Hayden explained that the library has programs with local schools and that it is working on establishing a stronger presence with schools across the country. Social media has certainly proved to be a viable and increasingly successful way to promote collections. This past fall, I was delighted to see an article about the Archive featured on “Remezcla,” a website devoted to Latin American culture. This archive is sure to appeal to both the Spanish-speaking world, and the Latina/o diaspora within the United States.

Within the field of librarianship, my interest in history and politics and my passion for social justice have converged. I would like to thank the experts, curators, and librarians who have offered me career advice, and highlighted the many challenges posed by the advent of the digital age. Contrary to the sometimes misguided public perception, Dr. Hayden believes that it is a great time to enter the library profession for we are at the cusp of a new wave of ideas and innovations in the field. She assured us that the “future is very bright” for librarians.

I am a recent graduate of the Master of Arts program in history at Cal State, Los Angeles, where I worked as an archives assistant at the Department of Special Collections and Archives. With a passion for cultural heritage preservation and the histories of communities of color in Los Angeles, I serve on the board at the Museum of Social Justice. This fall I will begin a Master’s program in Library and Information Science at UCLA. It was a privilege to work on this collection. I would like to especially thank Reference Librarian Catalina Gómez and Chief of the Hispanic Division Dr. Georgette Dorn for granting me this opportunity. My short, but eventful stay in DC this summer has enriched me immeasurably.

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