In April, with support from a GLAM Cross-Pollinator Registration Award, Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez attended the 2023 Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) conference in Mexico City, Mexico. We’re glad to share her thoughts on the experience below.
Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez is the Virginia Thoren and Institute Archivist at Pratt Institute Libraries and Visiting Assistant Professor at the Pratt Institute School of Information. Prior to joining Pratt, Cristina was a National Digital Stewardship Resident for Art Information at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Decker Library. Cristina’s work is focused on the application of social justice principles to archival practice through participatory and non-hierarchical ways of knowledge-seeking and making. She is a founding member of Archivistas en Espanglish, a collective dedicated to amplifying spaces of memory-building between Latin America and Latinx communities in the US. Cristina also co-runs Barchives, an independent outreach initiative that brings archivists to bars to talk about New York City’s archival collections and local history. She holds a BA in Geography from Universidad de Puerto Rico Recinto de Río Piedras and an MLS with a certificate in Archives and Preservation of Cultural Materials from CUNY Queens College.
The ARLIS/NA Annual Meeting was perhaps the first in-person conference I’ve attended since the pandemic. While I usually engage more with archives-focused organizations, due to the increased number of sessions on archives, the lack of in-person events in the past years, and an opportunity to visit Mexico City, I decided to attend this year’s ARLIS/NA meeting.
Contrary to my past experiences at large conferences, ARLIS/NA didn’t feel overwhelming or impersonal. I reconnected with archivists and librarians I hadn’t seen in years and met others who share my interests. I even met a librarian from my Alma Mater, the University of Puerto Rico, and after chatting for a while realized we had attended the same high school in San Juan. This meeting was fortuitous because, besides having someone with a similar background to me to share this experience with, we also got the opportunity to participate in private tours outside the conference.
I was particularly impressed by photographer Alejandro Cartagena’s talk, the closing plenary with Dr. Barbara E. Mundy, and the panel Voces de México. These three sessions were content-focused instead of project-focused, which was refreshing. While I love a database cleanup project as much as the next person, having the opportunity to hear from artists and art historians about their work was one of the highlights of my conference experience. These three sessions also had something in common, which is that they dealt with imperialism and colonialism and how that has had an effect on their work. For example, Alejandro Cartagena spoke at length about documenting Monterrey’s social and physical landscapes as they’ve transformed due to migration, assimilation, and drug cartels, Dr. Mundy was asked about Mexican artifacts housed in European museums, and Ángel Aurelio González Amozorrutia and Merry MacMasters (Voces of Mexico panel) both spoke about Mexican archival collections housed in the United States.
Whether other speakers intended it this way or not, U.S.-based organizations’ ownership over the cultural heritage of other countries was a theme throughout the conference and the one that resonated with me the most. Latin American collections were heavily featured in the conference’s programming, from workshops to the plenary sessions mentioned above. After each session, I asked myself: How can we avoid replicating extractivist frameworks that prioritize access to U.S.-based students and scholars? Is making collections available digitally enough? (No.) When digitization is the only reparative solution available to us, are we doing enough work to contextualize these collections for non-U.S. researchers, especially for those whose culture and history are being documented? (Also, no.) How can archivists and librarians ethically discuss and present on these types of collections, especially when they were not responsible for acquiring them? And lastly, in focusing our efforts on demonstrating the value of these collections to our directors, boards, and existing communities, aren’t we neglecting the communities who have always known their value?
I confess that I don’t have the answer to all these questions, but at times I felt we needed to intentionally address the socio-political ramifications accompanying these collections’ very existence. However, for me, the presentations provided a starting line for thought-provoking post-session discussions with colleagues.