Facilitating History: The Bracero History Archive

23 Jan

Museum and public history professionals are increasingly grappling with a new trend that shifts their role as “a provider of content and designer of experiences to the more complex role of facilitator of experiences around content.”[1] In a digital world where Internet users relish generating their own content in the form of tweets, blog posts, Wikipedia entries, Instagram photos, YouTube videos and more, this philosophy comes as no surprise. The Bracero History Archive, part of the larger Bracero History Project initiated by the National Museum of American History, adapts this role as a facilitator of history to provide a space for users to easily generate, contribute, and interpret primary sources that illustrate the history of the Bracero program, the largest guest worker program in the United States.[2]

The Mexican and United States governments developed the Bracero program in 1942 as a way to provide much needed laborers during World War II. Male Mexican workers came to the United States to fill short-term employment contracts in primarily the agriculture from 1942-1964. Through this program, nearly 4.5 million braceros worked on American farms, often under poor conditions and for low wages. Few Americans were aware of this program’s legacy that deeply affected their country’s agricultural, labor, and immigration history and policies until the National Museum of American History stepped in. The museum developed the Bracero History Project in 2005 to enlarge their primary sources and public interpretation related to the Bracero Program. The creation of the online Bracero History Archive became an integral part of this program.[3]

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Braceros pile wooden boxes full of strawberries on the edge of a field in Salinas Valley, California. Leonard Nadel, Bracero History Archive, Item #2868.

The Archive uses Omeka, a “free, flexible and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives and scholarly collections and exhibitions,” developed at the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media to provide access to materials collected.[4] Omeka’s crowdsourcing abilities also enables individual web users to add their own content to the Bracero History Archive.[5] Visitors can add their own (or a family member’s) experiences and memories with the Bracero program in a post, 0r upload relevant documents, photographs, videos, and audio recordings. Users can also create their own posters using content on the archive and can tag and add metadata to the archive’s contents that are, unfortunately only visible to the user themselves. To date, the Bracero History Archive contains over 3,000 open access items that visitors can easily locate through a simple search bar or advanced search feature, as well as resources for teachers, a lengthy bibliography, and link to the corresponding online exhibit developed by the National Museum of American History called Bittersweet Harvest.

Oral histories, especially user created ones, clearly take center stage. The archive provides several guides, in a variety of mediums, to help individuals conduct their own oral histories. Videos educate users on best practices, detail a step-by-step process to conducting an oral history, and teach visitors how to add their collected oral histories and relevant metadata to the archive. Question guides curated specifically for former braceros, farmers, or border patrolmen are available to download to use during the interview. The project’s oral historians hoped that empowering the public with the tools to collect these histories would help ensure the preservation of the bracero identity and their contributions to the history of agriculture, labor, and migration for the historical record, before many former braceros passed away.[6]

The Bracero History Archive clearly facilitates users’ abilities to contribute digitized primary sources and exemplifies the open, accessible, and collaborative nature digital humanists uphold. However, the question remains how the site can use crowdsourding to provide better tools to help users contribute metadata, transcription, and translation, and interpretation of the materials presented in the site? For example, many of the oral histories on the archive lack basic metadata, requiring users to listen to each oral history fully to discover topics covered. Since most of the interviews are (obviously and understandably) in Spanish, the lack of metadata and translations into English, prevent the vast numbers of Americans who are not fluent in a language other than English, to access these rich sources.[7] While more attention to second-language education in the United States needs to be given, how can we grant access to these sources to English speakers now?

Increasing the site’s crowdsourcing abilities has interesting potential to improve their role as a facilitator. Could users include tags and metadata for all to see, not just themselves? Could the site create training videos, as it has already done, coupled with a Spanish fluency test, to teach users how to transcribe and translate oral histories? Could users curate collections of related oral histories that revolve around themes and locales, that all users can see and explore, to help them flex their own interpretive powers? Growing and nurturing existing partnerships with history, Spanish language, and TESOL educational programs, organizations, and community groups might provide the “crowd” necessary to complete these objectives well.

True, crowdsourcing invites further questions regarding credibility, quality, and authority over contributed sources, as Mark Tebeau has observed in his own insightful blog post on the Bracero History Archive. However, we can only develop ways to tackle these issues in the digital humanities if we continue to employ, play with, and evaluate Omeka and crowdsourcing as tools public historians can use to better facilitate historical interpretation.

[1] Tom Satwicz and Kris Morrissey, “Public Curation: From Trend to Research-Based Practice,” Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage, 2011), 196.

[2] Mireya Loza, “From Ephemeral to Enduring: The Politics of Recording and Exhibiting Bracero Memory,” The Public Historian Vol. 38 No. 2 (May 2016): 24.

[3] Ibid, 24-25.

[4] “Omeka: Serious Web Publishing,” accessed 23 January 2017 http://omeka.org/about/.

[5] Mark Tebeau, “Omeka, Collecting & Crowdsourcing,” Cleaveland State University Center for Public History and Digital Humanities, accessed 23 January 2017 https://csudigitalhumanities.org/2010/04/omeka-collecting-crowdsourcing/.

[6] Loza, “From Ephemeral to Enduring,” 30.

[7] Lisa Spiro, “’This is Why We Fight: Defining the Values of Digital Humanities,”Debates in the Digital Humanities, accessed 23 January 2017, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13; Chris McComb, “About 1 in Four Americans can Hold a Conversation in a Second Language,” Gallup News Service, accessed 23 January 2017 http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx.

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