From the March 2017 Desktop News | Dr. Matthew LaFevor and his brother David are in a race against the clock as they seek to preserve Cuban archival records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials that date from the island’s early colonial period (16th century) through the modern era.
“The sources are decaying rapidly because of unfavorable weather, moisture and mold, insects, and other factors,” said LaFevor, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography. “Some books are too far gone to attempt to preserve their data; we can’t even open some of them because their pages will turn to dust in our hands.”
For now, LaFevor and his team are keeping the most fragile books closed in the hopes that technological advances may be able to preserve them in the future, but the rest are being photographed and digitized before their contents are lost. LaFevor estimates that by the end of 2018 they will have preserved hundreds of thousands of records, which is only a fraction of the total number expected to be found on the island.
The brothers’ preservation project began in 2005, when David, now an assistant professor of history and digital humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, was working on his master’s degree.
“The first few times that my brother and I went to Cuba, we traveled around the country to get a better sense of the island geography. In subsequent trips we visited seven of the original colonial towns and found that hundreds of thousands of church records of the island’s past inhabitants were decomposing in wooden cabinets with no plans for preservation.”
LaFevor said that the lack of document preservation isn’t just a problem in Cuba, however. It’s actually a widespread concern throughout Latin America because many regions lack the requisite funding, technology, and knowhow to preserve these vital sources of history.
Together with the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies project, led by Jane Landers at Vanderbilt University, the LaFevor brothers have spent the last decade traveling to the island to build capacity among Cuban researchers, ultimately, to enable them to better preserve their documents.
The team brings photographic and computer equipment and conducts workshops on how to set up a tripod, handle fragile documents, take photos, record document metadata, and build digital archives.
“The Cubans we work with are eager to participate, so working with them on how to preserve their archives has been the easy part,” LaFevor said. “The hard part is getting the hardware there in the first place.”
LaFevor hasn’t had time to comb through all of the digitized archives yet because the immediate priority is to preserve as much as possible, first. But he says that preliminary findings show the documents will be key for unpacking the ancestral history of many in both Cuba and the United States.
“These records provide excellent data about the origins of the African diaspora in both countries—from Ghana to the Congo,” LaFevor said. “And the United States records contain nowhere near the quality and quantity of data found in these Cuban church records.”
But even beyond the information on births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials, the records also hold data on past agricultural and mining practices and contain unpublished maps and other information critical to reconstructing the human-environment geography of the island.
“When complemented with biophysical indicators of landscape change over time, written records can provide a finer-grained understanding of human-environmental interactions of the past—how people perceived and modified the environment—in short, why landscapes look like they do today” LaFevor said.
But for now, the LaFevor brothers’ academic interests are taking a back seat to the more immediate need to preserve as many records as possible before they are lost, and to build capacity among future teams of Cuban researchers to carry on the work.
LaFevor’s preservation project is funded by the British Libraries Endangered Archives Program.