This Summer I spent six weeks in Santiago, Chile for the first time performing field research regarding the digital curation of historical collections, as well as advanced analytical methodologies that can be applied to these documents for the generation of new knowledge and increased accessibility. Considering the plethora of available documentation pertaining to the 1973 military coup and subsequent 17 year dictatorship, I have found 20th century Chilean and U.S. history to be an excellent case study for my hypotheses. Over the course of the past two decades, researchers have been granted access to an overwhelming amount of valuable data through advancements and accessibility to high capacity storage mediums, dynamic database systems, high end computer processing power, and instant global communication systems via the internet. Access to copious amounts of data from a variety of sources has been shown to be beneficial for almost any academic field. While fields such as economics, statistics, and the hard sciences are obvious benefactors of the rich and varied data sets that have become available, this data revolution has also created new opportunities for the study of history. Supplementation of traditional historiographic methodologies through the use of computer generated models and advanced document analytics generates new knowledge, improves access to scholarly material for both researchers and the general public, and institutes best practice methodologies for rapid, efficient and fruitful analysis of massive data collections despite current trends of reduced budgets and institutions lacking enough personnel to handle the plethora of data that is being generated.
Today justice is still being sought for victims in open criminal investigations relating to the Pinochet’s dictatorship. Pinochet’s 1998 arrest by the Spanish government on suspicion of crimes against humanity prompted renewed interest in U.S. involvement in covert subversive activities in the region during the twentieth century. In 1999, the Clinton administration initiated the Chile Documentation Project- the largest executive branch release of classified records regarding any country or foreign policy matter in the history of the United States. The project has yielded approximately 20,000 separate documents that had been previously classified with the utmost level of secrecy. The information contained within these documents has been vital to ongoing investigations into the human rights violations instigated by Pinochet’s government in addition to showing direct evidence of significant U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Salvador Allende’s presidency and installation of General Pinochet as dictator. My investigations cover a number of questions. Firstly, how has relatively recent availability of massive amounts of data, digital documents and analytical tools that can be easily obtained fundamentally altered the historical process? How can the efficiency of these tools be maximized, and perhaps more importantly, what is the limit of computer and artificial intelligence in the study of history? Today, more data is being collected, stored, and analyzed than ever before. The implications of this reality to the study of history is immense. Combined with recent trends of strong interdisciplinary interactions within the academy, the massive amount of economic, political, scientific, and health data has created new opportunities within the field of history for the generation of new and useful knowledge that far surpasses traditional historiographic methodologies.
In Chile I’ve been spending time establishing contacts at the Chilean National Library, examining library and computer systems to better understand the state of digital collections and digital history in Chile, as well as obtaining a new perspective regarding Chile’s 1973 military coup and the Chilean dialect of Spanish. English is not widely spoken in Santiago, so my ability to communicate in Spanish is imperative.
I met with a professional who works on digital projects at the Chilean National Library. He gave me a tour of the facilities and helped me to register with the library so that I could access its resources. Many of the library’s collections are available in digital format online, however the complete collection is not. I have been spending some time accessing the collections, both physical and digital, to determine accessibility gaps and potential issues for international researchers.
I also visited el Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos (The Memory and Human Rights Museum), a government funded museum that educates the public about the 1973 military coup and the brutal dictatorship that lasted until 1989. I visited the museum hoping to compare the multimedia exhibitions of this museum with the Museum of Fine and Contemporary Art I visited last week. While the art museum featured paintings and sculptures with no interaction, the Memory and Human Rights Museum features dynamic installations consisting of physical artifacts, pieces of art, photographs, and documentary footage. The installations are also organized so that visitors are taken on a journey through time from the day the coup occurred on September 11, 1973 to the 1989 plebiscite that ended the Pinochet regime. Further, located throughout the museum are a large number of mannequins representing the thousands of innocent people that were tortured and disappeared. The combination of multimedia, artifacts and personal belongings, as well as the faces of the disappeared following the visitor throughout the museum creates a dynamic perspective that cannot be achieved by reading a historical monologue or watching a documentary. My experiences at these two museums really made me think about the way digital scholarly projects generate new perspectives and knowledge. Had the Museum of Memory and Human Rights only exhibited installations of artifacts or showed a documentary without the artifacts or the organized timeline in which the exhibits were presented, a visit there would have been much less emotional and impactful. The art museum was not a poor experience at all; however systematic placement and thoughtful timing of exhibition presentation resulted in a much more dynamic and powerful experience.
I originally came to Chile in the search of Chilean government documents, and while that is still one of my objectives in the long run, My research this summer has caused me to reevaluate the timeline for my project and more on establishing the appropriate tools and infrastructure for curating and systematically analyzing these documents through the use of computational methodologies. Because my research is heavily dependent on the foundational philosophies of two fields, I’ve gained a new perspective regarding the necessity of advanced computer skills for professional historians as well as well as the importance of thoughtful curation of digital collections to be used for advanced analytics and increased accessibility especially when those collections are accessed by individuals across cultural borders.
Jordan Reifsteck is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a Master of Information Science at IU.