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British Library extends grant for UTA-led project to digitize endangered colonial documents in Cuba

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 • Media Contact: Louisa Kellie

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The British Library Endangered Archives Programme has extended a UTA-led project to digitize colonial documents in Cuba by another six months as part of its global initiative to preserve endangered documents relating to pre-industrial societies.

“The support of the British Library, one of the world’s largest and one of the few national libraries with a global scope, sets us up for future grants to expand the project,” said UTA assistant professor of history, David LaFevor, who has been working on digitizing endangered documents in Cuba since 2005.

“Our work is particularly relevant as it covers the African diaspora in Cuba between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, encompassing the slave trade and island life of the time.”

The aim of the British Library-sponsored project, ongoing since 2016, is to capture more than two million documents in digital form, a wealth of information that might otherwise be lost to the elements or poor storage conditions.

Digitizing papers is a painstaking process. An average book that contains hundreds of pages may be composed of various conditions of preservation and faded writing.

“We come up against additional challenges such as poor internet connections that require that we work with hard drives as storage and physically transport the digitized documentation,” LaFevor said. “Navigating the multiple interests associated with this work can also be complex.”

Cuba’s Catholic Church has played a major role in the preservation project, granting access to church archives and helping to identify important documents.

Spanish colonial rulers recognized the “personhood” of slaves once they were baptized into the Catholic Church, which is why births, marriages, geographic origins and deaths were recorded in church archives.

“The reality is that this work could potentially last my lifetime,” LaFevor said. “There are millions of documents which form a hugely important legacy as historical documentation of Afro-Cuban cultures and experience. Our aim is to save as many as possible.” 

LaFevor is also showcasing a new photographic exhibit, Cuba: Histories of the Present, through Aug. 3 in gallery space at Artes de la Rosa, 1140 N. Main St., in Fort Worth. He uses the nearly 17 years of his travels to Cuba for his extraordinary images.

From LaFevor's photographic exhibit: Roughly one-third of the cars on Cuban roads date from before the Cuban Revolution (1959). Most have been cannibalized; they have Soviet diesel engines, seats from other cars, homemade parts, and are moving proof of Cuban ability to resolver — to make do with material scarcity through creativity.