Faculty Profile: Joel Blanco-Rivera Shows How Archives Seek Justice

June 12, 2014

"We need to recognize the role of information in inequality and human rights violations."

While many would have discarded a college postcard that did not apply to their field, a piece of mail changed Assistant Professor Joel Blanco-Rivera's life. As an electrical engineer in Puerto Rico, he paused when he saw the word "archives" on a University of Michigan mailer. It was the first time he had heard the word. After conducting some research, he was sold on studying archives at the school.

Since then, the accidental archivist has made a significant mark on the profession. When Blanco-Rivera is not teaching LIS 438 Introduction to Archival Methods and Services, LIS 443 Archives, History and Collective Memory or supervising a GSLIS student's independent study project based in Mexico, his 2014 calendar is booked with various projects. As a human rights advocate, Blanco-Rivera initiated a dialogue about racism in archives called, "Race and Racism in the Archives" as part of the "Why Talk about Race and Racism in the Library and Information Science?" series in February 2014. He also recently authored a chapter with several colleagues titled, "Examinations of Injustice: Methods for Studying Archives in a Human Rights Context" for the forthcoming book, Research in the Archival Multiverse, which showcases methodologies used to study transitional justice in archives.

His current research, in collaboration with Professor Kathy Wisser, is a comparative analysis of the disposition and access of surveillance records of many countries. To date, they have learned that there are no clear policies of access or record destruction across countries. While it is important to develop access and privacy policies, the preliminary findings suggest that countries address the issues differently from one another. Their results were presented at the International Council on Archives Annual Conference in Brussels in November 2013 and they are currently developing a manuscript for publication.

He is also studying the collective memories of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. With support from the GSLIS Emily Hollowell Research Fund, Blanco-Rivera is studying the Holyoke, MA, Puerto Rican community, which is the largest Latino group in the city. He is interested in exploring why Puerto Ricans in Holyoke preserve their heritage and how their memories became an archive that preserves and transmits the group's identity.

Blanco-Rivera specializes in researching how Latin American archives contribute to transitional justice, and how societies deal with legacies of repression. Archives can play a role in how nations handle such a history, whether it is through amnesia or reflection. Archivists can organize, retrieve, and preserve evidence to establish accountability, create truth commissions, and develop a legal precedent to seek recourse. "Archives have multiple functions that exist beyond accessing, organizing, and preserving resources. They validate memories and provide evidence that allows people to seek reparations for victims and families," he says.

Beyond financial recovery assistance, the archives can provide healing to families who have had relatives disappear or were victimized. Blanco-Rivera discusses the case of the 1984 disappearance of Guatemalan labor activist and engineering student Fernando Garcia, who left behind a wife and an 18-month-old daughter. In the documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Garcia's daughter discusses how seeing his handwriting on documents created a connection to her father.

"We need to recognize the role of information in inequality and human rights violations," says Blanco-Rivera. In his 2013 GSLIS presentation, "Transitional Justice and Archives in Post-Conflict Guatemala," he shared his investigation of the roles of archives in Guatemala's transition from a 36-year civil war. An accidental discovery in 2005 of the archives of the Guatemalan National Policy impacted accountability efforts in the country, including the use of records in criminal investigations and trials.

His talk resulted in an opportunity to become involved in the Rich Coast Project after Northeastern law student Katherine Beck approached him about the initiative. The project uses storytelling, digital archiving, and legal experience to raise awareness about the land struggle involving government conservation policies and "native Afro-descendant communities on Costa Rica's southern Caribbean coast," according to the website. Blanco-Rivera is supervising the creation of the online community archive. He gave a presentation about his efforts in November 2013. He hopes to travel to Costa Rica later this year to immerse himself in the culture and evaluate next steps for the project.

In addition to his advocacy efforts with the Rich Coast Project, Blanco-Rivera is at the helm of archives professional chapters and committees. He is co-chair of the Society of American Archivists Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives Roundtable (LACCHA), which is a collaborative network for U.S., Caribbean, and Latin American archivists involved with Latin America and Caribbean archival materials. In 2014, the roundtable will rework its bylaws and establish new goals. Additional information about LACCHA can be found on Facebook and their blog called Memoria.

Blanco-Rivera believes there is much that American archive students can learn from international archivists. From his days pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, he designed a course about international archives called "An International Perspective on Archives," after receiving inspiration from his advisor Professor Richard Cox and GSLIS Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Jeannette Bastian. "By learning about different cultures and traditions, we can learn from them and apply lessons learned to our own situations," said Blanco-Rivera. To expand upon this work, he is partnering with the University College of London (UCL) to create an online class for Simmons GSLIS and UCL students that will provide a cross-cultural experience to examine international issues in archives.

In addition, Blanco-Rivera is dedicated to expanding archival education in Puerto Rico. After the Centro para Puerto Rico y Fundación Sila María Calderón received a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, a survey of archivists and record managers was conducted to determine what continuing education opportunities interested them. In 2013 the organization received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to design professional development courses based on the needs survey. Blanco-Rivera was an advisory board member for the project. Centro para Puerto Rico plans to apply for a grant to implement a curriculum and identify potential instructors.

The archive profession is lucky to have inherited an accidental archivist.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer