Feb 27 2014

The Helguera Collection and the Dean’s Fellow Program

Published by chelsea at 8:35 pm under Spring 2014 Newsletter

Contributed by Rebecca West, M.A. in LAS Candidate and Paula Covington, LAS Bibliographer

The expanding J. León Helguera Collection of Colombiana has generated a buzz both at Vanderbilt and around the world. Professor Helguera, Colombian historian, lifelong bibliophile, and professor emeritus of Vanderbilt, continues to add donations to this unique and distinguished collection of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. At this point, it includes an estimated 5,000 documents, broadsides, pamphlets, and programas; the nineteenth century collection contains a bit of everything, from government documents to school curricula. Spanning topics such as government administration, politics, religious diatribes, treatises, religion, education, and medicine, the digitization of this collection will further research opportunities for scholars around the world.

Gloria Pérez, a Ph.D. student in anthropology, was selected to work on the digitization of the Helguera Collection as one of the Dean of Libraries’ newly established Dean’s Fellows. The Dean’s Fellows program was established to create opportunities for students to have hands-on access to special collections and to foster in-depth learning experiences. With the support of this program, Pérez is reading, evaluating, registering, and sorting through thousands of documents. The documents that she selects will be digitized and indexed online by subject, and every word will be fully searchable. She will also create an online exhibit and write a series of essays.

Pérez, who is Colombian herself, is particularly well positioned to evaluate these documents. An M.D. and former ER physician, she has returned to graduate school to study anthropology and the effects of internal displacement in Colombia. In a brief conversation on the collection, she noted, among other things, that she saw the influence of the Catholic Church in all spheres of life, even medicine, since the local church served historically as the forum for public health announcements.

Working with the collection will also add new depth to Pérez’s own research. As she studies displacement in the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, she has found that this problem did not start with the paramilitary forces. Rather, displacement began with the seizure of coffee plantations in the 1800s, followed by lands with sugar cane, cattle, mines, and so on.

Pérez proudly announced that she has completed the A’s. With 25 letters in the alphabet to go, that may not sound like progress. She convinced us of how far she has come, however, when she led us down to Special Collections where she showed off the 15-some-odd boxes comprised solely of “A” documents. Despite the initial limit of 35, she whittled the A’s down to about 55 of the best documents—45 of which are not available anywhere around the world. These documents include such treasures as proposals for a new constitution, the declaration of the borders of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and a pamphlet on Nueva Granada (Colombia’s name before independence) in the 1840s and 50s establishing the basic definitions of citizenship and other materials that, as Pérez states “define a nation.” None of these documents has formerly been available online, and many are unique and hitherto unknown, “…so” she explains, “you can imagine the potential.” All this just from the A’s. Progress indeed!


Manuel Zapata Olivella Collection

The library has also embarked on creating a digital database of Colombian interviews with “abuelos analfabetos,” or the Voz de los Abuelos Project, one segment of Vanderbilt’s Manuel Zapata Olivella Collection. Zapata Olivella was a Colombian anthropologist, doctor, novelist, folklorist, and pioneer in preserving and promoting the nation’s ethnic and cultural history and its Afro-Colombian identity. In the 1970s he arranged for a graduation requirement to be put in place in Colombian high schools: students must interview an anciano (older person) before graduating. Students were provided with 100 possible questions on topics from politics to religion, race, and magic.

Pérez describes the collection as having “newly acquired value [from] the recognition of negritude…in Colombia….Zapata Olivella is one of the figures coming to the forefront of the black social movement.”

Vanderbilt purchased the collection from Zapata Olivella’s daughter with the permission of Colombia’s Ministry of Culture that Vanderbilt conserve it and begin to make it available digitally. Using the Robert Penn Warren “Who Speaks for the Negro” project as an example, the library is in the process of making the interviews, transcripts, and photographic portion of the collection available as an open online database. Despite the enormity of these efforts, this project is just the tip of the iceberg, and we hope to find funding to complete the rest of it.

Browse the online collections at helguera.library.vanderbilt.edu and mzo.library.vanderbilt.edu/home.

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