Blog Post

Building an Archive: Baking a Cake

(Map of the American Hemisphere, 1823 from Rice Unviersity's Woodson Research Center)


As a research assistant for Rice University’s Humanities Research Center, my task for the past 9 months has been to maintain and develop teaching materials for the Our Americas Archive Partnership as well as help out with other projects that concern the archive, including educating teachers and scholars on how to use the archive. Thus far, I have learned that building, maintaining, and advertising archival resources is a complex and intricate process that grows and develops over time. The skills, organization, and ingredients that go into creating and building an archive interestingly reflect my own attempts to teach myself the art of cooking and baking. Perhaps this is my stomach speaking or my general love of baked goods (don’t tell my cholesterol!), but it seems to me that building an archive resembles baking a cake.

Identify Your Craving: Baking a cake when you are hungry is a bad idea; but cooking and baking with a vision in mind is necessary for producing a well-made cake. You need to have some idea of what you want and why you want it; even if the reason is that you have a chocolate craving or want to conquer the domains of your own domestic space (or, in my case both.) This type of craving resembles the first inklings of archiving, whether it concerns the need to safely preserve precious rare materials or construct a new space for innovative scholarly enquiry. The former of these two cravings reflects the beginnings of the Our Americas Archive Partnership.

What is the Our Americas Archive Partnership, you ask? The OAAP, as some of us lovingly call this gem of an archive, is a multi-institutional digital humanities project partnered by Rice University’s Americas Archive, University of Maryland’s Early Americas Digital Archive, and the library at Instituto Mora. The goals of the OAAP are to foster new research examining American literatures and histories from a hemispheric perspective, encourage scholarly exchanges across fields, and create teaching materials that promote a hemispheric approach to studying the Americas. For those of you unfamiliar with this scholarly field, hemispheric studies seeks to consider the Americas as a broad system of exchange, movement, and influence. It explores national and extra-national histories in dialogue with each other to understand both the borders of nation and the way culture, history, and literature go beyond those borders to interact with a broader hemispheric system. 

The OAAP hopes to facilitate research in this field. For several reasons, scholars thinking hemispherically have been at a disadvantage when it comes to archival resources. (For example, nation-based funding processes often do not support research for institutions outside national boundaries. [Bailar 221]). The OAAP started by identifying the need for resources and the craving for an archival project that methodologically and thematically supported a study of the hemisphere.

Find a Recipe: When I decide to bake something, I turn to the web, my own personal archive of step-by-step directions. Often in a hurry, I take the first recipe that appears; however, when I want to make something special, I take my time finding and (through subsequent trials) mastering the perfect recipe. Surprisingly, discovering the golden recipe reflects the process of planning an archive – except multiple the time and effort by ten. The recipe for the OAAP started with a series of conversations that eventually led to a process of planning, grant funding, and collaboration. To make a long story short through the use of many acronyms, Drs. Caroline Levander and Ralph Bauer began brainstorming about what an archive for the hemisphere would look like. With the help of Geneva Henry, the executive director of the Center for Digital Scholarship at Rice University, Levander and Bauer discussed the steps toward producing such a project. Along the way, the MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities) was brought to the table through the help of Bauer, bringing with it the EADA (Early Americas Digital Archive). With funding from the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Sciences), a team was established, archive plans hatched, and the OAAP born, eventually ushering into the mix the Instituto Mora through the help of Rice fellow Moramay Lopez-Alonso. (In case you need a recap: scholars + MITH + EADA + IMLS + team = OAAP).

The digitization of archival resources is an essential part of the OAAP’s recipe. As Melissa Bailar, associate director of the Humanities Resource Center at Rice writes in “Partnering Across the Americas,” “This project strives both to provide an archival product that facilitates hemispheric research and teaching, and to adopt a hemispheric approach in its development and dissemination” (220). In order to speak to a wider audience, in terms of both interdisciplinarity and internationalism, the OAAP seeks to fill a gap in discursive and pedagogical resources. For more information on the history and Conceptual Framework of this digital humanities project visit the OAAP website.

Acquire the Ingredients: Back to baking. As I have learned in the kitchen, I have learned in the archive – ingredients matter. The OAAP holds a variety of rich primary-source documents from across the Americas, including government documents, treaties, historical and medical records, letters written by historical and literary figures ranging from President Polk toJosé Martí, bills of slave sale,  documents on Latin American independence, treatises on women, sketches,  poems, and both well-known and lesser-known literary texts. Covering several centuries, these documents currently date from 1492 (when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) to 1920. One of the central goals of hemispheric studies seeks to highlight the multilingual history and culture of the Americas. Thus, many of these documents can be found in not only English, but Spanish, Portuguese, and French versions. After acquiring these ingredients, the OAAP began the process of transcribing, translating, digitizing, and organizing these documents into an archive.

Establish a sense of Order/Organization: Sometimes when I bake I get ahead of myself, skipping over directions and serving sizes as I dash back and forth between my desktop and my oven. Order and organization, as I have come to realize after coating my library books with flour, matter. Similarly, the tools and rationalities behind the process of archiving and organizing the archival resources not only matter, but are imperative to facilitating how researchers and teachers use and search the archive. Documents in the OAAP are identified through short abstracts, dates, and repository information. The OAAP is organized and made searchable in three different ways: 1) general search option, which can be further specified by date, author, concept, repository, and language. 2) the Americas Concepts, or major themes constructed around a hemispheric perspective 3) Community Tags, a tool that allows users to create their personalized concepts and tag documents to easily access them over and over again. These tools communicate specific ideals for work in the archive and, as Derrida tells us in Archive Fever (Fever!), structure the space where authority is exercised and order given (1). With the OAAP, our hope is that these tools allow for ease, efficiency, historical specificity, and user-creativity.

Call ‘em to the Kitchen: The most important part of baking (or perhaps it is just my favorite) is the eating. After gobbling down the first piece of cake (I need to make sure it is good before I serve it to others, after all), I try to share my work with others. With an archive, the same goes. We want people to use the OAAP. Our endeavors to advertise are working on multiple levels. First the team that created and maintains the OAAP have attempted to situate it within scholarly discussions by presenting material at conferences and seminars as well as scholarly articles. (For example, Caroline Levander and Rachel Adams’s NEH summer faculty seminar “Toward a Hemispheric American Literature” at Columbia University (2007); Melissa Bailar’s "The Humanities Student as Digital Archivist: Pedagogical Opportunity in the Our Americas Archive Partnership,” 2011; Lorena Gauthereau-Bryson, Robert Estep, Monica Rivero’s "Digitization Practices for Translations: Lessons Learned from the Our Americas Archive Partnership Project,” 2011). Secondly, we want this archive to be useful to teachers. For several summers, we have given presentations to AP high school teachers, showing them how the OAAP can be used in the classroom. In addition, graduate students across the humanities have created teaching “modules,” or educational essays, that provide pedagogical suggestions on how to incorporate the archive’s materials and a hemispheric approach into classroom curriculum. Finally, we want the OAAP to be an active part of the digital community. In an effort to disperse information, we started the OAAP blog and twitter account this summer (follow us!).

While we have made several efforts to spread the word, we are still working on ways to interact with growing digital, scholarly communities. So, here is where I come to my question(s) for you, HASTAC scholars, how do you find your scholarly information? And with this question, I don’t simply mean, the articles, books, and data you collect. What channels do you follow for retrieving information? How do you learn about search tools? For teachers, where do you go to find new materials for your classroom? In this increasingly vast archive we call the web, how does a small, developing archive make itself know? To extend my baking analogy, how can the OAAP call scholars, students, and teachers to the kitchen?


Works Cited:

Bailar, Melissa. "Partnering Across the Americas: Crossing National and Disciplinary Borders in Archival Development.” Teaching and Studying the Americas: Cultural Influences from Colonialism to the Present. Eds. Anthony Pinn, Caroline Levander, and Michael Emerson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

 ------.  "The Humanities Student as Digital Archivist: Pedagogical Opportunity in the Our Americas Archive Partnership." Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy. Special edition on Teaching Digital Media in spring/summer 22.1 (2011):

Derrida. Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. U of Chicago, 1996.

Gauthereau-Bryson, Lorena, Robert Estep, and Monica Rivero. "Digitization Practices for Translations: Lessons Learned from the Our Americas Archive Partnership Project." D-Lib Magazine. September/October 17.9/10 (2011).

Levander, Caroline and Ralph Bauer. “Conceptual Framework.” The Our Americas Archive Partnership. August 2006.











AnaMaria, thank you so much for this thoughtful post! I'm in the research-stage of building a digital exhibit that represents the Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) collection ( with CU Special Collections. And while our project has a different scope and mission, I think your articulation of the process is going to help us greatly and I'm going to forward your blog to the team today. I think that, in particular, stating our goals like a thesis statement would be a great idea -- this is something I think you do very well: "The goals of the OAAP are to foster new research examining American literatures and histories from a hemispheric perspective, encourage scholarly exchanges across fields, and create teaching materials that promote a hemispheric approach to studying the Americas."

To begin to answer your really great question about how smaller archives make themselves known in the vast archive space of the web, one strategy that I know exists is to submit your collection to an umbrella collection or aggregate, if you will -- to make your collection a collectible. For example, Katherine Harris' Forget-Me-Not Hypertextual Archive contains data that was incorporated into Laura Mandell's Poetess Archive, which is just one of a large quantity of digital collections within the uber-aggregate of NINES. So it looks like this, in a pseudo math equation:

(NINES ( Poetess Archive ( Forget-Me-Not Archive)))

I don't know the larger aggregates and archives in your field, but that's one way you could solve your problem. This also in part answers your question of how I find research: I go to the larger aggregates in my field (NINES and 18Connect and Romantic Circles and MLA database) and look for the archives and collections that they collect, and then look there as well.

As the WPRP project moves along in the build stages (i.e., digitizing, etc.) I would love to chat with you about process. Cheers!



Kirstyn, thank you for your response. Your project sounds like a very exciting one! I would love to hear more about it. I have actually become more interested in Romanticism in terms of U.S. writers as of late, so I would love to hear about your process of thinking romantically via the archive.

I am glad that my entry can be helpful as you begin planning. Although I came to the OAAP after most of the work was complete, learning about this process has been extremely beneficial as I think about the course of the digital humanities and where I, as a researcher and teacher, fit into it. It seems to me that the clearer the goals and purpose of the archive (the thesis as you identified it), the smoother the other parts of planning and organizing fall into place, and the greater the potential for impact can be.

Also, thanks for your comment on collectability. Locating the OAAP within a larger series of archives and data basis seems like a great idea. I will discuss it with the other members of my team as we  continue to work and expand the OAAP, and may contact you with further questions.

Certainly, keep me updated on your project!


Great post, AnaMaria. I quoted part of your post in my own blog post, "Compatible Data: Challenges and Solutions." 

Establishing communication among scholars doing similar things, even if in different fields, is quite important. Digitization of material offers so much, but it is, as you say, overwhelming. Figuring out how to use search tools productively, and making the databases speak to each other, is among the challenges we face.


AnaMaria, thank you for this post. I am curious - what CMS does OAAP use?