An Archivist in Mexico: The Road Less Traveled
By Anna De Cheke Qualls
This is a story about a person who, through life’s ebbs and flows, found her calling, through calling, fulfilment. As Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski describes it, work that someone finds “inseparable from their life,” without concern “for financial gain or career advancement.”
This embodies Natalie Baur (’11 MLS), a passionate archivist and former University of Maryland Fulbright Scholar. Currently living in Mexico City, Baur is on the cutting edge of archival work in the Global South. In 2017, she won the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Emerging Leader Award. The award announcement hailed her for an “impressive record of collaboration and achievement as chair of the SAA Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Roundtable (LACCHA).” Baur has also been a peer reviewer on The American Archivist, presenter at conferences, and a member of the 2017 SAA Annual Meeting Program Committee. In 2016, Baur, along with Margarita Vargas-Betancourt and George Apodaca, was awarded the SAA Diversity Award for the LACCHA webinar series Desmantelando Fronteras/Breaking Down Borders.
“We wanted to do this project because we felt that while the Society of American Archivists represented the U.S. and Canada well, it did not include the rest of the Americas and the Caribbean as it had the potential to do. We wanted to ‘break down borders’ by opening up dialogues with our colleagues, in English and in Spanish, as a way to bilaterally share our challenges and successes in the same room, so to speak. Margarita and George were already co-chairing in the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives section of SAA with me, and we all shared a vision for more international collaboration,” observes Baur.
Through collaboration between the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), and the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL), the program created an online webinar series that was intended to bring archivists together to share their experiences from all of the Americas and the Caribbean in a unilateral and balanced way. The team worked with its webinar participant collaborators to pick the subjects, which ranged from governmental transparency to the conservation of archives in the face of natural disasters and climate change.
Most recently, Baur and her two collaborators published a chapter about the project in the book entitled Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science.
All of this is a long way from rural Butler County, Pennsylvania, where Baur grew up. After studying history and anthropology in college, she got married and moved to Ecuador for two years. There, Baur taught English and became completely bilingual. After returning to the States, she successfully applied to the University of Delaware’s History PhD program, before an interest in public history grabbed her through a graduate assistantship in the library’s archives.
After much soul searching, Baur left the doctoral program and entered UMD’s Master of Library Science program. While holding down a full-time job at the Delaware Historical Society, she commuted two hours each way to graduate school. After finishing her degree in Archives, Records, and Information Management, Baur headed to the University of Miami to be archivist for their Cuban Heritage Collection, a position which combined her bilingualism with her newly acquired skills.
“I was there for three years and decided I was very interested in the curation of digital collections, web archiving, and the management of digital works in Latin American context. I was also doing a lot of transnational work through our society – various projects in different Latin American countries,” remembers Baur.
It was at this point that Baur applied for Fulbright’s García-Robles Fellowship through UMD. Her 9-month project in Mexico, primarily based at the Library Science Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), involved 30 interviews at different institutions - governmental, academic, museums, and private archives - that were dealing with digital preservation issues, especially the archives that had to have a paper equivalent.
Upon completing her research in 2016, Baur was offered a position as a Digital Preservations Librarian at the Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas, El Colegio de México. “It was a hard decision, but I am glad I stayed. It was very rewarding to manage the library’s digitization program while also helping to create more sustainably managed resources,” says Baur.
While at the Colegio, Natalie collaborated on the MIDAS Project with funding from Northwestern University, and a digital gender studies project. She also lead the acquisition of the Video TropicoSur Archive, among many other digitization efforts. “I don’t think everyone has to have a global perspective to do their work. I am finding it wasn’t my intention either at first, but the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is so old, you can’t get away from it. And we continue to collaborate even now. I think that it’s an exciting time to work with people on both sides of the border, and even beyond, in the Global South. Having a context of practices on both sides really helps on projects. You don’t realize how much cultural capital you have until you get into it,” remarks Baur.
“When foreign (other North American) institutions want to collaborate with us, there is a little bit of an imbalance when those conversations happen. My colleagues don’t necessarily have that context readily available, and where a collaborator might be coming from. It’s helpful to have an insider understanding what these institutions are capable of, how they work and manage funding,” she adds.
Micaela Chávez Villa, Director of the Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas, El Colegio de México says, “Thanks to Natalie's extensive network of colleagues, the Library was able to obtain support from the Information Technology area of Ohio State University, which helped a lot in the progress of our Institutional Repository Project. As a member of the library team, Natalie also made the necessary arrangements for our institution to host the 2019 Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) Annual Meeting. Given the knowledge she has of that group of professionals, Natalie paved the way for our institution to be internationally recognized as the first Latin American institution ever to host this meeting.”
While transitioning to life in Mexico, Baur was also going through a personal transformation. Having married young, then going her own way, this was her first time as an adult living on her own.
“I started over, I reconnected with myself,” recalls Baur. “What do I really want out of life as an independent person? We look at life differently when we are in a partnership. This move started an interior and radical transition for me, and when you emerge out of it, you carry yourself differently. I also asked myself what I want to do with the skills I’ve garnered over the years,” says Baur. “Before, the institutional security gave me an anchor I may have needed, even though I didn’t like it. I didn’t know how to deal with uncertainty yet. But living in another country where things are not as you expect, and always changing, jolts you out of that sense of security,”
The result was a departure from former life patterns. After three years at the Colegio, Baur went out on her own as a consultant this fall. “I don’t need to be so worried about stability,” says Baur. “It’s a balance. For me leaving a very traditional institution is my first step off into this new way of being in the world, that I feel is in line with my personality, creativity, and curiosity. I feel like I can curate my life the way I wish to live, that makes me happier and more fulfilled. I am terrified, but I am at the point where this is the only life I have to live.”
Baur's colleague Judy Blankenship, an award-winning photographer, and writer and editor of the Cañar Chronicles, views her as a fearless leader, professionally, personally, and artistically.
“I have watched as Natalie has reinvented herself professionally as she made the decision not to go the traditional route and pursue a PhD - turning down a generous grant - and jumping into the world of archives in Mexico that began with a Fulbright grant," Blankenship said. "Her leadership award at the SAA was a proud moment, for her and for me, but it was only a blip in a life that has a long interesting future ahead. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
While working independently, Baur continues to retain her part-time teaching post in digital preservation and curation at the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología Master’s Program. She would like to do more research, curriculum development and student advising. “I’ve gotten to the point where I have been a practitioner for 10 years,” she said. “I find people are saying 'You are the only person who knows how to do this or that,' – like niche knowledge. I don’t want that to be the case...Teaching for me is a way to prepare people to do this work who are from here, and already working at institutions. I want my students to be able to say confidently that they have digital preservation skills and can put them into practice. We need more people to do that who are from [Mexico]. It gives them more employment opportunities, marketability, a chance to do a greater variety of projects, and a larger contribution to this type of work.”
Baur also wants to continue to make sure the Northern institutions that want to collaborate with the Global South are being fair.
“They might think folks here are willing to work for free. I try to suggest that they have money, and can pay for the collaborative work we might do,” says Baur. “Prestigious institutions especially do that, even in the U.S. I encourage my colleagues to talk about money openly, because it’s out there. There is an assumption that unless it’s happening in developed countries, then it’s not happening. With my generation that has hopefully changed. We are becoming more critical of the work that we do. Being on this side of the border, I’ve been very vocal. We have common issues across all borders – being overworked, underfunded, those are realities anywhere.”
Such words certainly paint Baur as a person with a calling – someone for whom values, beliefs are embedded in her work.
“As we get further into the consequences of climate change as well as how we develop as a society, I’ve been deliberate about my choices, and my work has always been tied to that,” Baur says. “We all have a responsibility to do what we can. We can use less straws, conserve this or that, or become vegetarian. For me, I am choosing to do less. I am choosing to make less money. That’s really my answer. Curbing production is what we need to do as a culture. I would rather use my skills and brain for non-material production, and be conscious and authentic about what I do. I want to pay my rent but I feel that I have enough in life. I do think that we can learn to live modestly because we can’t keep just thinking we have limitless production. That’s not my trajectory, this idea of a linear growth, in terms of materialistic stuff. I am looking for growth in other areas of my life such as creating community. Through my life and work, I want to live my values. And I am grateful I am able to do it.”
More information about Natalie Baur can be found here.
(Photo credit: Natalie Baur)