How to Best Access and Work with Documentary Footage & Testimonials

One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is that you enjoy more freedom to offer a wide range of courses on topics outside your area of research expertise. Over the years, I have been able to develop and offer courses on Mexico and Cuba, environmental history and social movements, the Cuban Revolution, and race and ethnicity in the US and beyond.

As a specialist in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of my research is with documents, [now rare] books and religious tracts, and occasionally maps, paintings, and examples of material culture. How to bring those items into the classroom and feature them in undergraduate learning has been one of the major challenges that I strive to meet in my teaching at the College and in my publications. I am always searching for websites, museum collections, feature films and documentaries that deal with this early period in colonial Latin America.

Teaching classes that cover the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries offer many more opportunities to aid student learning with access to photographic collections, sound recordings, film, video, and recorded testimonials. Over the years, my classes have benefited tremendously from the Latin American collection assembled by my predecessor—Jeffrey Lesser—and the careful building of our holdings by Lorraine McKinney. As the physical items in the collection age, many of the videos and a few of the DVDs do not work, and staff have made great efforts to track down new copies, or, more often than not with materials no longer available, have made copies or digitized the materials. It is an ongoing job to make sure that what’s in the teaching collection actually works and can be used in the ways I planned when carefully embedding it in class and sending students to use it to extend or complement an assignment. With my cassette tape collection and slides, I also face the same challenges, compounded by the fact that I often need to find and carry around something to play them on. The digitization process is slow, and advances sporadically when staff are able to carve out a few hours here or there for student workers to process some part of the materials that I have collected to teach with.

My dilemmas:

  • As we increasing turn to using streaming video through products like Kanopy video collections, for example, and the in-house replacements of older material is offered in digitized form, I worry how stable and enduring are those platforms and formats? Once great material is found and incorporated, students and teachers want to keep using it and accessing it. So the question of access and how best to ensure it is key for me this year as a Technology Fellow.
  • Increasingly some of this old material as well as lots of testimonials, testimonial collections databases, and activist work is being posted or released online (with or without permission). How to navigate and access on a more permanent basis that online material is part of this broader question.
  • What to make of this material is an important issue for my students, too, because they try to access and interpret material of widely varying quality. Too often they not only do not know how to cite these sources, but also fail to be able to find who made the material, when, where, and for what audience.


  • On my Moodle site for FYS on Cuba I not only placed video materials and links to materials, but I also included links on how to evaluate media sources.

An example:

  • I particularly like what Anthropologist Lynne Stephens has done with both publishing selections from and archiving online all of the testimonies she was given access to by activists, artists, and protestors in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • This is a part of Mexico that the College sends SATA and TRIPS to, and maintains other exchanges with. And even this summer, we are sending a delegation to Chiapas just to the south to build on the partnership there. Among them are connections with the folks involved in community and indigenous radio (similar to what is featured in this video available through Kanopy.
  • Over the years, we have hosted at the College representatives of the Chiapas Media Project who came to talk about their work (and the College library owns copies of two of the videos produced in this Project).

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