Project Reviews

Bracero History Archive
Created and maintained by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Bracero program was a guest worker initiative that brought Mexican laborers to the United States between 1942 and 1964. Though the program has had a very large impact on the history of major portions of the United States and Mexico, as well as the greater debate about immigration, the program remained generally unknown. The creators of the archive reasoned that the history has been obscured, at least in part, due to a lack of primary source material. In an attempt to compile and organize the primary source material from the program, Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University as well as many small and local archives partnered up to create the Bracero Archive. The archive's blog also promotes a traveling exhibition that uses photographs and audio exhibits to explore the history of the Bracero program.

Collaboration was essential in building a substantial archive on the Bracero program. Because of the nature of the program, materials were spread out amongst many small institutions, with no large, central institution to collect the artifacts. The situation lends itself well to a digital archive that can consolidate materials in one central location on the web. The archive is largely made up of oral histories, photographs, and personal documents pertaining to the lives of Bracero workers. The archive contains nearly 650 oral histories recounting life as a Bracero, just over 500 documents composed largely of personal documents and contracts, and nearly 2,000 images mainly consisting of images of daily life and processing centers, as well as personal documents. In addition to the aforementioned organizations that collect and curate materials, the archive also allows users to upload their own materials and personal stories to the website.

There are several different ways to access the archive material. A simple search function searches all of the metadata fields for all materials. There's also an Advanced Search function, with limiting fields including valuable item type and ID number options. In addition to these search functions, there is also a "browse" feature that enables users to click through the entire collection or one of the four categories: images, documents, oral histories, and contributed items. When browsing, the materials are shown in pages of ten, with the "Description" field displayed when present.

The website does not go offer much outside of archival materials. There is a very brief background on the program and a guide to teaching the topic. The teaching page offers a helpful, albeit brief, background on the Bracero Program and several well-crafted teaching plans for middle and high school students. The plans offer a good introduction to the Bracero program and the immigration system in the US while serving as a great opportunity for students to use primary sources. The archive enables teachers to put together selected primary sources and have students synthesize them into a conclusion or narrative. Given the site's aims to promote a wider knowledge and better understanding of the program, however, I think that a more detailed "About" section, compartmentalized into topics and including some of the primary documents as well as infographics, would go a long way in familiarizing newcomers to the archive. The archive can be very beneficial for users seeking specific people or topics, but users interested in learning about the program as a whole or a history of immigration policy, could find themselves struggling to find useful information or a coherent route to start on.

There are currently some serious problems with the usability of the archive. Although the archive takes necessary steps to be bilingual, it falls well short of its goal. The front page prominently features a button that renders the page in Spanish. However, the text in the archive remains untranslated, as does the bibliography and much of the information about the project. On the other hand, a majority of the oral interviews are in Spanish, but lack translated transcriptions. This makes very large portions of the archive unusable to researchers that aren't bilingual. Many of the oral histories lack metadata of any kind, making these valuable resources unsearchable.

The bibliography is also quite difficult to use. It is a very long list of related works organized by author name. While the abundance of resources is certainly appreciable, it would have been preferable to have a categorized bibliography that divided the list into topics. It would also be helpful to provide some sort of explanation of what the source is and how it relates to the topic. There could also be three separate lists providing resources in English, Spanish, or a comprehensive list of both languages. Users that are not bilingual could then locate translations of works that are available.

The archive displays the promise of George Mason's Center for History and New Media's Omeka platform. Collections are rendered in a clean, crisp format. Each item page has a button to toggle between basic and full view, displaying different amounts of metadata. Although the feature wasn't immediately noticeable, it proved to be a positive feature. The display of all fields can be daunting and hinder usage. The toggle button keeps the extra information hidden away, yet easily accessible. Omeka also enables users to easily upload their own additions to the archive. The simple format ensures that both curated and uncurated materials will have the same look and will fit seamlessly into the archive.

Many of the problems mentioned in this article could be fixed rather quickly if the archive drew upon its crowdsourcing abilities and allowed users to globally tag, annotate, and translate the materials. However, in its current state, many roadblocks exist between the user and the sources. Metadata is lacking for a good portion of the materials and the full archive is still only useable to bilingual users. Scholars that are well acquainted with the topic can gain new resource materials by clicking through the collections as they are. However, casual users may be better off sticking with the teaching plans and their directed use of the materials. Despite the roadblocks, there still exists a wealth of knowledge that is much more accessible than it had been in the past. This archive represents a very important step towards more collaboration between archives and primary source material grouped together in a much more relevant manner.

Brandon Locke
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011