The Honorary Latin Americanist, by Sarah Backhouse

With the Liberalism in the Americas project now coming to a close, and the digital library  complete and looking marvellous… I thought it high time that I contribute some thoughts about the project and my part in it.

I have been working on the digital library for the past year, primarily creating metadata, assigning keywords to and writing abstracts for the 1000 or so documents that are searchable, browse-able and readable from the web. How remarkable! I wish such things existed during my PhD.

As a medieval art historian, I am used to significant shortages of historical documentation, and at times a complete absence of surviving contemporary textual evidence. It was rather refreshing for me, therefore, to get stuck into a subject that is comparatively saturated with surviving primary records. Unfortunately the digital library can only hold a fraction of the documents out there; for historians this is a disappointment, for me this is simply phenomenal! It makes me wonder – do historians ever have time to do anything but read?

Not being a subject specialist for this project has been challenging at times, and on many occasions I had to make a mad dash for (ahem) Google (definitely not Wikipedia) to do a little ‘research’. There can be no doubt that the turbulent nineteenth century is an immensely fascinating period in Latin American history; yet the political complexities of the numerous wars of independence, especially concerning Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, left me completely baffled. How to write an abstract for an obscure, undated pamphlet concerning a war in a country which had many over the period in question? I was somewhat relieved, therefore, to move on from the wars and begin cataloguing the numerous constitutions of said countries that were published in the following decades.

At times equally confusing was the rapidly changing public opinion of various rulers and politicians. Some rulers of course were universally deplored (Argentine dictator Juan Manuel José Doming Ortiz de Rosas, for example, was the subject of numerous documents accusing him of heinous atrocities), yet others fell in and out of favour repeatedly, causing me much consternation and frantic googling. Antonio López de Santa Anna, for example, was applauded for his part in bringing about the independence of Mexico, but later attacked because of his unpopular federal constitution. Similarly, King Ferdinand VII of Spain was ridiculed during the Napoleonic Wars, but later revered after he was forced to sign the Spanish Constitution.

Such nuances are part of what makes studying history so compelling and endlessly stimulating of course; for my part, they have made this project rather more challenging than anticipated, but ever so much more rewarding.

To find out more about Dr Sarah Backhouse, see her website.

This entry was posted in Digital Library, Key Liberal Thinkers, Project Update, Research Themes by Deborah Toner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Deborah Toner

Deborah worked at the Institute for the Study of the Americas as a postdoctoral research fellow in Latin American history from 2011-12, on the project ‘Liberalism in the Americas’, which is creating a digital library of resources for the study of liberalism in Peru and Argentina in the long nineteenth century. Now a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester, Deborah continues to work with ISA in overseeing the Liberalism in the Americas project as it comes to fruition. She completed her PhD on alcohol and nation-building in nineteenth-century Mexico at the University of Warwick, where she also completed her MA and BA in history.

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