Surfacing Misrepresentations in University Libraries Collections through Graduate Research

Examining depictions of Latin American indigenous languages and cultures in University Libraries Special Collections


Lucía Aja López examines various materials from the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library.

Graduate student Lucía Aja López recently completed an examination of unique Latin American holdings in University Libraries’ Special Collections to help surface inaccurate representations of indigenous languages and cultures.

“Our understanding of indigenous culture has been distorted by a colonialist lens, since the materials that we have about the first contacts were written by colonizers for colonizers,” says Aja López, a PhD candidate in Iberian Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “My purpose was to point to where, how and why those distortions occurred.”

Aja López’s graduate fellowship is an extension of the K’acha Willaykuna project, an interdisciplinary Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Arts and Humanities Collaboration that affirms Ohio State’s commitment to the study of and critical engagement with Indigenous cultures of Abiayala (the indigenous denominator for the American continent in its entirety). Funded through the Ohio State University Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme, the collaborative seeks to meaningfully connect students, researchers and the Ohio community to the Andean and Amazonian region and its present indigenous communities. The fellowship, sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies, provided the opportunity for Aja López to work with materials in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library (RBML) during Summer 2021.

Guided by the objectives of the collaborative, Aja López created annotations of numerous holdings at RBML that included references to Latin American indigenous communities.

“The materials spanned from the 15th to the 21st century and included a variety of disciplines such as linguistics, anthropology, history, travel narratives, journalism and literature,” she says. “My goal was to complete an overview of these materials to identify where and how indigenous cultures were represented in them and to create annotations and keywords for each of the materials so they can serve as an entry point to future users.”

A collection of books on a rolling cart.
A selection of the materials Aja López examined during her fellowship

“Lucía’s annotations have provided a starting point to further contextualize and unpack the inaccurate and/or colonial interpretations of these collection materials that have historically perpetuated flawed interpretation and erasure of indigenous culture and knowledge,” says Pamela Espinosa de los Monteros, Latin American and Iberian studies librarian at University Libraries, who conceived of the fellowship idea and oversaw the project along with Eric Johnson, curator of Thompson Special Collections and Dr. Michelle Wibbelsman, Associate Professor of Latin American Indigenous Cultures, Ethnographic Studies and Ethnomusicology from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Espinosa de los Monteros also notes that Aja López was an ideal candidate for the fellowship.

“Lucía was chosen because of her specialized research background and graduate training along with her language skills,” she says. “All her course training in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese along with her own academic background and research focus helped her to examine these materials critically and give us a point from which to start unpacking these materials.

As she examined the materials, Aja López noticed several emerging patterns.

A black and white illustration on an old piece of paper depicting indigenous people capturing bulls.

“It was interesting to notice the parallels between the colonial gaze in different media, such as images that are made to seem realistic by including a lot of details, but that in actuality depict a distorted view of the reality encountered,” she says, “or ‘histories’ that are supposedly objectively relating observations, but which only sourced information from materials written by European historians who may or may not have been to the Americas.”

While completing her work, Aja López discovered that even categorizing the materials presented problems for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge.

“During the completion of the project, I struggled with my use of keywords, since I decided to use Library of Congress Subject Headings,” she says. “However, and despite the materials being colonial artifacts, these are colonialist categories that don’t reflect indigenous epistemologies. In the future, I hope that more voices and perspectives are added to the study of these materials to challenge how we conceptualize and interpret the indigenous knowledge included in them.”

“My main hope is that my work facilitates the use of these materials as part of courses at Ohio State,” says Aja López. “If instructors have a starting point, it might be easier to approach them, include them as part of the curriculum and have students of all backgrounds engage with them and produce original research that continues to challenge our colonialist perception of indigenous culture.”