Category Archives: New at the Rubenstein Library

Courageous and Audacious Ladies of Llangollen

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby sitting at table with books and cat
A depiction of the Ladies of Llangollen (late 1800s)

Post contributed by Heather McGowan, Public Services Intern for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture

Eleanor Butler was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Her siblings wed and secured their family’s future, but in 1778 39-year-old Eleanor had no plans to marry. Her brother threatened a nunnery and life in a convent for Eleanor.

Twelve miles away, 23-year-old orphaned Sarah Ponsonby, was facing the unwanted sexual advances of her cousin and guardian Sir William Fownes. As Lady Betty Fownes became ill, Sir William was waiting for the day he could call Sarah his new Lady Fownes.

Both women were trapped in unbearable situations. The Ladies met in 1768, Eleanor was appointed Sarah’s tutor and the two formed a deep friendship. They decided to run away to England together and missed the ferry, forcing the two women to hide in a barn. They were caught and taken home. When Sarah became ill, Eleanor ran away to Sarah’s home at Woodstock and hid in Sarah’s bedroom, where Sarah’s maid Mary Carryll smuggled food in to the room. Eleanor was found again, but her family refused to take her back. After a few days, Sarah’s family let them go. The Butlers agreed to provide Eleanor with an annual income of £200, and Sarah’s beloved cousin, Mrs. Sarah Tighe, agreed to a yearly supplement of £80.

In 1778, the Ladies, along with their maid Mary, eloped to the rural vale of Llangollen in Wales and settled down for a life of “delightful retirement.” The Ladies redesigned their cottage in the Gothic style, and spent 50 years studying literature, learning languages, and piecing together a collection of woodcarvings and other works of art. The letters that make up the majority of the Ladies of Llangollen collection in Rubenstein Library are written from Sarah to her cousin, Mrs. Sarah Tighe, who hesitantly accepted the Ladies’ lifestyle.

Manuscript with hand-writing
Letter from Sarah Ponsonby to Sarah Tighe, September 17, 1785 from the Ladies of Llangollen collection

The two Sarahs wrote to each other for the remainder of Ponsonby’s life about their lives in Ireland and Llangollen. Tighe kept Ponsonby abreast of political happenings (revolutions and counter-revolutions in Ireland between the 1770s and 1820), as well as social and family matters at home, while Ponsonby told Tighe of her idyllic life iwth Eleanor reading, gardening, and enjoying the culture in Llangollen.

Despite their hopes to live a life of quiet retreat, their elopement catapulted the Ladies into the nineteenth century press. The highest echelons of cultural and social elites found their way to the door of the Ladies home, Plas Newydd. They entertained up to 20 visitors a day; William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott and even Queen Charlotte all came to talk and spend time with the Ladies of Llangollen. Questions about the nature of the Ladies ‘romantic friendship,’ circulated around this extraordinary pair both during and well after their lifetimes. Eleanor was described as masculine, while Sarah was seen as more feminine, but once in Llangollen, both cropped their hair and wore dark riding habits. The Ladies shared a home and a life of devotion in their retreat at Llangollen. Eleanor Butler died on June 2, 1829 and three years later Sarah Ponsonby died in December of 1832. Upon Sarah’s death, Plas Newydd was publicly sold.

In addition to the letters in the collection, the Ladies of Llangollen, their home, and Llangollen itself are thoroughly documented in drawings, photographs, and print materials produced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their position as courageous and audacious Irish aristocrats who broke away from the constraints of convention gained them substantial notoriety.

Painting of Ladies of Llangollen on the porcelain, showing ladies in dark clothes and top hats.
Porcelain basket with color image of the Ladies of Llangollen.

This collection, especially the objects and printed material, capture the world’s curiosity about the Ladies’ life. Their images were printed on tea cups, figurines, prints, and postcards, and their story was told and retold in accounts by neighbors, friends, and visitors to Llangollen. As a result, Llangollen became a destination and an ongoing source of fascination because of the two ladies who risked everything to live the life they always dreamed of, together.

Two women in dark riding clothes and top hats.
Figurine of Ladies of Llangollen in their riding habits.

The newly-processed Ladies of Llangollen collection was received as part of the Lisa Unger Baskin collection in 2015.

Sojourner Truth’s Narrative

Post contributed by Jessica Janecki and Lauren Reno

Over the past few years, the Rubenstein Library acquired some early editions of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. These new acquisitions allowed catalogers in the Technical Services department to reevaluate and re-catalog these editions of the Narrative according to more current standards. We were surprised to find upon searching OCLC, the union catalog used by libraries around the world, that authorship for the Narrative was given to Olive Gilbert in most of the catalog records for various editions. This gave us pause and cause to look more closely at the history of the Narrative, the life of Sojourner Truth, and ultimately how to approach the cataloging of one of the most important books of the 19th century by one of the foremost abolitionists and feminists.

The attribution to Gilbert is problematic given that the first edition in 1850 and subsequent editions to 1878 reference Truth as the author in the publication statement with wording such as, “Printed for the Author,” or “Published for the Author.” Cursory research would show that Truth acted as her own publisher and distributor. This statement confirms that she also considered herself the author. Additionally, Gilbert’s name does not appear anywhere on any 19th century editions of the Narrative. Meaning, those attributing authorship to Gilbert had to be conducting some research into the history of the Narrative, and were likely to come across the fact that Truth was also the publisher and distributor.

1850 edition of Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Title page and frontispiece portrait of the first edition of ‘Narrative,’ 1850.

What emerged when we looked at more recent research, mostly consulting Nell Irvin Painter’s biography Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, was unsurprisingly that the history of the writing and publication of the Narrative is complex. This however does not account for this century-long misattribution of authorship.

Continue reading Sojourner Truth’s Narrative

#28daysofblack at the Rubenstein

Post contributed by Rubenstein Library staff

Materials from various collections at the Rubenstein Library that feature African Americans.
Photos from collections in the Rubenstein Library that will be featured during Black History Month.

Happy Black History Month! This year we’ll be celebrating #28daysofblack by sharing materials from the Rubenstein Library’s collections and by highlighting our work on current projects. Stay tuned to follow our rare materials catalogers and manuscript archivists as they catalog and process collections that feature black authors, activists, artists, characters, entrepreneurs, and families. You will also be hearing regularly from John Gartrell, Director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture. John will be posting about the SNCC Legacy project, among many other things. You can follow us on our various social media platforms:



Franklin Center Facebook:

Franklin Center twitter:

Look for the #28daysofblack, #bhm, #blackbooks, and #blackarchives hashtags.

Here’s a brief rundown of the projects we will be working on for #28daysofblack:

SNCC Legacy Project

In the 1960s a group of brash young organizers worked alongside local people in the Deep South to change the direction of America. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a key catalyst for mobilizing grassroots activists to address voting and political power, economic equity, education, and civil rights. Over the last three years, the SNCC Digital Gateway project has worked to create an online platform that highlights the work of SNCC activists, mentors and allies using primary sources from our library and libraries across the country.

Contract with freedmen on Plains Plantation, 1865 June 8-August 28

Contract that binds newly-freed African Americans to the Plains Plantation in Mississippi.
Newly acquired Freedmen’s contract, 1865.

This worn and creased contract was once framed and ostensibly hung on someone’s wall. It contains language binding newly-freed African Americans and their children to the Plains Plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi and was signed not even a month after the Civil War was over. According to the contract, the laborers committed to working every day “from sun to sun,” except Sunday, with other possible days off. They were to be paid one quarter of the net proceeds for the crop. Surnames of the freedmen include: Wilson, Thompson, Digg, Turner, Lonsway, Hatton, Clement, Willis, Payne, West, Blair, Garner, Kelley, Arran, and Johnson. The contract was written in iron gall ink, which caused corrosion of the paper. It now has a catalog record and a collection guide and is currently with Duke Libraries’ Conservation Department to receive repairs and proper housing.

Radio Haiti

Destroyed office of Radio Haiti.
Radio Haiti in 1986.

Radio Haiti is an ongoing, multi-year project to create a trilingual (Haitian Creole, French, and English) public-facing digital archive of all the audio of Radio Haiti-Inter, Haiti’s first and most prominent independent radio station. Our goal is to make the content as accessible as possible to people living in Haiti.

In February, we are going to finish up the processing of Radio Haiti’s papers, and archivist Laura Wagner will be traveling to Haiti to continue to do outreach around the project and to distribute flash drives with a large selection of Radio Haiti audio (around 500 recordings) to libraries in Haiti.

Allen Building Takeover

February 13th will mark the 49th anniversary of the Allen Building Takeover at Duke in 1969. This month we’ll be continuing work on the Vice President for Student Affairs Records, which include materials documenting the events during and after the Allen Building Takeover. Some items of note include eye-witness accounts of events written by students as well as materials documenting the administration’s planning for an African and African-American Studies Program in the wake of the Allen Building Takeover.

Continue reading #28daysofblack at the Rubenstein

For the Eyes of a Princess: Jean Dominique on the Life and Death of Richard Brisson

Post contributed by Laura Wagner, Ph.D,  Radio Haiti Archivist

Richard Brisson. Photo from the The International Center for the Documentation of Haitian,
Caribbean and African-Canadian Information (CIDIHCA)

In January 1982, Richard Brisson – poet, actor, journalist, station manager at Radio Haïti-Inter – was killed, along with Robert Mathurin and Louis Célestin, following a quixotic attempt to invade Haiti via Île-de-la-Tortue, the island off Haiti’s northern coast. He was thirty-one years old. Along with the rest of Radio Haiti’s journalists, Brisson had been in exile following the Duvalier regime’s violent crackdown on the independent press on November 28, 1980. Richard, they say, could not bear exile. The dictatorship claimed that Brisson and his comrades had been killed in combat. They were, in fact, executed.

An article from the New York-based Haitian newspaper Haïti Observateur (Jan 15-22, 1982) about the invasion in which Richard was killed. With no respect for international conventions concerning the rights of prisoners of war, the Duvalier regime summarily executed three rebels captured on Ile de la Tortue. A brief communiqué from the Minister of Information, Jean-Marie Chanoine, stated that Louis Célestin, Robert Mathurin, and Richard Brisson “had succumbed to their injuries.”

In 1987, a few months after Radio Haiti returned from exile after the fall of Duvalier, they paid tribute to Richard Brisson. The broadcast opened and closed with the Alain Barrière song “Un poète,” which begins, “A poet does not live long.” Richard’s cousins Ady Brisson and Freddy Burr-Reynaud and Radio Haiti journalists Michèle Montas, Konpè Filo, and Jean Dominique remembered Richard the journalist, the poet, the iconoclast, the dreamer.

Dominique’s words are translated below.

An excerpt from Jean Dominique’s original text commemorating Richard Brisson. These papers are currently being processed as part of the Radio Haiti records.

This would have been the title of a fine fairytale, Richard’s death, for the two eyes of a princess. I have rightly said “two eyes” [deux yeux] and not “sweet eyes” [doux yeux]. But quickly consider, good people, that this is the wicked fairy godmother[i] of whom we speak, that evil princess whose two eyes Richard wished to gouge out in a famous song about one of the poor neighborhoods of our capital — do you recall, “Panno Caye Nan Bois Chêne”?[ii] And it was due to an evil spell cast by those two eyes that our poet was killed. But his murderers were so ashamed of their crime that they then tried to disguise it as a death in combat. Yet you must have seen those photos of Richard and his two comrades shackled and perfectly alive after their arrest on Île de la Tortue…

I read in the newspaper that slumber eludes that wicked fairy who so despised Richard, now in exile in France where she and her husband were dispatched, thanks to the complacency, or the complicity, of the world’s powerful. “She cannot sleep at night!” she complained. The ghost of Richard must haunt her sleepless nights, and that is as it should be.

For the death of Richard, whose memory we are celebrating this week, paradoxically raises very current questions. Paradoxically, because Richard approached news as he approached politics, as he approached everything: as a poet. He wanted to represent Léogâne in parliament, like his grandfather Frédéric Burr Reynaud. Richard’s photo soon hung from the electrical towers along the road. When asked about his lack of political experience, he laughed uproariously and responded, brows knitted: “Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.” And when Luc Désir[iii] made it clear to him this was not his place: “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?” demanded the Duvaliers’ chief torturer, future lackey of the wicked fairy. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?” Richard told me this story smiling once more, then added, “Jean Do, are we truly the Jews of this land?” And on he went, whistling, hands in his pockets, a song by Jacques Brel on his lips, a song about the bourgeois who are like… you know…[iv]

Continue reading For the Eyes of a Princess: Jean Dominique on the Life and Death of Richard Brisson

The Last Chapters of Kenneth Arrow’s Work

Post contributed by Jonathan Cogliano, Assistant Professor for the Department of Economics at Dickinson College. 

A few of Kenneth Arrow’s medals, including the John von Neumann Theory Prize, the National Medal of Science, and the John Bates Clark Medal.

The Economists’ Papers Archive features collections from some of most influential economists of the post-war era, and among this impressive group are the recently re-processed papers of Kenneth J. Arrow (look for the new finding guide soon!). Arrow’s contributions to the field of economics are wide-ranging, notable among them are: his contributions to social choice theory—with the eponymous Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem—and welfare economics; his work with Gérard Debreu on the development of general equilibrium theory; the idea of learning-by-doing as a driver of economic growth and innovation; and the problems posed by asymmetries in information available to people when making economic decisions. Over his lifetime he received numerous awards for his work, including the John Bates Clark Medal (at the time, awarded biennially by the American Economic Association to the economist under the age of 40 who has made “the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge”), the John von Neumann Theory Prize in operations research, the National Medal of Science, and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (shared with John R. Hicks), as well as numerous others and honorary degrees. Arrow’s, perhaps, lesser known contributions outside of economic theory include work on the abatement of acid rain with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), efforts to build a program to provide affordable malaria medications with the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and political advocacy on behalf of persecuted scholars under repressive regimes throughout the world, among many others.

Arrow passed away in February, 2017 and this meant that new additions were made to his collection at the Economists’ Papers Archive. With a substantial amount of his papers already at the Rubenstein Library, the arrival of new materials required careful incorporation into the existing collection and management of a large quantity of physical materials (over 90 boxes in total!). This large and complicated re-processing project took several months and entailed  significant  re-organization, including the incorporation of his numerous prizes and the last chapters of his life; Arrow kept working until shortly before his death. How does one go about keeping track of such a large project with a number of boxes stored offsite at any one time? Well, a couple of Excel spreadsheets and a few lines of code can help to sort things out (an example is pictured below).

An example of how computer code helped sort and keep track of Arrow’s large collection during re-processing.


Using computing power to help overcome the challenges of sorting and tracking boxes in an archival collection may seem unrelated to the work of Kenneth Arrow, but his contributions to information economics and the economics of complex systems (via the Santa Fe Institute) helped pave the way for a burgeoning body of work applying computational modeling to economics. (They have, at least, been influential for the computational work done by the economist writing this post.)

The impact of Arrow’s work is too expansive to fully capture here, but having his papers available again in the Economists’ Papers Archive will prove an invaluable resource for those interested in one of the most influential economists of the post-war era.

New Acquisition about The Most Famous Reindeer of All

Post contributed by Claire Payton, John W.  Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History intern and Ph.D. candidate, Duke University Department of History

Just in time for the holiday season, the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History in the David M. Rubenstein Library has acquired a copy of the 1939 booklet that introduced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the world.

Rudolph was invented by a Robert L. May, a 35-year old copywriter, for a promotional campaign at the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. May was inspired to pen the story of the humble, resilient, reindeer to cheer his daughter Barbara, whose mother was dying from cancer. Drawing from the “Ugly Duckling” story and his own memories of being ostracized as a child, May wrote a tale of an odd-looking deer whose unusual bright-red nose saves the day after Santa asks him to light the way on a particularly cloudy and foggy Christmas Eve. In the end, Rudolph is feted and admired by reindeer-peers who previously had bullied him. May collaborated with Denver Gillen, a colleague from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to create drawings to accompany the story. Their booklet, which first appeared in November 1939, became a hit, with nearly 2.5 million copies printed and distributed.

Production of the pamphlet ceased during WWII. Montgomery Ward resumed the marketing campaign in 1946, printing another 3.6 million copies. But in January 1947, for reasons that remain unclear, department story executives turned over copyright on the Rudolph story to May. This was a boon to the May family, which was reeling from medical bills accrued during the illness and death of May’s wife.

Luckily, the delightful story continued to enchant. In 1948, Rudolph became the hero of a short animated Christmas film. The following year, May’s brother-in-law, a songwriter named Johnny Marks, composed a jingle based on the reindeer’s adventure. The song was picked up by country-singer Gene Autry, whose version would become a smash-hit, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide. This song became the basis of a 1964 stop-motion animated film by Rankin/ Bass Productions based on Rudolph’s story.  The film became a classic holiday special that continues to air today. Rudolph not only saved Christmas, he also saved the May family from bankruptcy.

This unassuming 78-year-old booklet introduced an unlikely hero who transformed the life of an Illinois family and the culture of Christmas around the world.

‘Hidden Figures’ in the Robert A. Hill Collection: Mittie Maude Lena Gordon

Post contributed by Meggan Cashwell, Franklin Research Center Graduate Intern, PhD candidate, Department of History

The FBI records in the Robert A. Hill Collection are extensive and include trial transcripts, government profiles of black nationalists, and reports of racial conditions during the Great Depression and Second World War (i.e., Hill’s 1995 publication The FBI’s RACON). Hill spent many years tracking down these documents for his research on Marcus Garvey since the FBI followed Garvey while he was living in the U.S. What I found fascinating when I was working on processing this portion of the collection is that it illuminates the lives of black nationalists largely hidden from view, such as Mittie Maude (Maud) Lena Gordon (1889-1961).

The obvious roadblock facing any researcher wishing to explore FBI records, however, is that much of the content is redacted (see document). The challenge, then, is to use what remains to uncover the important contributions that Gordon and other lesser-known activists made. During my research to better inform our collection processing, I noticed that scholars of the Black Nationalist movement have pointed out that the focus on Marcus Garvey has in large part overshadowed the efforts of women. While Garvey-centered, the materials in the Robert A. Hill Collection allow us explore the life and work of female activists like Gordon, recognizing the important role of women in addition to better understanding Garvey’s impact in the U.S. both before and after his mail fraud conviction and subsequent deportation back to Jamaica in 1927.

Gordon was born in Louisiana and grew up in Arkansas with her nine siblings. Her family followed the teachings of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who advanced the idea that former slaves should relocate to Africa. Gordon adopted many of Turner’s views, namely that there was no other viable option for African Americans, particularly those living in the South, but to leave the U.S. As an adult, Gordon moved to Chicago where she joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and became the “lady president” of her division. Gender discrimination within the UNIA caused her to disaffiliate in 1929. In 1932 she established the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) in her restaurant and garnered around 300,000 members. It was there that she launched a Liberian letter-writing campaign that linked the struggles of the Great Depression to those facing Liberians. The campaign culminated into a petition bearing almost a half a million signatures that she sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which she requested support for African Americans to move to Liberia.

Gordon’s dreams of African American relocation were never realized. She was arrested in 1942 at a PME meeting and charged with sedition on grounds that she had used the meetings to foster opposition to the war effort (see document). Gordon refuted the claims, but was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in 1943.

Gordon’s trial is one of many transcripts in the FBI portion of the Hill Collection. These documents tell us a great deal about racial conditions during the 1930s and ‘40s and what activism looked like on the ground. My hope is that by shedding light on Gordon’s life and other female black radicals, we can broaden our understanding of the Black Nationalist movement and how we approach the materials that record its history.

This blog is based on research documents in the Robert A. Hill Collection as well as secondary literature. For further reading on Gordon, see Keisha Blain’s forthcoming, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

‘We Try Harder’ and Other Famous Ad Campaigns by Paula Green

Post contributed by Cameron Byerly, a rising junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.  He helped process the Paula Green papers through St. John’s Hodson Internship Program during Summer 2017.

Photograph of Paula Green from the Paula Green papers at the Rubenstein Library.

It’s not the size of the budget
It’s the ferocity of the idea
–Paula GRRRRReen

Paula Green’s papers amounted to nearly 100 boxes of print documents, photographs and audiovisual materials, which is intimidating for a first archival processing project.

My relief was immediate when I discovered these boxes contained dozens of awards, fascinating drafts and edits to ads, pleasant correspondence, articles explaining an honest and steadfast worldview, and above all, a character who I came to deeply respect the voice and intents of through a long and successful career.

Union Label song created by Paula Green and Malcolm Dodds in 1975 for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

The central theme I would use to describe Paula Green’s work is ‘cause-driven’. Paula’s speeches and correspondence make it clear she chose clients she personally believed in, including the local jobs offered by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the work she did to fight breast cancer with the U.S. government’s Public Health Service and the American Cancer Society. Perhaps her largest success was her part in creating the “Look for the Union Label” song for the ILGWU in the 70’s. The song’s importance became more tangible to me when reading President Jimmy Carter’s quote “Sometimes I have a hard time deciding which I like best, ‘Hail to the Chief’ or ‘Look for the Union Label,’” and the subsequent parodies from newspaper comics, South Park and Saturday Night Live. The song represented an enormous collective effort of the American fight for local jobs. As I pieced together Paula’s insistence on visiting local factories, employing real workers for TV spots, and saying “please buy from us” rather than “don’t buy from foreigners,” I realized that she applied her own moral standard to the work she believed in.

Paula Green created the now famous “We Try Harder” campaign for Avis in 1962.

The second notable theme in Paula Green’s work is intelligence. Her early success at Doyle Dane Bernbach with the ‘We’re No. 2’ advertising campaign for Avis car rental allowed her the economic power to create her own advertising agency in 1975, and demonstrated her intelligence in engaging with the audience. I consider how well her methods would work in today’s more image-driven and crowded advertising landscape. Records of her work include hundreds of edits of reasoned arguments and recipes used to include in her marketing of food products. She often argued against a more deceptive world of associating lifestyles with products, and instead cleanly focused on the merits of her products. Her copywriting involved well-written sentences to back up her buzz-words and intelligent methodology in expressing her ideas.  Continue reading ‘We Try Harder’ and Other Famous Ad Campaigns by Paula Green

October 17 and 18: Celebrating the Robert A. Hill Collection

Help us celebrate the Robert A. Hill Collection. For close to forty years, Professor Robert A. Hill has researched and collected materials on Garvey and served as editor of the 13-volume Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project (University of California Press, Duke University Press). His collection now joins the archive of the John Hope Franklin Research Center in the David. M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

“The Remains of the Name: The Origin of the Harlem Renaissance in the Discourse of Egyptomania”

Public Lecture by Prof. Robert A. Hill

Date: October 17, 2017

Time: 5:00PM

Location: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Rubenstein Library


“Chronicling Marcus Garvey and the UNIA: The Process of Research and Writing the African Diaspora”

A Conversation with Profs. Robert A. Hill and Michaeline A. Crichlow

Date: October 18

Time: 12:00PM

Location: Ahmadieh Family Conference Hall, John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies

All events are free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

These events are co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Department of African & African American Studies, and the Department of History

Selections from the Robert A. Hill Collection are also on display in the Stone Family Gallery, located in the Mary Duke Biddle Room of the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

New Acquisitions – “Los Mochileros”

Post contributed by Patrick Stawski, curator, Human Rights Archive

The Human Rights Archive recently acquired a copy of Petra Barth’s photobook “Los Mochileros” which is on exhibit in the Mary Duke Biddle exhibit suite through October 2017.

Through a series of piercing black and white portraits, Barth tells an intimate, visual story of people moving across the US-Mexico border.  As with much of Barth’s portrait work, her collaborators capture the gaze of the camera, rather than be caught by it.  Their pride, their strength, and their history challenge the camera and seem to confront us who stand behind it.

Los Mochileros on display in the Rubenstein Library through October 2017

“Los Mochileros” (The Backpackers) has received critical praise in and the  The photobook is part of larger project undertaken by Barth which includes a traveling exhibit of the prints featured in the book.  “Los Mochileros” joins a large body of Barth’s prints currently part of the Human Rights Archive collections which documents her long relationship with Latin America and more generally her interest in the human condition.  Eventually, the prints from “Los Mochileros” will be added to Petra’s collection at the Rubenstein.

I reached out to Petra to delve a little deeper into the origin of “Los Mochileros”.

Q: What was the history and motivation for “Los Mochileros”?

A: The ‘Mochileros” has been a ‘bi-product’ of The Americas. Traveling from South to North, it was natural to cross and stop at the border, being a point of discussion in politics on both sides of the border.  Originally, I enrolled in a workshop in AZ, which did not happen after all. Nevertheless, I did go and decided to explore the region on my own. I did not know at the time that I would return and the impact the story would have on my work.

Q:   Your work at the US/Mexican border has involved both portrait and landscape.  How do you feel each of these contributes to the visual representation of the border?  How do these add to the dialogue around immigration?

A: I feel that my work is quite different than most of the work done in that area, which was my original intention. Despite the fact that it had a more journalistic starting point, I see my work at the border as pure documentary, quiet and not involved in people’s daily life.  I wanted to document the border strip as how I experienced it myself, pure in its identity, as a boundary dividing two countries with barriers, walls and sometimes only barbwire. The display in Venice ties both portraits and landscapes together, as all these people crossed the border somewhere.

Q: Who were some of the important partners that contributed to “Los Mochileros”, directly or indirectly?

A: The project was made possible with the help and support of the Juan Bosco Shelter in Nogales, FESAC Fundacion del Empresariado Sonorense, A.C., BCA Border Community Alliance and all the migrants, of course, who passed through the shelter.

Q: Is there one particular story or moment in the project that stands out in your mind?

A: There were two moments, which had an impact on the story. The first was during my second visit in the shelter when I realized that I wanted to change the focus of the story. Initially, I had planned to focus on the broader border issue. After meeting and talking to many of the migrants, I decided to make a portrait story and focus on their faces and memories. The second moment was when I edited the pictures for the book, realizing that the people were not only a part of the story. They were a story themselves.

Q: What are your hopes for “Los Mochileros”?

A: I hope that the exhibit which is currently shown in Venice can travel to the US and become a travel exhibit – especially under the current political circumstances and can evoke interest and discussion for the subject. Hopefully through a broader distribution of the book, attention can be brought upon this issue. I hope we can display/exhibit the project in Nogales, so the population living on both sides of the border as well as passing migrants can see it.